Giving those boundaries a good kicking

There was a lot of anticipation about this one. Twisted electronics-mangler and general musical genius Aphex Twin (Richard James) moving to the civilised confines of the Barbican for a grandiose performance, controlling a 28-piece orchestra and 12-piece choir by “remote control”.

Clearly, anyone gunning to hear ‘Come to Daddy’ or indulge in an acid-drenched rave to ‘Phloam’ would be leaving disappointed, but then James has never been one for pandering to a crowd.

In practice, the concept seemed clunky in its execution. James controlled what notes the various orchestra sections and choir hit by relaying his chosen notes to the performers’ headphones, with a graphic display of moveable dials (also controlled by James, and enlarged for the audience to see) giving visual instruction on other performance elements, as did a series of esoteric pictorial symbols from James, which the orchestra and choir had in front of them.

A huge amount of work and technical and musical knowledge had obviously gone into the performance, but the result simply didn’t captivate as it should have. The result was a series of rising and falling sonics, without any coherence or melody to speak of, and each section playing bursts of notes before fading out again according to James’ instructions.

Yes, you can argue that the musical complexities and subtleties (and the experimental context) gave other meaning to the remote orchestra, but when taken on face value alone, it just wasn’t particularly enjoyable. True, James hadn’t set out to create an evening of enjoyment, but when all’s said and done, did it really hold much value?

To be fair, there were times when different sections of the orchestra meshed, creating a prolonged heady effect, but the drone element was carried out far more effectively later on. As ever, kudos to Richard James for his progressive thinking and risk-taking, but the concept did seem to miss the mark.

Catching various snippets of conversations in the ensuing interval proved interesting, with some audience members incredibly frustrated or bored, some wholly puzzled, and others passionately claiming it as an artistic triumph.

The second half of the performance – James’ “expansion” of Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’ – was instantly far more engaging. A grand piano was roped up and swung back and forth across the stage like a pendulum, with gentle, lonely piano melodies floating through the auditorium, pianist nowhere to be seen.

As well as the sheer surreal appeal of seeing a piano swung across the Barbican stage, it was a visually captivating spectacle, ghostly in style.

The pendulum theme continued in the final part of the performance, where James was surrounded by a series of mirrorballs – again, swung pendulum-like – which reflected and refracted numerous green lasers in sequence, carving madly through the air and looking like the rave the Barbican never had.

James soundtracked this by sculpting shreds of feedback in time with the rhythm of the mirrorballs and lasers, with the ensuing drone vibe and syncing of sound and light quickly becoming hypnotic, reminiscent of performances by experimental composer CM von Hausswolff. It was a hugely impressive and fascinating climax to the show, as well as a cheeky nod to the more hedonistic elements of James’ musical past. 

So, a mixed bag from Aphex, with some elements falling short and others delivering in full, though you can’t really knock his desire to constantly give those boundaries a good kicking. And you can be fairly sure that provoking the inevitable extremes in opinion afterwards had James pulling his best evil Aphex grin backstage.


Words by Tristan Parker

Photos by Mark Allan


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