“We’re never going to the Barbican again.”
So grumbles one poor woman at her fella whilst walking out of the venue for what turned out to be one of the most experimental moments in the career of Richard D James, aka Aphex Twin, thus far. And that’s saying something. But though I like to think said woman was in a minority who didn’t necessarily enjoy the show, she certainly wasn’t the only one who didn’t get exactly what they were expecting. Not only was this like no other Aphex Twin show – it was unlike any show we’ve ever seen.
For starters, James plays not one beat of percussion, electronic or otherwise, throughout the whole set. Not a single beat. This is not dance music, IDM, glitch or whatever you want to call it. For people like the woman who won’t be visiting the Barbican again, I imagine this is where they feel like they’re being short changed. But for those who might have paid a bit more attention to James’ ambient works, and felt like the comparisons to composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Steve Reich were just as accurate as those to Squarepusher and Autehcre, tonight might make a little more sense.
It’s a show in three parts, starting with James conducting the Heritage Orchestra by “remote control.” Quite exactly what the technicalities of this setup are remain difficult to figure out – though you do spend the whole set trying, which is part of the fun. James takes his place toward the back of the stage whilst the four sections of the 28 piece orchestra stand facing him, back to the audience, waiting for their cues to join in. These come in the form of a screen at the back of the stage, which has colour coded bars corresponding to each section of the orchestra that rise and fall and become wider or more narrow depending on how loud, or what notes, James wants the orchestra to be playing. It’s slightly clumsy in places (when he moves the levels conducting the choral section a little too fast, there are one or two ‘wheEEerRrrrr’ sounds), but at its quietest it’s distinctly creepy, and at its most cacophonous, strikingly formidable. It’s experimental in a very literal sense of the word, too – nobody involved in it is precisely sure how it’s going to sound. All very good fun.
After an interval, we return for the most visually striking period of the show – and perhaps any show one can conceive of happening given the confines of the Barbican. Performing a new piece written for his own specially adapted grand piano (featuring modifications that allow it to be played “remotely”), James again takes his place behind his equipment at the back of the stage whilst two men approach the piano – which has sat there, ominously untouched, since the beginning of the evening – and, to a chorus of gasps, raise it to the ceiling and begin swinging it back and forth on an enormous pulley system. James remotely maintains the prettiest of tunes despite the piano’s wobbling back and forth skewing each and every note, the rhythm provided by the mechanism becoming oddly hypnotic. The inherent danger of watching an object of such weight and delicacy move at such speed and height juxtaposes brilliantly with the gentle melancholia of the sound it produces. People don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just hope nothing goes wrong. I go through all three, and only wish this remarkable spectacle could have continued longer.
What follows it however is far from a disappointment. The final third of the show is a new piece called Interactive Tuned Feedback Pendulum Array; intended to be a “visually spectacular” response to Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, it succeeds in dazzling both the eyes and the ears. Huge mirror balls which have dangled threateningly over a dozen or so sets of monitors at the side of the stage are suddenly set in to motion as people pull back and release them like some sort of enormous office desktop toy. The movement (somehow, don’t ask me) causes the monitors to produce a low, droning feedback noise, and the balls are lit up spectacularly by bright green lasers that they then reflect all around the huge hall. Light and noise fill the room. The only person not getting lasers in their face is James, who’s busy interpreting the drones and interlocking rhythms that develop from the simultaneous but not perfectly synchronised movement of the mirror balls at the back of the hall, manipulating them to his devilish delight. When the balls finally stop moving, the set’s over. A standing ovation. James shuffles off to the side of the stage, responding to our gratitude by giving a thumbs up.
The evening’s accompanying literature promised “a genuinely unique experience”. Stuff like that annoys the hell out of me. But despite the hype, for once do I struggle to compare it to any other show I’ve seen, and the only other music I could say resembles it (Reich’s Pendulum Music) is not only acknowledged by the artist himself, but pushed so far in a new direction that it’s hard to even call it a response. Our friend mentioned at the beginning needn’t worry about returning – it’s highly unlikely something like this will be on the programme, at the Barbican or anywhere, any time soon.