“…if the balance between art and entertainment can at least be maintained, the possibilities for synthesis on a meaningful level are there for the making.”
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 12 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Two years ago, the underground electronica label Warp Records put on its first “Ether” festival at the South Bank. Last year, the festival featured collaborations between leading Warp artists and the London Sinfonietta that continues under the auspices of the Contemporary Music Network. The outcome this time round was an evening whose palpable sense of anticipation arose less from what was expected to happen, as from what might happen given the amalgam of musicians and succession of performances: in itself a vindication of an event which, as producer and Moondog-lookalike Glenn Max inferred in his opening address, could be going anywhere.
Admittedly the first half proceeded tentatively. Pianist Clive Williamson opened with a pleasant if unremarkable number from the Drukqs album by Aphex Twin (aka Richard James), a little akin to Javanese-mode Lou Harrison. An expanded Sinfonietta percussion line-up sounded not-quite-together in Edgard Varèse’s seminal Ionisation, while Fraser Trainer’s arrangement of either Aphex Twin’s I Wish You Could Talk or Conc 2 Symmetriac (at barely 2 minutes, it seemed too short to have been both!) was inconsequential in the extreme. Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) to the rescue – with a solo set in which his often-recondite take on electronics and programming created an audible frisson around the RFH auditorium, complemented by visuals which made graphic the rhythmic continuity and harmonic intricacy – even if they did bring to mind the 1970s’ ITV test-card.
Momentum rose again with a rare chance to hear George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique in harness with the surrealist (or is that dadaist?) film of that name by Fernand Léger and Man Ray. Present-day reproduction enables a co-ordination as close as any of the instigators might have wished – though the film itself lacks the focus of contemporary experiments by René Clair or Luis Buñel, while the Antheil heard was neither the excess of the 1924 original (nine pianos, 11 percussionists and ’live’ alarms, sirens and propellers) nor the tame reduction of 1953 (akin to Les Noces without vocals – or invention). Poised between radical experiment and sensational publicity vehicle, Antheil’s conceptual magnum opus continues to inspire notoriety – the audience responding with a buzz all its own.
The second half began with Steve Reich’s early minimalist classic Violin Phase, Clio Gould not sounding entirely comfortable with its shifting intricacies, but heard to advantage against a sensitive ambient context courtesy of Sound Intermedia. Next up was Jamie Lidell: somewhere between Prince and Jeff Buckley, and an ace at sampling, his 20-minute set of ’treated’ vocals and manic gesticulations – as heard against a backdrop of ’virtual graphics’ created by Pablo Fiasco – was no mean performance art. Best heard (and seen) live, perhaps, especially when followed by John Cage’s First Construction in Metal and Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas; their intricate unfolding as absorbing for the mind as it is for the emotions – especially when the Sinfonietta percussionists, enthusiastically directed by Jurjen Hempel, were so audibly in command of both.
The evening ended with a suitable ’grand finale’: Aphex Twin’s Polygon Window, arranged by Kenneth Hesketh so the disparate line-up fused effortlessly. Whether the massed side drum recessional – redolent of a Boys’ Brigade march-past – was part of the original or the arrangement, it brought an already psyched-up audience cheering to its feet.
So, an evening to remember for aficionados of either ’stream’, and for newcomers to both. Whether such events herald a future in which contemporary music effectively becomes its own world, divorced from the classical and popular mainstreams and unified by a devotion to sound for its own sake, remains to be seen. But connections between genres, emergent throughout the 20th-century, are now more numerous than ever – and if the balance between art and entertainment can at least be maintained, the possibilities for synthesis on a meaningful level are there for the making.