Friday, 9 May 2014

Icebreaker and BJ Cole 'Apollo For All Mankind'

On Saturday night my foray into the Sounds New Festival continued in the Colyer-Fergusson music hall at the University of Kent.
Icebreaker and BJ Cole were performing Apollo: For All Mankind.
I had no idea what that meant but I was really intrigued to find out!
I took my seat in the centre of the concert hall and watched as the place filled up, recognising a couple of work colleagues in the audience.  In front of me was a huge orchestra filled with an array of instruments, including pan pipes and an intriguing pedal steel guitar.
The first item on the programme was Ed Bennet's Suspect Device.  It was discordant and built and built around you.  It sounded like the Jaws Theme, Slasher Horror and Punk all rolled into one.  In fact it recycles material from the original song of the same name by Northern Irish Punk band Stiff Little Fingers who were mainly active during the height of the Northern Irish 'troubles' in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  The band provided optimistic and energetic anthems for the disaffected Northern Irish Youth culture who wanted nothing to do with the violence and politics of the time.  Bennet's music has elements of War of the Worlds ringing through it, a screech of high flutes and the pounding bass of the piano and you feel your imagination racing down dark streets.  At the end you hear a sound reminiscent of a Spitfire plummeting to the ground.  Bennet's work has been described as 'anarchic' (Irish Times), 'manic' (Classical Music) and 'beautiful' (Gramophone), an 'unclassifiable, raw-nerve music of huge energy and imagination' (The Guardian) and it is all of these things.
The second piece was Roy Carrol's Towards / Against.  This involved a much smaller ensemble and relied extensively on the considerable skills of the percussionist.  All manner of items were used, including whiskey cartons filled with rice whose tonal notes were then picked up by the wind instruments.  The piece had the feeling of a rattlesnakes tail tale in the Texan desert and footsteps in a deserted mansion.  Carroll's music has this quality about it, he explores the physicality of music through creating kinetic interactions between apparently discarded materials such as denuded loudspeakers, textured materials and feedback loops.  He views instability as a creative prerogative.
The final piece before the interval is Julia Wolfe's 'Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary'.  Described as this is how life feels right now, the overall effect is not scary, it is terrifying.  Occasionally the instruments scream their protest at being used thus and the floor vibrates up through our seats.  The noise is deafening.  This is raw power in musical form, natures rage unleashed.  It crescendo's and then is suddenly cut off.  There is a dazed silence before rapturous applause from the audience. 
After the interval we were treated to the main event.  For All Mankind is a 1989 documentary film showcasing the Apollo missions of NASA and provides 80 minutes of real NASA footage taken on the Apollo missions of the 1960's and 1970's.  The focus is on the human views of the space flights and the beauty of earth as seen from space.  The film's soundtrack was written by Brian Eno.  Eno's reputation has been built over a number of years - he is one of the most successful record producers of all times, creating the sounds of seminal albums by Talking Head, U2 and Coldplay and was also heavily involved with the early 1970's Roxy Music .

He has also been credited with the creation of an entire genre of music - ambient.  Although this is debatable, Eno is the person who is most clearly identified with the genre and who has made it his own.
The soundtrack to Apollo takes it's cue from the fact that many of the astronauts took tapes of country and western music with them on the Apollo missions.  Eno used this idea to create a subtle blend of country and western with ambient.  

The music is highly atmospheric.  The lights go down, a stark contrast from the 1st half and the orchestra are lit only by the glow from their sheet lights.  The projector starts to play the film and the music makes you feel like you are floating away.  All around the auditorium people are hugging loved ones close to them or have their eyes closed in reflective contemplation.  The music drifts and floats with the astronauts.

Then the atmosphere switches as the panpipes come in mingled with the thud of the kettle drum.  The landing is approaching and there is a sense of anticipation.  The music becomes almost menacing; this is alien territory, somewhere humans are not meant to tread and we have defied nature to get here.
2009 was the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, and to celebrate this Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at The Science Museum in London suggested the idea of producing a live version of the work to play alongside Al Reinhart's film For All Mankind.  Woojun Lee was personally selected by Eno to make the transcription and the live version was performed by Icebreaker on the 19th July 2009.

After the landing the mood becomes joyful and soothing, much more uplifting.  The flutes and the pedal steel are employed and then the electric guitar comes in.  Somehow this sound turns the moon from an alien entity into a human playground - somewhere inviting, safe and familiar, almost homely.  The country music influence can be heard most clearly here. 
The entire of the second half took just over an hour for one single track of music.  They say music can take you on a journey, and this piece certainly achieves that.  I'm quite surprised at how I reacted to it - I have an unwarranted fear of space, the great unknown and the sense of all that unexplored, uncharted mass out there makes my head ache and makes me feel very, very small.  It's a feeling I try to avoid for the most part, but I left this concert with an underlying sense of peace.  I'm not the only one either.  As people trickled out and into the night air, I saw many of them turn their faces to sky to gaze at the moon which was glowing particularly bright that night and think on the experience they had just had.

The Sounds New Festival is running until the 9th May - you can check out the programme of events here, see them on Facebook here and also follow them on twitter here.  Don't forget to use the #SoundsNew2014 to join in the online chat!

If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or twitter!

No comments:

Post a Comment