Electronica III

Mutter, Cocker, BBC Concert Orchestra/Hazlewood

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14 June 2011 2.5 stars

CockerThe BBC Concert Orchestra's Electronica series has explored the development of electronic instruments in the context of (rather mainstream) concert electroacoustic music – from the ondes martenot to analogue and digital synths and beyond – over three wide-ranging events.

The third and final concert took place last week at the Southbank Centre. It was hosted by the amiable Jarvis Cocker, who also took on the role of performer (a wayward but charismatic singer) for Anne Dudley's gorgeous, brittle, and expansive arrangement of 'This is Hardcore', the title track of Pulp's (Cocker’s band) 1998 album.

Despite both Cocker's amiability and the impressively catholic approach to programming on display, the concert fell rather flat.

One doesn't expect a weeknight event at the QEH to run on too long, though of course performers are permitted a certain level of indulgence. At three hours and ten minutes (including interval), Electronica III entered into the realm of farce. At least three of the longer works should have been cut from the programme. It is no good to speak of things like value for money or generosity of approach; every element of the programme was diminished by attrition. Earlier highlights were coloured by what came after, whilst later quality could not make its full impact with a weary and battle-scarred audience (a significant number of whom trickled out as the second half wound its way to a close).

And sheer length was not the only problem. Serious mistakes were also made in the pacing of the show (though admittedly these mistakes were largely a function of the length).

For instance, Andrew Poppy's slow, softly turbulent, and rather wonderful Revolution No 8: Airport for Joseph Beuys, suffered from being placed in the penultimate position in the programme, by which point energy levels were low. I would have loved the chance to hear Poppy's live processing of the churning orchestral sound with my wits fully about me.

Edward Williams' lengthy suite of music from Life on Earth, too, though pretty and pleasing in its Ravel-lite way, likewise should have been elsewhere on the programme, if on it all. (And the use of the so-called Soundbeam – in reality little more than volume switches controlled by a man waving his hands up and down – to control the samples in this piece felt like little more than a silly gimmick).

Besides the problems with length and pacing, the concert featured an excess of somewhat vacuous music. We opened with a fun little wheezing Overture by Maria Alvarez. This was followed by a dreary piece from the same composer, entitled Pyramid. Alvarez is usually a fairly solid composer, but here his rudimentary material (no great shakes in itself, although admittedly Pyramid is written for amateur and young performers), suffered in the hands of an off-form, murky ensemble.

Nico Muhly's concerto for electric violin Seeing is Believing was given a rather workmanlike performance by Charles Mutter, who seemed to have a little trouble with his loop pedal (trouble reflected in the rather stuttering sense of ensemble in the orchestra). The piece itself features some nice ideas, particularly in the rather sweet scoring and the clarity of the structure. However, on the basis of this performance at least, it seemed to exceed its material’s natural length by about five or six minutes.

Eduardo Miranda's Sacra Conversazione was one of the least convincing pieces of the night. It set vocoder-like voices into a context of bland and incongruous orchestral music. Miranda’s drifting cyborgs were harmless enough in themselves, but, despite apparent great lengths of research and experiment done towards their end, they achieved little more than has been in evidence on various pop releases, from Battles to James Blake. Patrick Nunn's concert for electric cello, Fata Morgana, was inoffensive, if of little impact - though, again, this might be blamed on the context. Nunn's arrangement of the Aphex Twin track, 'Nannou', which closed out the concert, was charming, if not as sonically interesting as the original.

Graham Fitkin's elaborate and sometimes feral K1 (an expansion of the first section of his earlier Kaplan), at least felt like fun. However, again, the ensemble made little sense of the score. Despite the best efforts of spirited conductor Charles Hazlewood, proceedings failed to rise above the level of a fairground ride after a seductively indistinct opening. This sonic fairground ride of overheated analogue synthesiser melodies (played by Goldfrapp's Will Gregory), thrashing drums (two drummers, in addition to percussionists and percussion played on a Korg synth, were featured), and awkward formal and rhythmic elisions, much like an actual fairground ride, was frivolously fun, if little more. However, perhaps that is no mean achievement in this context.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Jarvis Cocker

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