Live review – London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Barbican: Other Worlds

London Contemporary Orchestra & ChoirRobert Ames
Universal Assembly Unit (art direction)
Artrendex (artificial intelligence)

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 31 October 2018

Scelsi Uaxuctum (1969) (UK premiere)
John Luther Adams Become Ocean (2013)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If the apocalypse comes while we are alive, what music do you want played?

It is a thought-provoking question, one that some composers have tackled head-on by writing music of their own. The end of days provided the link for this programme of polar opposites from the London Contemporary Orchestra, given at the Barbican to the accompaniment of images dictated by algorithmic responses, thanks to the AI technology of Artrendex and the Universal Assembly Unit.

The first part was the end of days in the darkest possible sense. Giacinto Scelsi’s five-part Uaxuctum takes as its inspiration the Legend of the Maya City, and its self-destruction for religious reasons. Due to the demands made on the performers – and, the programme argued, an overly conservative approach to using Scelsi’s music – this was the UK premiere of a piece written nearly fifty years ago.

The textures were remarkable, achieved through a variety of vocal techniques such as trills, tremolos, hissing, deep breathing and nasal sounds. The use of quarter tones lent an extra level of difficulty and a sense of dread to the music, the vocals stubbornly sat in between the instrumental notes at times. The London Contemporary Choir met these demands heroically, stood on the left under a screen whose barbed imagery and sudden explosions of orange and red light were wholly appropriate.

The sizable orchestra was bolstered by a massive battery of percussion, including an enormous barrel rubbed with a ‘thundersheet’ – which made a suitably massive noise. This provided some chilling, incendiary shocks, while the percussion themselves supported the music from what felt like underneath the floorboards.

Perhaps because of the massive screen the edge was taken off the sound a little, which compromised the raw impact of the piece, but Scelsi’s often monotone musical language left an incredibly strong impact under the passionate direction of Robert Ames. Its resultant chill stayed throughout the interval.

John Luther Adams, environmentalist as well as composer, has garnered many plaudits for Become Ocean, a 2013 composition that sees the Earth returning to its early state of complete water coverage. Should it happen again, this form of apocalypse would be man-made; the ultimate destination should global warming continue in the way it does.

Adams chose not respond to this with the sharp edges and doom-mongered percussion of an industrial age. Rather he utilises the orchestra as a single instrument of subtly altering shades, beginning low in the murky depths of the piano but gradually superimposing layers to make a wonderfully sonorous block chord the listener can literally dive into.

Interpreting this as a colour, it could only be the deepest blue of the unfathomable ocean, and the imagery responded as such, submerging the orchestra in slow moving waves under deep, grey cloud. We were, it seemed, cast out in the middle of the ocean, as far from land as could be, but this was to be a meditative exile, accepting of its fate if not wholly aspiring to it.

The music carried for 45 minutes and there were several climax points, where the images grew deeper, before Ames pulled us back to the bare bones again. Adams ended where he had begun, back in the lower reaches of the piano.

Silence was the only appropriate response to this wall of water through sound, a wonderful contemplation and immersion that proved unexpectedly moving, the realisation hitting home of just how much damage we have inflicted on our own planet.

If they ever met, Scelsi and Adams would surely have found a common ground, despite the fascination of their wildly different responses to the final, greatest destruction. They left us with much to ponder and admire, especially from the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose standard of performance was unstinting, and whose virtuosity behind the scenes ensured these two apocalyptic visions met their final destination.

Further listening

The works in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below: