LONDON: Last Wednesday saw the first performance of Aphex Twin’s Remote Orchestra concept at the Barbican Hall. Aphex Twin: Remote Orchestra featuring The Heritage Orchestra, Barbican © Mark Allan
As soon as I heard that one of my musical idols was going to be performing a modified version of his pieces commissioned for lasts year’s European Cultural Congress in Poland, I knew that it would be in my interests not to miss this event; as both a fan of electronic and classical music.
Now that the performance belongs to the past tense, it’s safe to assume that one of the things that may have divided the audience arose out of the individual’s expectations of the performance. This is understandable, and I can empathise in this respect, as the first time I saw Aphex Twin I was disappointed with the set I heard.
Despite this, I needed to recall only a handful of James’ tracks in one breath before giving him the benefit of the doubt, after all, one of the things that feeds the cult of Aphex is James’ unpredictability as an artist; the possibility that anything can happen. This isn’t helped by the fact that Richard is also quite fond of toying with whatever expectations the audience might have, when the occasion demands.
One’s expectations of the evening may have been jarred upon entering the auditorium and it was, at the very least, interesting to see Richard prepping the sound desk up-stage and milling around with sound engineer Jamie Harley and generally getting on with things instead of hanging around a dressing room until curtain-up. It was apparent from the outset that this was going to be a distinct performance.
The concept: Remote Orchestra came out of an idea first realised last year through his collaboration with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki where it was decided that James would play notes on a MIDI keyboard that could be emulated by the ensemble, listening to these instruction on headphones, while also using visual cues to aid both the performers and audience, giving everyone an opportunity to see how the composition was developing. The separate sections of the orchestra and choir were assigned a channel on the five piece mixer, accompanied with synchronized lighting cues applicable to each section, ensuring that the luminance of the lights was proportional to loudness of the corresponding section. Harley was responsible for routing the audio signals for individuals and pairs of musicians and required thirty-two separate outputs. ‘This is far more and ambitious and adventurous,’ says Harley, ‘James intends to write chord progressions and movements, so now he can get incremental, microtonal slides between chords. It is a huge undertaking.’
With the technology in place to facilitate the concept, James and his team have attempted to answer a question this reviewer has been asking for some time: how does one bring an improvisational element to orchestral performances? The fact that orchestral music requires written notation in order to be realised means that classical music is a re-presentational art form; the fact that someone has managed to come up with a way to conduct an orchestra “on-the-fly”, to bring a presentational element to such music where both performers and audience are drawn into its dialogue and perhaps most importantly, has composed a work that is thoroughly unique to this setting, given that it is being produced (as opposed to reproduced), is an achievement in itself; the fact that it was Aphex Twin who implemented this remains to be a pleasant surprise indeed!
One of the things that arises as a result of such an implementation , however, is that there will be certain limitations to what can be conveyed to the musicians, making the development of contrapuntal elements and melody difficult to achieve, so that the orchestra will be mostly playing some coarse, abrasive chords.
For this reviewer, for whom the appreciation of hideous, abominable discords is total, such a prospect was going to be nothing short of a delight while those who appreciate the grating, godless aberrations of Drukqs and Windowlicker, may have found the Remote Orchestra segment to be an interesting tangent to these releases; at least so far as emotive intensity is concerned and the piece grabs a hold of the throat with same horrifying, smirking grimace and intensity once associates with the Come to Daddy video.
This was not a pleasant experience. Nor was it meant to be.
If the works of Ligeti, Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, the later albums of Scott Walker and other contemporary compositions are something the listener is familiar with, Remote Orchestra will not have seemed like such an unfamiliar piece, with its atonal shrills and decomposing sonorities; shrieking bow-notes scratching chalk across the blackboard of the spine and at its most potent, the music set alight the electricity grid of this reviewers sense of touch; the surface of the skin tingling in scintillating expectation.
The same can’t be said for the guys sitting to my right, who spent a lot of their time with their fingers in their ears.
Getting to the heart of this composition, it’s clear that a lot is being asked of everyone involved; audience member and performer alike. Emulating the intentions of a conductor in real time is going to be a tremendous strain on even the longest serving musician’s concentration and even those who are comfortable in the orchestra hall will find themselves stretched listening to over thirty minutes of such unsettling music.
Will all the faders dropping back to silence and the raising of the house lights, I stumbled out onto the street and rang my editor, desperate to explain to someone what I had just heard…
Returning to the show, the second half of the night began by answering a question that had briefly occurred to me in the build up to the night: What’s the story with that grand piano in the centre of the stage? Grabbing some ropes attached to either side of the rig, technicians standing on either side of the stage began to tug at the rig and it became apparent that this piano taking centre stage ( James’ personal Yamaha Clavinova, as it turns out) was attached to a pendulum as it started to play the world premiere of a quiet and gorgeous untitled melody while swinging back and forth across the stage, the sound augmented by the Doppler effect of the swinging grand piano.
For its striking simplicity, I am hard pressed to think of any other piece of music whose performance both looked and sounded so lovely.
Judging by the collective sigh of realisation and delight that permeated the auditorium once it became apparent what was happening, it was clear that this was probably the most well received part of the evening for the majority of the audience. The piece reminding me of Nannou 2 in its elegant, understated beauty; quite a contrast to the preceding piece!
Finishing things out was the Interactive Tuned Pendulum Array, a piece inspired by Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music. A rig of pendulums was assembled around the periphery of the stage with microphones placed over speakers. Covering these microphones were disco balls. Techies grabbed the pendulums and released them as James began to produce an amazing piece of ambient music at the sound desk to which the audio from the mics was routed out of the feedback created when the microphones passed over the speakers – a surreal experience, accentuated by the lasers shining onto the disco balls, filling the auditorium with the manifold spines of a gigantic, neon green hedgehog, created by this delightful refraction and looking around the auditorium, it felt like we, the audience, were the results of a 3D projection mapping as the spaced glowed in the light of a thousand green stars – plunging and plummeting violently through the firmament.
This audio-visual spectacle made for a more accessible piece than Remote Orchestra and the composition itself really got its frequencies filled out towards the end, the piece becoming a great deal louder and with heftier bass towards its coda and made for a far more whimsical half of the performance; one that even James appeared to be delighted with as he gave two thumbs up to the audience; many of its patrons screaming for more.
And now that the performances is over and the extent this concert when unappreciated by some of the audience has become clear, I can’t help but realise what a pleasure it was to be able to experience such a night of experimental music.
That’s just my take on the night, one which was guaranteed either to infuriate members of the audience for whom experiment and daring constitutes pretentiousness, decrying the night as a load of artsy toss, as well as excite those pseudo-intellectual types like me who had more than enough material to take from the event in order to exalt it and toss off a review of this nature about the magnitude of what was taking place on stage.
Whatever your attitudes are to such musical experimentation though, it seems to this reviewer that to miss out on such a night really was to have missed out on something that one doesn’t just come across while strolling down to the shops for some tea bags and the morning paper; even if for this reviewer the night had been a tedious evening of nonsense, at least I can say I was able to experience that nonsense and for that, this reviewer shall remain eternal grateful.
If the opportunity to catch this show again is a possibility, then I sincerely recommend that you see it; wait until the performance has finished until you decide whether you liked it or not and relish the fact that you got to see such a spectacle in the first place.
Truly an extraordinary evening
Photos: Aphex Twin: Remote Orchestra featuring The Heritage Orchestra, Barbican © Mark Allan : Interactive Tuned Feedback Pendulum Array and Remote Orchestra.