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Brian Eno's Apollo – QE Hall, Southbank Centre 16/09/2010

20 September 2010, 11:00 | Written by Ash Akhtar


A majority of the earth’s populace will never visit space. Thankfully, there are books, records, and films innumerable enough to fire the imagination and prevent us being distraught by that unsurprising fact. And let’s face it, from what we know, the moon is a pretty boring place. Dust, rock and a few flags: it’s hardly worth saving up for one of those Virgin Galactic tickets.

Brian Eno‘s Apollo is a cheaper, and more accessible option than the Apollo program, and – judging by the Tom Hanks film – it’s vastly more enjoyable and less stressful. So, it is with a supercilious air that the audience of the Queen Elizabeth Hall take to their comfortable, padded, leather seats to watch the 12 musicians of Icebreaker attempt to recreate those warm, ambient tones with the aid of BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar.

The colourfully attired artistic director (and pan-pipe player) of Icebreaker, James Poke, helpfully introduces the music and prior to departure, we eager astronauts are informed that the first half of the show will focus on the work of David Lang and Michael Gordon.

Lang’s ‘Cheating, Lying, Stealing’ comes first, and the piece is a multifarious journey into seemingly inexhaustible time signatures and a syncopation that bears a passing resemblance to the icy tension of Ennio Morricone‘s work on The Untouchables. Anyone familiar with the original ‘Cheating, Lying, Stealing’ (or the Rock Band series in which it appears), will know the version as performed by New York chamber group, Bang On A Can. A technical piece as thrilling and gripping as this makes it easy to forgive the errors that arise.

Next up is Gordon’s ‘Trance’ which, in its original form, is a lengthy 52 minute piece. James Poke describes the author’s ambitious intention: to create a piece of music that sounds as though all the music in the world is playing in the listener’s head at once – a piece that sounds like information overload. Tonight, Icebreaker play just two movements from the piece – a sample of overload. Cue the chattering of saxophones and percussion to mimic the receiving tones of multiple hard-wired data transmission machines sounding simultaneously. Gradually building, the finale is far greater than the sum of its parts, as the noise eventually splits the brain left and right.

After the break, Icebreaker finally launch into Apollo. BJ Cole is centre stage, but as he doesn’t play until two-thirds of the way through, he simply sits there and gazes at the notation, occasionally shuffling paper about. We, however, are not watching this man with the thick glasses look bored. No, we are watching the footage from the epic Apollo journey into space – exalted by the pleasure of hearing Eno’s iconic piece of music played by musicians live in front of our very ears. Except that actually, we’re not.

Though the individual pieces are well thought out, and musically accurate; the delicious, analogue bubble of ‘Under Stars’ is missing; the eeriness of ‘The Secret Place’ entirely absent; the fog of ‘Signals’ vanishes unacknowledged, and so on. Until Cole joins in towards the end on ‘Silver Morning’, the entire exercise seems entirely futile. It would be more pleasurable to watch this historic – and in places, comedic – footage while listening to the original, irreplaceable, and iconic piece of music.

Though strange to say that an album almost three decades old sounds more futuristic in its original form than Icebreaker’s attempt at replication in 2010, it is also very true.

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