Back in the Eighties, when music was a Serious Thing, if you were a Serious Person, once you’d established your basic preferences in the medium of C86-style shambling, you had to show you were aware of the three classical composers it was okay to like (even if they were really ‘contemporary’): Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. I’ve seen Reich and Glass several times now, and seen their music performed more times than that. Nothing of Riley’s, though. When I saw in a Barbican brochure that they were putting on an event to celebrate his In C, I booked straight away, thinking of what my younger self would have wanted.
There is something pleasing about the various foyers of the Barbican when there’s a big show on, and I had time to enjoy some naughty wasabi popcorn, in lieu of a meal, while others queued at the bars and bought their carrot cakes. Inside the Hall, there was confusion amongst those not familiar with the seat numbering system, and people unable to parse their tickets correctly. Groups of men in bondage to the drink imperative.
Now, as often happens these days, I didn’t really know the piece that well, so I can’t comment (yet) on the interpretation offered by Matthew Herbert and stargaze in the first half. There was a pianist, three string players, three brass/woodwind players, a couple of percussionists/miscellaneous players, someone with an odd trombone-like item that seemed to either have different coloured lights attached or to trigger those lights, and Herbert with his computing/sampling devices. The music was very dense, with the layers coming to individual crescendoes then ebbing away, perhaps more concerned with textures than Glass and Reich’s rhythmic prominences. The Joshua Light Show were projecting their avowedly ‘psychedelic’ visuals onto a large screen behind the players, with spot lights that looked like they were in jelly and the occasional hand seen to be dropping their radiant liquids into the visual field. The players were pretty much in darkness, so the light show was the main visual draw, and it was really rather impressive. Much better than the standard half-hearted video reel you often see. At times it felt like some machines were coming together to form choruses, then moving away. At the end, the string and wind players slipped away, while Herbert was still triggering the samples he’d made of their playing. They came into the hall from the back, behind us, playing softly as they slowly walked.
It was definitely out there, some of it
was one quote I heard during the interval.
There was an announcement before the show started, enjoining people to take their seats, with something I didn’t catch about an interval. It turned out there was a second half, which I would have realised if I’d read the blurbs properly, and the stage was cleared for various percussion instruments and tables of electronic gear to be brought on. Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory emerged from the dressing room, bells in hand and walked behind the light show screen, so we could seem them clanging and ringing, silhouetted by the swirling colours. A more joyful version of Bergman’s dance of death.
They were all serious young men, with beige aprons that looked rather heavy. Banks of lights had been placed at angles behind them, and they changed colour throughout the performance, independently of the Joshua Light Show. Besides this, the light levels were higher so you could actually watch the details of their performance, which meant the prominence of the psychedelic show was reduced (for me, at least). The first thing I noticed was the restrained flourish of the two people on the left, when they rang their hand bells. Later on, they had a mallet in one hand and a bell in the other – there is something very satisfying about watching virtuosi in action, almost no matter what the domain. Quite soon, a drum track was introduced and it was far too loud, drowning out the playing. This was soon corrected, though and the electronics integrated well with the marimbas, kalimbas, xylophones, tubular bells and more. They came to a rest and there was joyful applause. Leaving the stage, they quickly came back on, in the encore ritual of a ‘normal band’. Their second section began with five of them standing in the centre of the stage, clanging and ringing single instruments, then they returned to their stations (in a different arrangement than before) and weaved their combined percussive/electronic threads again. As with the Herbert/stargaze half, at the end they left the stage and walked among the audience, ringing their bells very gently. This effect wasn’t diminished for the repetition. A little eerie, as you have to re-orient to the new direction of sound.
They reassembled on the stage to accept more applause and were joined by the members of the Joshua Light Show, who were at least half a dozen too.
Someone said to his companion that he
preferred the first half, the second was too unfocused
What an extraordinarily wrong-headed verdict. While the first half was good, I thought the second was one of the best things I’ve seen this year. And such polite young men, too.