The Necks best thing

This evening, Australian improvising trio The Necks are playing in an old Birmingham metal pressing factory. This is strangely appropriate, says Martin Longley…

The Necks Photo Credit: Tim Williams

The Necks Photo Credit: Tim Williams

There’s an exceptional double bill on offer tonight.

The Necks, from Australia, will be playing in Birmingham with the veteran American piano dappler Harold Budd. The venue is an unknown quantity. The A. E. Harris metal pressing factory on Northwood Street is not a place that usually hosts concerts. Anyway, it’s surely set to be a perfect location for an evening of atmospheric, minimally ambient improvisation.

Are The Necks a jazz outfit?

If they are, then they’re certainly not a ‘piano trio’, even though their construction does indeed feature the required piano, bass and drum instrumentation. If The Necks are not jazzy enough, they certainly inhabit the music’s infrastructure, frequently appearing at jazz festivals and jazz clubs around the globe. Let us call them improvisers, although their methods are certainly different to those that arise from the jazz tradition, whether such players are embracing or rejecting those roots. Their pieces are not rock, not classical minimalism, not electronica (principally due to The Necks being an all-acoustic combo), but they possess elements from all of these musics, rearing up recognisably, though with a subtly altered nature.

The threesome started playing together as teenagers, in Sydney, even before they tied on the  Neck-tag, nearly 25 years ago. “I met Chris when we were both studying at the Conservatorium of Music there,” recounts bassist Lloyd Swanton. “ And I met Tony on a standards gig in a wine bar for which we were paid $8 and a meal, which in my case I somehow still recall was pepper steak.”

The Necks are not without their self-imposed rulebook, although such strictures ultimately allow greater freedom, within an anything-goes playpen. Mostly, their improvisation will involve an hour-long exploration (a Necks piece is always lengthy, always constructed around a gradually growing linear pulse-flow).

“We arrived at this very early on,” says pianist Chris Abrahams. “Probably after about three or four rehearsals. There is nothing we do that relies very much on verbal agreement, so it sort of just happened. I find it a bit of a mystery in that considering how lost we can get in the music, and how the passing of time becomes very elastic, we retain quite a firm hold on the duration of our pieces.”

“We started to notice that 40 mins to an hour was the sort of duration we needed for a piece to take flight,” adds Swanton. “Take us somewhere interesting, with a few alternative options suggested by us along the way, and come back to land. For the way we improvise, a sense of urgency is disastrous.”

“When we started, we wanted to play a music that took its time,” says drummer Tony Buck. “ I think what we do is have a process we use to shape material. That material is very open. It can therefore be something that is suited to different situations.”

The Necks have a composite sonic character, a set of techniques that frequently allow them to bypass the conventional expectations of their instruments, to the extent that it sometimes becomes difficult (or even undesirable) to unthread their contributions into the sonic categories of piano, bass and drums. Indeed, without any accustomed use of electronic effects, individual Neck vocabulary can sometimes suggest the mimicry-nature of loops, delays, processed patterns and other digital interventions.

“Over the years we’ve very much added to the types of formal structures that we perform,” says Abrahams. “Sometimes there is more than one ‘climax’ and at others the music can be very stasis-like.  We never talk about what we are going to play. Basically, one thing leads to another. If I’m thinking about the future of a piece and where I want it to go, I’m not playing very well. We accumulate, and this accumulation, in a sense, takes over.”

Swanton elaborates: “Ironically, it’s become a very efficient way of generating music, and I constantly surprise myself with how quickly we can get a piece up and moving in most instances, simply by holding back and letting it tell us where it wants to go. As the years have passed, we have become more and more aware of the aesthetic significance of elapsed time, and the perception of elapsed time, in improvisation. None of us would ever presume to offer an opinion to another about what they might play. Everything about how we make music is fatalistic, except of course our unswerving, fanatical devotion to fatalism!”

“We wanted to make a music that was freely improvised,” Buck concurs. “That gave the sounds of the instruments space and time to be heard and interact in an environment that was sensitive to those ends: unhurried, non-aggressive and open.”

“Environments that, at first, appear to promote an acoustic approach, can turn out to possess very strange properties that might lead us down another path,” Abrahams observes. “Sometimes an octave on the piano will start to sound strange as a result, say, of sound-reflective building materials or a weird PA, and I will naturally gravitate to that area of the piano. There is very little rational thought. I find myself in a situation where the music starts to transcend something, and I stay there to hear where it might go.”

“A big part of a Necks performance involves us sending out signals to the room via our music,” says Swanton. “Literally sounding out the room. We process that information and set our levels as we proceed, but also often find some acoustic quirk in the process which we can really fetishise and objectify.”

“I guess the way the music engages in a dialogue with the acoustic space is something we didn’t predict so much at the beginning,” Buck sums up. “And it was only when we started playing in different spaces that we really noticed just how interactive, acoustically, the approach was.”

No other performing unit can reach into a remotely similar sonic area. The Necks might be very comfortable in each other’s spaces after nearly three decades together, but their predictable methods never produce predictable results. It’s almost as if their music is disembodied from conventional human touch, arriving from some unknown abstract source, in equal parts individual and collective in its ultimate quest for Necks-stasy.