Cutting-edge classical collective

We may be in an age where budding bedroom-based musicians can bash out a tune in an hour, have it on myspace minutes later and in the charts within a month, but off to the left of the mainstream there are still artists taking an absolute age to get stuff done.

Classical types were the early pacesetters in this respect, but nowadays they have a rival in the Premier League of precious musicians - experimental electronica producers. Cutting-edge classical collective the London Sinfonietta would probably concur, as they recently undertook an ambitious collaborative project with a couple of prominent modern noisemakers: Squarepusher and the Aphex Twin. The avant-garde artists they’ve worked with previously - Steve Reich and the like - seem positively laid-back in comparison.

Still, the project eventually turned out to be something of a triumph, as the Sinfonietta’s new live recording, ‘Warp Works And Twentieth Century Masters’, attests. It’s the collected highlights of several shows the 16-piece ensemble performed during 2003/4, the culmination of a project which often seemed unlikely to even begin.

The story began five years ago, when the Sinfonietta’s then artistic director Gillian Moore put forward an idea to Warp Records boss Steve Bennett. Founded back in 1968, and formed from moonlighting members of illustrious institutions like the Royal Philharmonic and LSO, the Sinfonietta were already Britain’s foremost exponents of experimental modern music.

Journeys through the Twentieth Century avant-garde led them eventually to Warp, home to many of electronica’s biggest names, and egos, over the years. The Sinfonietta were keen to work with two of their most gifted but hermit-like alumni, Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson and Aphex, AKA Richard D. James. When Bennett contacted the artists in question, however, they were less than enthused about having their tunes tinkered with.

“Aphex and Squarepusher almost see them as their children,” explains Bennett, “and they think, ‘why would we want somebody else to mess about with our children?’”

A few years and several failed further requests later, Moore eventually persuaded Jenkinson and James along to a meeting, where she massaged their egos, outlined the collective’s philosophy, and, finally, won them over. ‘Warp Works’ would be juxtaposition rather than crossover, she explained, with the Sinfonietta placing the duo’s works alongside those by a respected array of avant-garde composers: Reich, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen. “We had to reassure them that we weren’t trying to be cool,” says Moore.

James and Jenkinson wouldn't actually take part in the performances themselves, but were fully involved as the Sinfonietta’s arrangers began to transform their offspring. Some tracks, like Aphex Twin’s Cage-influenced ‘Prepared Piano Pieces’, were already acoustic, but needed James to explain his sound-altering techniques (he’d laid chains across the strings). Most involved reinterpreting electronic tracks, however, which required a little extra imagination to really do them justice.

“It couldn’t be like making classical arrangements of things, that’s not what we’re interested in,” says Moore. “The thing I hate when anything non-classical is arranged for classical musicians is lots of long string chords. We wanted to maintain the energy and drive of the originals, composing all the drum beats into the clarinets and strings, so you got the energy right through the ensemble.”

On 10th March 2003, ‘Warp Works’ finally hit the stage, at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and the Sinfonietta’s long-held vision came to fruition. Under stunning visuals from the similarly forward-looking Sound Intermedia, the assembled players produced a sometimes troubling, often beautiful but always arresting sensual experience.

To the left of the mainstream there are still artists taking an absolute age to get stuff done.

While it may not have been a traditional crossover, the audience dynamic certainly was, as long-time advocates of the avant-garde mixed with Warp’s younger followers. Steve Bennett was among them:

“You’d look down the rows of seats and there’d be a little 20 year old kid with a scruffy haircut and an Aphex Twin T-shirt on, and next to him there’s a 60 year old bloke with a linen suit and a bow tie and everything. I know [the Sinfonietta] were shitting themselves playing in front of a young audience, thinking ‘is this going to go down like a lead balloon?’ but from the first performance, when they did the first Aphex Twin piece, you knew it was going to be a good night.”

More sell-out performances followed, and although those first-night nerves were now long forgotten, Jenkinson still proved adept at throwing in the odd spanner. No matter how successful the collaboration so far, and how near to showtime it may have been, the word ‘compromise’ just isn’t in his dictionary. And it seems he had the final say.

“I think on one of the nights Tom wasn’t happy with one of the arrangements and pulled it ten minutes before the performance,” recalls, somewhat sarcastically, Bennett. “Everybody was really happy about that.”

They smile about it now though. Indeed, Moore – who has since moved on to an influential position at the South Bank Centre – reckons her old collective actually rather admired the Warp artists’ unyielding attitudes. Jenkinson, meanwhile, has expressed an interest in furthering the Sinfonietta link, “creating something from scratch, that’s the dream,” suggests Bennett. Whether the classical community would welcome him into the fold is another matter, though, and not just because of that ‘difficult’ reputation. They can be a little stuffy about outside influences.

“This project with Warp was risky,” admits Moore. “We had huge success and lots of praise for it, but also people criticising, saying ‘aren’t you just cynically trying to get a different audience?’ I view it very differently. Our brief is to break boundaries, to do different things and make new relationships, and we do now have genuine relationships with some of these artists.”

And that, in itself, is quite an achievement. Watch this space.


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