Aphex Twin: Remote Orchestra, Barbican, London

  • @Elisabray

When playing DJ sets, Aphex Twin has been known to place the needle onto sandpaper instead of a vinyl groove. This audience should be glad that tonight’s show wasn’t quite on that level of unlistenable, but at times it wasn’t far off.

Fans of techno pioneer Richard D James might have been anticipating something recalling his groundbreaking dance tracks such as “Windowlicker” and the menacing “Come To Daddy”, or the ambient bliss of “Xtal”, but tonight there are no hints at either.

In its UK premiere – it was first performed last year in Poland – James directed a 28-piece string orchestra and 12-strong choir, by remote control. The musicians, from the Heritage Orchestra and Choir, faced away from the audience, towards a giant projected screen displaying their cues.

Conceptually, it was impressive. The orchestra alternately stroked and scraped their bowstrings, and the choir joined in with vocals that sometimes oscillated, all contributing the microtonal slides between chords that created a near constant dissonance -and a piece that could fittingly soundtrack a horror film. The effect was hair-raising, but more often in a nails down the blackboard way than edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

What it lacked above all was the beats that James is so celebrated for. It was almost completely devoid of rhythm. Aside from powerful shifts in dynamics provided by the excellent responsive musicians, a lack of texture and momentum left the ideas with nowhere to develop. As a sound experiment, five minutes would have sufficed. But what a dream for the composer himself – to have a string orchestra and choir at his fingertips to control to the very microtone.

The second half fared better. James’ Yamaha Clavinova, an electronic grand piano that also can be played remotely, suspended on ropes, creaked like an abandoned shipwreck on choppy waters as it rocked back and forth. It gave ghostly atmosphere to the world premiere of James’ classical composition, a pretty piano refrain that the lone instrument played out itself.

The finale, a reimagining of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music retitled Interactive Tuned Feedback Pendulum Array, saw the electronic composer in full view for the first time tonight, twiddling the knobs of a Midi keyboard, as 10 pairs of mirrorball pendulums with microphones attached were set off to create hypnotic feedback tones. 140 green lasers bouncing off the stage at all corners made for a mesmerising spectacle.

It was an interesting night, but one that, musically, could have been so much more.