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Strange engines

Royal Festival Hall
03/12/2004 -  

Steve Reich: Pendulum Music
Aphex Twin: Piano music from drukqs album
Edgard Varèse: Ionisation
Squarepusher: I wish you could talk, Conc 2 Symmetric, solo set
George Antheil: Ballet Méchanique
Steve Reich: Violin Phase
Jamie Lidell: solo set
John Cage: First Construction in Metal
Steve Reich: Six Marimbas
Aphex Twin: Polygon Window

Clio Gould (violin), Squarepusher, Jamie Lidell (vocals)

London Sinfonietta

Jurjen Hempel (conductor)

Queen Elizabeth Hall


Jonathan Harvey: Two interludes for an opera
Georg Friederich Haas: Monodie
James Clarke: Concerto Spaziale (per Lucio Fontana)
Jonathan Harvey: Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco
Wolfgang Rihm: Sphäre um Sphäre
Steve Reich: Violin Phase

London Sinfonietta, Carl Faia (musical assistant to Harvey), Sound Intermedia

Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

The Ether season on the South Bank celebrated contemporary electronic music, culminating in a sold-out session by the mysterious German geniuses Kraftwerk. The London Sinfonietta’s concert included a few less than contemporary elements. Indeed, its main appeal for the orchestra’s core audience was probably the performance of Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique adapted to run with a restored version of the film for which it was originally intended to be the sound track. This turned out to be (still) one of the more mind-bending parts of the evening, for its elegant surrealism of image and sound, and their apparently obsessive but arbitrary interactions. Most of the images were prosaic, going on inane, but there was more than a touch of style and a strange humour in the sequences, which occasionally co-incided by more often collided with the brutal mechanical progression of the music. A woman smiled and then, with a wipe, unsmiled, over and over again, and a cubist Charlie Chaplin did his walk. Antheil and the film’s creators Fernand Léger and Man Ray did not in fact collaborate very closely, so the synchronization of at least the running times of music and image is the work of the Paul Lehrman, who assembled the current versions.

But the whole concert was effectively a performance by technical specialists, equipped with kit (and attitudes) that Antheil and Varèse (represented by the lowish-tech but imaginative percussion work Ionization), dreamed of without knowing how it could come into being. The London Sinfonietta likewise have the skills and willingness to do the impossible that invite composers to explore alternative musical universes. The affinity of Antheil’s work with that of Aphex Twin, one of the artists on the Warp Records label, which collaborated in the performance, was clear, particularly in a futuristic piano set that had only a hint of the composer’s famed darkness. Squarepusher, performing on a laptop rather than his advertised electric bass guitar, similarly mixed sampled sounds (at head-splitting volume) and visuals in a way that Antheil would have admired. Jamie Lidell’s exhilarating solo set, mixing his live voice with sampled sounds and a lightshow, was more expressive, but another performance that used technology to make imagination concrete in real time.

Yet the audience, who did not on the whole look like the usual Festival Hall congregation, seemed to enjoy just as much Reich’s Six Marimbas (marimbas and nothing but, sounding delicious is occasionally diffuse) and (especially) Kenneth Hesketh’s arrangement of another Aphex Twin work, Polygon Window. This brought them to their feet at the end with the device, old when Purcell used it in the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, of having six side drummers leave the stage and play as they moved out of the auditorium. If the evening wasn’t particularly coherent, there was plenty to enjoy for all.

The Sinfonietta was on more familiar ground, and had a more traditionally sized and reverential audience, in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall the next week. Billed as "New Harvey", the concert consisted of three UK premieres by European composers, one twenty-year old work by Jonathan Harvey, and the world premiere of two excerpts from his forthcoming opera. Haas’ Monodie, described as "a subtle thread spun through the fabric of a virtuosic and focused ensemble" was strangely enjoyable, in a Brahmsiam sort of way, as was Rihm’s extended and hypnotic Sphäre um Sphäre. There were some electronics in Clarke’s Concetto Spaziale (per Lucio Fontana), and some energy, but none of the exuberance of Squarepusher.

Harvey’s 1984 Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is a pre-recorded structure based on the harmonics of the tenor bell of Winchester cathedral, with melodic elements provided by Harvey’s son, who was then a chorister there. It sounds rather conventional these days.

The concert began with the real "new Harvey", two instrumental interludes from a projected opera (for Netherlands Opera) "based on the moment of Wagner’s death". Some might have been tempted to leave right there, but the planned work will be a kind of Buddhist Dream of Gerontius, which might be interesting. The first extract, Fall, was a near-Straussian depiction of Wagner’s heart attack and subsequent journey out of his body; the second, Attraction, a representation of the moment when Prakriti and Ananda, the protagonists of the Buddhist legend which Wagner was reading at the time of his death, admit their love. Any resonances with Tristan were probably more obvious in the score than in the performance, but the composition aimed to be radically innovative in a different way, by requiring the live electronic processing of the twenty-two instrumentalists. There was considerable virtuosity involved, not least by Harvey’s assistant Carl Faia, who worked the sound equipment, and also a snake’s nest of wires. Yet not only was there nothing to frighten the timid, there was not even anything much to get hold of. Perhaps a fully theatrical version will deliver the full force of Harvey’s imagination, and perhaps it will become easier in time to listen to a synthesized concert-hall of the mind. In the meantime, there is always Jamie Lidell.

HE Elsom



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