The Necks
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
Dec. 5, 2002

The day I found the ReR re-release of The Necks' Hanging Gardens CD waiting for me in my mailbox the group's name did not ring any bell. In fact, I thought I was certain I had never heard of them before. Listening to the CD was an extremely puzzling experience, as exciting as watching the paint dry. The music appeared to proceed (evolve?) in a very deliberate way - but way too slowly - by a process of careful accumulation/substitution whose results I found uninteresting and definitely uninvolving, to say the least. Time to make a few phone calls.

Nobody whose judgement I trusted had heard of the group, but I was told that a friend of a friend, whose main passion is music in the minimalism/new age vein, liked the group a lot. And though I always remind myself not to judge a book by its readers, it all made perfect sense. Sure, the group was undeniably good: the performances by both the bass (Lloyd Swanton) and the keyboard player (Chris Abrahams) showed the musicians possessed a mature sense of economy and very big ears, while the drummer (Tony Buck) was obviously excellent, his hi-hat patterns propelling the first part of the (one hour long) piece with both stamina and finesse. But to me the whole sounded like a walk on the mild side, a strange mixture of some weird permutation of minimalism and those trance/drum&bass climates that I find perfectly acceptable in a club but have absolutely no use for at home.

Let's have a look at the press release. A quote from The Guardian: "A post-jazz, post-rock, post-everything experience that has few parallels or rivals." Right. (With friends like these...) One from The Wire: "The listener can drift in and out of the record as if in a dream state." And that's exactly the way I do not listen to music. Maybe if I smoked a joint... But if I smoked a joint (an extremely unlikely occurrence) would Hanging Gardens be the record I'd choose to put on? Not in a million years. It was at this very moment that I remembered that I had, in fact, read about The Necks in The Wire, and that their very favourable description of the group's music had been reason enough for me to decide to never bother investigating it.

In a way, it all reminded me of Nils Petter Molvær's CD from two years ago: an album that quite a few people raved about (Solid Ether) I had regarded as nothing more than a tacky combination of an extremely-diluted, second-hand Miles plus a few generic pseudo-modern rhythms. Sure, it can ultimately be said that it's only a matter of taste. But taste is not an absolute, independent, immutable entity. Maybe if we reflect about it we can learn a few things about our own preferences, habits and blind spots. And so, as soon as I was told that The Necks were to play in my town (admission: €7, or about $7) I reserved a seat.

In concert, the group is an interesting animal. On this particular night, the piano was the springboard that propelled the music: fast, regular arpeggios executed in the keyboard's upper region. Drums and double bass played mostly in counterpoint mode, exchanging their roles at the end of the concert, with the bass player hitting the instrument's body and the drummer playing a melodic phrase on skins and cymbals. It's obvious that they have worked at their craft - and at building a group identity - for a long time, their subtle interplay definitely not being the outcome of chance. The other people in the audience (about eighty?) seemed quite happy, in a mild sort of way. Three days later I decided to listen to the CD again.

Nowadays minimalism is... forty years old? I believe the first thing I heard in the idiom was Terry Riley's A Rainbow In A Curved Air. By the early '70s its influence on a lot of rock music was definitely impossible to miss. When I bought Tony Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate (released on Caroline, Virgin's budget sister label, in 1973) I had never heard of him - the fact that some members from Faust played on the album was the main reason I bought it - but the music itself was not that new. Nor was the dictum "repetition is a form of change". (Since "minimalism" is a tag that's nowadays mostly associated with certain musicians - and their procedures - I think that for the purpose of our present discussion "repetition as source material" will be a much better word.) And of course by the mid-'70s groups like Can and Neu! had brought repetition in the rhythmic section to the fore (curiously, there's a moment - at about 40' in the Necks album - that closely reminded me of Can's Vernal Equinox, from 1975 Landed).

When something new appears - a deviation from the norm - it's interesting precisely because it presents us with a new approach. But when it becomes the norm - and in many ways (just listen to the radio, or to the music in clubs, not to mention at raves) repetition is a new norm (not the new norm - nowadays there are many) - it's what you do with it that separates the men from the boys. Now, something that has always puzzled me is the fact that the works of some musicians who have used repetition as source material - say, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Davis - are largely ignored by the same people who really like "minimalism" and "repetition". Maybe less puzzling is the fact that the common use of "repetition" when it comes to the listening department (remember, this tells us nothing about the quality of the music itself) is akin to a kind of "aural wallpaper".

Two years ago I managed to catch The Note Factory - Roscoe Mitchell's large ensemble (nine members, two pianos) - at the Roccella Ionica Festival, and the long, "repetitive", arch-shaped piece they played sounded new - and risky. The Necks' approach to repetition doesn't take that many risks. Does this fact make their music less valuable? That's for each of us to decide. At this point in time I'd rather listen to a song with two different - and harmonically intricate - bridges.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2002 | Dec. 9, 2002