Link to Opera North blog version
Apollo: For All Mankind
Howard Assembly Room Friday 20th January 2012
Formed by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989, Icebreaker have grown to be one of the country’s leading exponents of contemporary music, performing and recording works by artists such as Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass and Brian Eno. The unique array of instrumentation that Icebreaker employ assure them of their distinctive character in the field of contemporary music interpretation. B J Cole is a familiar name to anyone interested in music in general and may be considered as the pedal steel players’ pedal steel player. He can be heard on recordings from artists as disparate as Sting, Elton John on “Tiny Dancer”, Scott Walker, Joan Armatrading on “Down to Zero” and David Sylvian. After the interval at this evening’s performance, Cole explained how, through hearing the pedal steel playing by Daniel Lanois on the original album and soundtrack version of “Apollo: For All Mankind” he was inspired to release the instrument from the domain of country and western music and encompass the field of ambient and experimental avant garde music. Collaborations with artists such as Luke Vibert, Harold Budd and John Cale have proved his credentials in this arena.
This evening’s performance at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, rapidly becoming one of the crucial spaces in the city for left field and experimental projects, began with Terry Riley’s “In C”. Anyone familiar with the history and development of minimalist music will be aware of the importance of this piece, which in many ways could be argued to be the template for the development of this type of approach to music. Essentially, “In C” is a series of 53 short musical phrases which are repeated by each individual player as often as they like, at any tempo or in any particular order. The piece itself develops organically allowing each participant the freedom to improvise within the given margins. The performance this evening which was built up of flute, pan pipe, keyboards, saxophones, clarinet, electric violin and cello, percussion, guitar, bass guitar and pedal steel guitar, perfectly illustrated how, through an almost telepathic sense of the occasion, Riley’s piece could simultaneously hold onto the attention of the audience whilst transporting them on a journey through the network of developing phrases.
2009 was the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, and to help recognise this occasion Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum in London, suggested the idea of producing a live version of Al Reinert’s film “For All Mankind”. The film in essence is compiled from archive footage of the Apollo missions, and was originally sound tracked by Brian Eno, his brother Roger and guitarist Daniel Lanois. The subtle blend of ambient sound scapes and pedal steel guitar was inspired by the knowledge that many of the astronauts took recordings of country music with them for recreation on the space missions. Woojun Lee was, apparently, personally selected by Brian Eno to transcribe the original soundtrack for live performance. This project was premiered in 2009 at the IMAX Cinema at the Science Museum by Icebreaker. The performance this evening, which made up the second part of the programme, by Icebreaker and B J Cole, synchronised with an edited version of the original film, proved just how perfectly the two media can come together to produce an experience of such sublime beauty. The take off sequences in particular were at once tense and heart warming, whilst the images of the astronauts walking on the moon’s surface and repeatedly falling, gave the piece a sense of humanity. The music perfectly reflected the sense of occasion and poignancy of the film and its narrative, and should be regarded as a template itself for how multimedia performances can achieve success. The Howard Assembly Room itself is a space which has both intimacy and a sense of grandeur and is the perfect location for this and, hopefully, future projects of this nature.