Jarvis Cocker was our charming host for this evening of electronica coming to us via a range of composers and artists and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Stepping on stage to introduce each of tonight’s pieces in his inimitable fashion which, though speaking directly from notes, was informal, humorous and thoroughly engaging.
The connecting theme under the banner “Electronica” was the integration of purely electronic instrumentation into the classical tradition. So included in the programme were Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable use of Theremin in his score for the landmark 1951 science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still; here featuring two versions of the instrument, one of which Celia Sheen played, the other by Lydia Kavina who is a protegee of the instrument’s inventor Leon Theremin. It seems amazing to think that the instrument was first used live as far back as 1920. Even today, with all the huge technological and scientific leaps that have happened in the intervening decades, the Theremin (which creates pure tone noises without the player actually touching anything) still has the air of, as Jarvis Cocker suggested, as if working 'by magic'. As a major fan of Robert Wise’s film it was thrilling to hear the score performed live and I I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the suite.
The Ondes Martinot [see photo left] is an keyboard based instrument dating from 1928 that utilises vacuum tubes. It initially made one think of a small pipe organ. A range of speakers featuring a gong and sympathetic strings that can be selected at will by the player results in significant changes in tone and mood of unpredictable output. Very ethereal sounding too. It also demonstrates an incredible ability to blend harmonically with conventional instruments, tonight doing with everything from harp, to brass and flute. It’s quite the oddest instrument I’ve ever heard. What manner of man could imagine such a thing? I was just wondering who still composes for the instrument (and how many pieces there are) and then it is the turn of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood who wrote Smear for two Ondes Martinot – first performed at the 2004 Fuse festival in Leeds. It was an intricate but unsatisfying foray into experimentation partly because it came across as a touch too self-conscious.
In stark contrast, and (as evidenced by the rapturous applause and uncontrollable whoops of joy) seemingly the evening highlight for many, was Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory [photo right]. Gregory introduced us to what he called a ‘workshop’ but that was just him being modest. We were treated to extracts from a forthcoming opera (still a work in progress) that will be performed as part of the 2011 Ether Festival. Not at all appreciative of opera singing, I think I may have got the best of it here with it all being purely instrumental. The first piece must be a homage to Wendy Carlos’ score for the 80s SF film Tron. This was very, very Tron like, and superb. What followed, though glorious, was undermined slightly during the quieter passages due to an audible electrical hiss seemingly being picked up by a miked-up amp. The third piece was a fantastic blending of the BBC Concert Orchestra's strings and Gregory’s Moog Ensemble (which actually included a Roland and a Korg – we know because he carefully listed each synth for host Cocker). The epic fourth composition made me think of moments from Hans Zimmer’s vibrant score for Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Inception released earlier this year. Throughout all of this, the classic Mini Moog still stood out as unmatched in its sound generation capabilities.
There was an avant-garde Russian composition that joined together two separate tape works. Here, one element was played from a hard disc (conductor Hazelwood had the duty of pressing the ‘play’ button at the precise moment to ensure synchronicity) the other by the live orchestra. The two elements overlapped and also played independently of each other. Most surprisingly, this actually came across as one of the most conventional works, sounding much like incidental film music.
Some works this evening showcased or focused on the ‘quirky instrument’ – the Theremin (in the Spellbound dream sequence movement for example), whereas others like the Will Gregory compositions combined the electronic and classical seamlessly. It was this range of interaction and interweaving and separate but complimentary nature of the varied instrumentation that the organisers were keen to explore, and this evening's programme did so brilliantly. In the pivotal role of bringing all the potentially disperate elements together, Hazelwood not only achieved his goal, but is a charismatic and dynamic conductor to watch. Like a rigid statue one moment, flipping over to a lethal moves ninja the next! The final piece of the evening was a very clever orchestral-only arrangement by Anne Dudley of Kraftwerk’s (electronic only) The Model, which confirmed that if you’d arrived from another planet and heard any Kraftwerk song in a classical form you’d never guess they were originally composed on and written entirely for electronic instruments. A fitting end to a diverse, educational and very entertaining evening’s music. 8/10