Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh

mac Hexagon Theatre, Birmingham UK

In 1953 the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a book called The Hedgehog And The Fox in which he applied the words of the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum” (“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”) in order to divide writers and thinkers into these categories. He said it shouldn’t be taken too seriously – it was just a parlour game of sorts.

But it’s fun to apply to all sorts of areas of creativity. So, for example, when it comes to jazz one might say that the ultimate fox is Miles Davis, whereas Charlie Parker has a particularly hedgehog-like character. I think I would put German saxophonist/clarinettist Pete Brötzmann in the spiny camp. He seemed to know one big thing back in the late 1960s and he still knows that one big thing now.

His music is usually labelled free jazz, and I am sure he has no problem with this. It has always struck me as a little inadequate. I hear Brötzmann as possibly the pinnacle of free jazz but I see him also as a performance artist. I won’t get side-tracked into the idea that, of course, all musicians are performance artists in the mundane definition of those two words, because taken together they mean something slightly different.

The most famous performance artist around today is Marina Abramović. In a recent article in The Guardian she was quoted thus: “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann

Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann

But first, last night’s performance. Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh are, at first sight, a distinctly odd couple. The German reedsman is dressed suitably dourly and his still luxuriant moustache gives him a Joseph Conrad air; the American pedal steel guitarist is glamorous with Monroe coiffure and zip-fastened high-heels. Such visual incongruity works most effectively to help cement the strong synergies in their playing. This sounds like a steadfast musical marriage.

Time and time again through the near-continuous 70-minute performance they would gravitate to near pitches, blasting and picking the minimal harmonic material with increasing intensity. Brötzmann may venture far and wide across the range of the saxophone (tenor and alto) or clarinet (ebony and metal) but because he often does it at such speed the effect is of a central blasting note with a plethora of overtones and undertones and resonances, plus, particularly on clarintet, a vocal hum; Leigh may worry the same string and rock her slide around the same fret for minutes on end but, with help from her steel guitar’s pedals, an oscillation takes hold, adding a similarly rich orchestra of overtones. And when they go high together, the bones in their listeners’ skulls begin to vibrate – in sympathy or protest, who can tell.

And within all this loud sound in a small space – I noticed the woman seated beside me kept her hands on her ears for most of the 70 minutes – there is an extraordinary subtlety and nuance to the tones, textures, and atmosphere created. It was the audial equivalent of one of Robert Raushenberg’s glossy black on black, thickly-layered paintings. There were (briefly and marginally) quieter moments, and even some moments of mournful, folk-like, melodies from the reedsman. And when on tenor he adds a strong vibrato – an effect so unusual in modern saxophonists it calls to mind Ben Webster and Lester Young.

And when it was over, there was a self-conscious smile from Leigh who looked fairly emotionally drained by the experience. Behind his giant ‘tache and serious demeanour who knew what Brötzmann thought of the sustained applause.

I have no idea what Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh would think of that provocative Abramović idea I quoted earlier, but if I substitute “theatre” for “music” it makes what they do much more interesting to me. It makes some kind of sense. To be a performance artist you have to hate music.

As chance would have it last night’s performance was perfectly bookended, courtesy of BBC Radio 3 and my car radio. On the way into town it was Fauré’s mellifluous Pelléas et Mélisande suite; on the way home it was Mozart’s joyous Exsultate, Jubilate. Between them had come the shock and awe of the “true reality”.

This event was a TDE Promotion in association with Fizzle.

Categories: Live review

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