REVIEW: The Necks and James McVinnie at Union Chapel, N1

Union Chapel's atmospheric neo-Gothic setting, rich in architectural detail.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

The Necks and James McVinnie
(Union Chapel, 12th April 2016. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Performances by The Necks are both compelling and unpredictable and their concert at the Union Chapel, the final night of the Secret Life of Organs UK tour, was, even by their own demanding standards, exceptional.

The Australian trio's uniquely improvised collaborations are rooted in an intensely intuitive understanding that they have developed for over 25 years. Each performance by Chris Abrahams (keyboards), Lloyd Swanton (string bass) and Tony Buck (percussion) begins with a blank page which one of the trio will start to fill in to commence the journey, an uninterrupted set of around forty to sixty minutes. There are no rules, no agreements about who will take that lead and about how the discourse will evolve. The only criteria that apply are those of their own impeccably high standards.

As Abrahams warmly embraced the challenge of curator James McVinnie's invitation to utilise the Chapel's magnificent, recently restored 1877 organ, cameras trained on its three manuals, stops and pipes enabled the audience to view his hands working the keyboards, live on a screen above the stage.

The trio's interplay began tentatively with light drum rolls and rattling shells, barely audible touches on the bass and a mildly bluesy melodic amble. The three-way tensions built gradually in waves and drifts to subtly compound in intensity. Repetitive figures underpinned the emergent trance-state, interspersed with episodic frenzied storms as the depth of the organ's range was explored. In the densely polyrhythmic momentum that ensued the organ's shuddering vibrations were countered by eerie tones with connotations of Terry Riley works, yet all was achieved with a resolutely acoustic application - minimal means, maximum impact.

No tricks, just a profound engagement with the core instruments. Buck's layered, multi-faceted percussive mesh introduced accent and mystery while Swanton's intense bowing and strumming added the tactile resonance of wood and strings. Abrahams's virtuosic response at the organ manuals ensured that, ultimately, the trio's performance was nothing less than a meditation on the venue's organ, and a tribute, indirectly, to its original constructor, Henry 'Father' Willis .

The Necks' hour-long set was prefaced by McVinnie's own performance of New Work by Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher), commissioned for this tour by No Nation, bookended by Philip Glass's Music in Similar Motion, adapted for organ, and Mad Rush. The repetitive symmetries of the Glass works found echoes in the geometry of the venue's Gothic Revival architectural detail, while Jenkinson's explored a gamut of rich expressive tropes, from playful to neo-Gothic dramatic, as dusk descended.

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