Unusually, I arrived at the Barbican in good time. There were lots of people milling around, confused by the closure of the usual downstairs ticket office, and others trying to interact with the drooping plastic creatures of Petting Zoo, part of Digital Revolution (which I’ve now seen twice, and which is now sadly sold out). Few of them realise that the thing to do isn’t to touch them, but to stand in the right position for the monitoring cameras, when they will curl up and their lights will activate. I felt a little sad for the creature nearest the explanatory blurb, because it probably learned over the course of the run that people just stand there, unresponsive. There was a special extra queue in operation for that exhibition, which was good to see. I haven’t written about it yet but it’s very good.
What to do before LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra? 5 pages remained in Mrs. Dalloway, after my reading during this morning’s commute, so I finished that. There were probably some Sally Seton characters in the Barbican, even an Ellie Henderson or two. It’s tempting to align myself with Peter Walsh, of course…
There were stern notices warning about the drones, the nets to protect the audience from the drones, and the need to, yes, switch your mobile phones actually off no not just on silent. Inside the theatre, ushers had to wander around repeating this injunction. There were indeed nets above the stalls, and to each side, anchored at the corners of the stage. If this show were to be repeated in five years’ time, would the confidence in drones’ safety be such that there would be no perceived need for similar netting, or would the insurers insist upon them anyway? I wondered whether they’d practised a drone crash, with staff primed to rush across and retrieve it from the net.
When the ‘curtain’ lifted, John Cale and his band were waiting, with a gap in front of them, beneath the stage level. It was from here that the drones emerged, the first one being quite large, with illuminated tubes coiled around the centre. The hair of people at the front was buffeted in the downdraft, which became a regular feature, only rarely extended to those like me as far back as row J. It was almost as if there were two bands performing: the musicians on stage, and the pilots plus crew beneath. You could see the heads of the latter, watching their craft with great concentration, looking a little sad and relieved when they landed, out of our sight.
As is quite common, I didn’t know many of the songs (though see later). (In some ways, is that a more pure form of appreciation? Or just an excuse for poor research?) There was John Cale himself, singing and orating, playing keyboard and viola, a guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboard/computer man. At times, they themselves had enough spare capacity to watch the drones flying, in what the handout described as an act of “autonomous choreography”. Why the need for pilots then? Were they just monitoring? It’s true that the high-speed jerking twitchy shimmies of one of the drones, in time with the music, seemed a bit too good for human control. However, I liked to think that the pilots (as they were listed) were responsible.
During the second of third song, an unexpected very bright white light started flashing on me directly from above, such that there was a strange pulsing effect, as my vision recovered each time, exacerbated by the effect of my glasses, with the light collecting at the edge of the lenses. While this made watching the stage and the drones rather difficult, it was a pretty novel experience. Later on, the light shone steadily on my leg, which warmed up a little, given the heretofore unheralded heat absorbing properties of my black trousers.
The full fleet of drones was revealed across the set, comprising four small, nimble ones with four blades, plus several larger ones with more decoration, and six blades (hence, more noise). Some of the four appeared for portions of most songs, and I liked to think that the larger ones, called something like Hector, would ascend to keep an eye on them (possibly Kevin and Betty). Meanwhile, the music was great. I’ve always loved Cale’s voice, and his dogged, hefty obscurity, combined with occasional beauty. What I had never expected was that I’d see a performance of Sister Ray, from one of its original composers (I spurned the revival tour of the Velvet Underground, twenty years ago). This was amazingly good, a totally transformed version, though true to the insistent, throbbing spirit of the original, and formed the end of the main set. The encore was Strange Times in Casablanca, during which one of the large drones (Gerald) appeared, with a bag dangling beneath. During the song, somehow the bag opened, and the front of the audience received a tinsel drenching. A man in front of me gleefully picked up one of the strips and put it away in his bag, the better to add to his collection.
After that, the band went off stage again, Cale thanking the audience and noting that there had been
The applause continued, and then a platform gradually raised, on which lay all of the drones, with their various adornments and illuminations activated. Then Cale re-appeared, with Liam Young, the band members, then the four pilots and other crew. The pilots looked a little overwhelmed by the reaction, perhaps unused to the public gaze.
It was a show unlike anything I’ve seen before, and not just that, it was very good. I only felt it was a shame that the drones were constrained to a relatively small airspace. The Sister Ray ambition I didn’t know I had, was realised.
On the way out, I overheard someone exclaiming that
there’s someone small, dark-haired and Welsh,
the full significance of which remains obscure.