Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was released in 1983. An ambient album stylistically in keeping with his earlier ambient innovations, as found on the seminal Ambient 1: Music for Airports and the peak Ambient 4: On Land, Apollo came about via a commission to produce the soundtrack for the film For All Mankind, a documentary made up of NASA footage of the Apollo space missions to the moon.
The original Apollo album mixes electronic (synthesizer) and electro-acoustic (pedal steel guitar) sound sources. It is a slow and striking work, perfect to throw on the stereo in the background as you unwind at the end of the day, or at the end of a party as the daylight comes through behind the curtains.
English ensemble Icebreaker are currently touring a live version of the album, performing an unlikely arrangement made by Korean composer Woojun Lee with Eno's blessing. On Tuesday they arrived in Dublin, taking to the stage alongside legendary pedal steel guitarist B. J. Cole for a special concert as part of Science Week Ireland 2010.
Uncharacteristically for a Tuesday night, the National Concert Hall was heaving, with all tickets for the evening having sold out. And as you might expect from the nature of the programme, many of those in attendance were people you wouldn't chance to find attending the normally more conservative musical fare at the NCH: students, space-enthusiasts, Eno fans and electronic music heads all swarmed about in the foyer before milling in to take their seats.
The evening got underway with a performance of Philip Glass's Music With Changing Parts, an early work by Glass from 1970. Music With Changing Parts was originally written for performance by Glass's own ensemble at the time, and is scored for a number of electric organs with mic'd up acoustic instruments and percussion.
Icebreaker emerged onto the stage in a casual get-up of check shirts and plaid. A brief introduction of the present piece was given, rightly anticipating that much of the audience would be unfamiliar with both work and composer. Then the ensemble launched into the incessant, pulsating, cascading organ arpeggios of the work's propulsive hike, never letting up until finished.
This is Glass from before The Hours, from before the operas, from before Koyaanisqatsi, from before mainstream success, and from before high-flown respectibility: raw, loud, and mesmerising. Icebreaker are responsible for resuscitating this piece, having asked Glass a few years ago for his blessing in bringing it back into the repertoire. Until they revived it for a minimalism exhibition at the Tate in the UK, Glass had allowed Music With Changing Parts to go dormant, ignoring requests from ensembles for performance scores.
Here it shone. Occasionally boring maybe, but it was more often exhilarating in Icebreaker's reading, with panpipes and melodica among the instrumentation adding to its flavoursome tones. Despite a little technical problem around halfway through, the piece built up to a great climax, the ensemble's wall of sound strangely taking on the effect of an electronic phaser, with the ensemble acting as one great instrument.
This aim of an ensemble being one synthetic instrument is something we hear extolled regularly in relation to contemporary composers of orchestral music. But Icebreaker's raw electrified ensemble in this work served to show how limp a traditional orchestra much of the time is by comparison with a smaller electrified group of instruments.
At once both fast and slow (long, drawn out wind notes float through the feverish keyboard arpeggios), the work's temporal unfixedness lends to its fascination. Appropriately enough in relation to the programme, Music With Changing Parts is reputed to have been the first work by Glass heard by Eno, who along with David Bowie attended a performance of it given by the Glass Ensemble in the UK in the early 1970s, its influence on Eno soon manifesting in the latter's own musical productions.
After the interval came a short talk by the director of Science Week Ireland 2010, Leo Enright, whose focus on the importance of the Apollo moon landings led him, not in an untimely way, to stress the importance of supporting research, specifically research the outcome of which is unknown in advance, and whose goals are towards the openings that the acquisition of knowledge itself might herald for us in the long term and in our unforseen future.
The band then returned to a stage now dimmed for the projection of the Apollo 11 mission footage onto the screen behind, and music and film struck up in tandem. It wouldn't be a stretch to see Apollo as an extension of the old concept of programme music, wherein a narrative is outlined by a suite of music. And in keeping with a classical outlook, this work performed alongside a work by Glass served effectively to highlight Eno as no less a composer of minimalist (whatever that means) music than the American.
The playing of Icebreaker and of B. J. Cole was well-judged and unobtrusive throughout, lolling with the changing moods of the score. The beauty of the moon mission and its sense of journey, its sense of crossing thresholds and frontiers, was rendered clearly – perfect escapism from whatever humdrum concern might have been on your mind. Also rendered alongside this was the total loneliness and strangeness invited by the same enterprise.
By Liam Cagney