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:

In concert – Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican

Actress (above) and the London Contemporary Orchestra

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 10 February 2016

This intriguing collection of musical thought had three aims. The first was to draw on a long-held ambition of Darren Cunningham, to work with an orchestra under his Actress pseudonym, while the second and third celebrated – or rather illustrated – the ‘brutalist’ architecture of the Barbican and the data readings behind the LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics) satellite. Into all of these blueprints, curated by Boiler Room, were fed the music of Actress – a potent blend of techno, soul and dark electronica that lends itself to classical structures and instruments. In new arrangements and pieces Actress and Hugh Brunt, conductor and co-Artistic Director of the London Contemporary Orchestra, found a meeting point of all these elements, presenting them to the Barbican with video artist Nic Hamilton.

They called the collision Momentum, a banner symbolised by a circular object that initially resembled a giant glitterball but was in fact the spacecraft used in the LAGEOS missions. In practice it rotated at a much slower pace, responding to Cunningham’s beats – if indeed there were beats at all.

momentum

There was an air of tension from the start of the performance, with a long period of silence before the music began. Even then it only gradually crept into the consciousness, and with the lights down low a feeling of forced ambience crept over the audience, restful but not relaxed in the way earlier Aphex Twin can work. Slowly Cunningham built through Lagos and Momentum, two new tracks, his set already clearly conceived on a larger scale.

Brunt’s arrangements for a string quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass were striking, the instruments softly voiced to begin with but using a wide vibrato to make the centre of pitch far less certain. Oliver Coates’ cameo on a detuned cello was darkened by the use of a curious, semi-elliptical bow. The harp sprinkled planetary dust on the strings through the hands of Victoria Lester, while Hamilton’s astronomical backdrop helped create space in the closed environment.

As the audience began to fidget a breaking point was nearly reached, emphatically punctured by the volleys of Galya Beat, kick drums thrown from the pads of Sam Wilson’s machine. From here the music had greater power and caught the attention, the arrangements enhancing the beauty of Ascending, the harp and manipulated piano twinkling at the top of the sonic pile, while Piano Scrapes worked with subtle humour and more imaginative textures through the strings and the clarinet of Harry Cameron Parry.

Elsewhere Actress worked with claustrophobic backdrops, bringing the concrete maze of Hamilton’s Barbican video work to life. The strings provided essential colour to the largely grey backdrop of the thick but rather lush keyboards, themselves ambient but restless as before. The imaginative scoring included the creative use of a plastic bag in the percussion section.

Though it was a relatively small London Contemporary Orchestra on this occasion – much smaller than the forces used for Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood recently – it was used with imagination and flair by Cunningham and Brunt, the resulting music of substance and structure. Rather like the Barbican, in fact – together with a relative lack of pure emotion in the more calculated sections.

It would be great to see Actress flexing his muscles some more in the fascinating area in which he finds himself, bringing forms of music face to face with each other without anything sounding contrived. Future collaborations are surely inevitable; they are greatly anticipated!

Actress played: Lagos, Momentum, Galya Beat, Chaos Rain I-II, Ascending, Piano Scrapes, Surfer’s Hymn, Skygraff (Game Theory), N.E.W., Chasing Numbers, Voodoo, 5 Audio Track I-II, Hubble.

Names of Players:

Actress (electronics), London Contemporary Orchestra – Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello), Dave Brown (double bass), Harry Cameron Penny (clarinet), Sam Wilson (percussion), Katherine Tinker (piano), Victoria Lester (harp)