Music Features

Warp Works / 20th Century Masters: Live At The Royal Festival Hall, London (8/3/2003)

The Royal Festival Hall, the all-purpose culture hangar at the heart of the South Bank, is often home to strange performative juxtapositions. Graduation ceremonies jostle for space with Nick Cage, and in the foyer power lunches sit awkwardly alongside the avant-garde CDs and critical theory books. Famously, last year, Señor Coco and His Coconuts performed mambo versions of Kraftwerk tracks. The Ether series of concerts takes things a step further, filling the Star Wars cavern of the main hall with artists from avant-garde, classical and electronic schools. Like any hybrid, there's also an element of compromise, and also the risk of falling between two stools. Will fans of the London Sinfonietta's avant-garde orchestrations be alienated by the uncompromising visuals of the Warp short films on display or the itchy, behind-you sounds of Mira Calix and the like? Similarly, will the ultra-technical sounds of Warp's artists transfer to the classical environment of the RFH, and will the arrangements carry through the subtlety and nuance of avant-electronica?

The audience for tonight's show, clearly swayed by the Warp-heavy promotional material, is as hip as London can produce. Bussed in from Brick Lane and Hoxton and fed Stella in the hall, the needle-toed and parka-wearing masses take a while to settle. It's probably the shock of a) having to sit down b) being a long way from the performers, and c) performers? Where's the DJ? The first number passes almost unnoticed, which is a lot to do with the people still being ushered to their seats. A couple of folks get lost. What's most striking, to start, is the film show, a mixture of specially prepared new work and the impressive back-catalogue - some previously unseen - of visual material produced for Warp Records. Much of it is hyper-speed black and white, jagged and jarring, but a perfect counterpoint to the multi-track experimentalism of the music.

The Sinfonietta's performances are interspersed with John Cage's sonatas for prepared piano. Quite how it's been prepared is at times a mystery, as his syncopated explorations frequently sound like they're being filtered through a swimming pool. The sight of a very earnest man in a shiny green suit, with the stage flooded in continental-shelf emerald lights is quite arresting, and the intense alignment of silence and clanging jazz chords soon takes hold of the audience. They're completely hooked by the time the Sinfonietta return for a performance of Boards of Canada's Pete Standing Alone, a beautiful, unsettling yet epic arrangement that almost perfectly captures the awkward splendour of the original, yet adding the orchestral finery the setting deserves.

Another Cage number, becoming ever less strange, precedes a version of Aphex Twin's afx237 v. 7. The west-country tank driver's work doesn't transpose as well as the Boards'; whereas the drifting chords of the Scottish duo's compositions suit the orchestral format, perhaps the Twin's work sounds too like post-modern Jazz noodling. Still, it's an impressive effort.

Perhaps the most striking moment so far is Mira Calix Nunu. It opens with violins impersonating crickets, with a display of black and white insects in close up. As the music becomes increasingly spiralling and evocative, the visual, low resolution head-cam shots of a crawling mass of crickets, roaches and other assorted nasties, becomes increasingly difficult to watch for the faint-hearted. It's a superb tactic; while Calix's work gains a new, ambitious dimension, the film piece maintains the unsettling crawliness of the original.

The first half closes with the most experimental piece so far, Stockhausen's Spiral for Soloist with Short Wave Receiver. The first of the works by avant-garde composers, it's backed by urban and rural landscapes at dawn or dusk that become invaded by black, threatening yet enticing shapes. The music, likewise, juxtaposes the grating background noise of a detuned SW radio with soulful, lamenting sax, recorder, and then electro sounds. The piece suggests the intervention of the otherworldly in the everyday, and beauty that reminds us of the beauty in the quotidian.

Eager to pack in as much as possible, the interval showcases new and rare Warp videos. The highlights include Chris Cunningham's hyperactive Monkey Drummer - exactly what it says it is - and the Pleix Collective's Simone, a bass heavy thump played out to abstract disco light visuals.

The second half continues the pattern of interspersing Cage's experimental piano pieces, which become increasingly engaging as they progress, with the Warp and composed pieces. Ives's work is subtle and mesmeric, while Squarepusher's Port Rhombus is probably the most light-hearted piece of the night. The final piece, variations (Precise and Mechanical, Very Fast, for example) on the work of Gyogor Ligeti, perhaps exemplifies the vanguard aesthetic of the Sinfonietta, with precise, stabbing chords, time-phase variations and swirling build-up.

The night ends to rapturous applause, much of it directed at the original artists and video producers who wander onto the stage during the curtain call. It might be because they look a lot like the audience. Nevertheless, it's clearly been a huge success. At times tonight proceedings risked collapsing into free-jazz nonsense, but in the end all the numbers maintained a certain efficient restraint, perhaps owing to the originals' immersion in the 12" medium. Boards of Canada and Mira Calix are the most satisfying translations to the orchestral mode, which perhaps tells you something about the respective ambitions of the artists in question, with their sweeping and unnerving compositions.

What's great about tonight, though, is that as a compromise, it genuinely works. In the foyer, as the people stella down for the post-show DJ set, bearded jazz-lovers and cardiganned classical fans are buying Autechre albums, and tousle-haired hipsters are leafing through the South Bank programmes. As a meeting of genres, artists, and audiences, tonight has been a roaring, come-to-daddy success. The rest of the Ether series, including Ninja Tune, Luke Vibert and DJ Food, offers a beguiling proposal.