The whole idea of Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble conjures up a romantic vision of the past setting the tone for the future. An idea channelling the energy of Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach – a statement that synthesisers were real musical instruments and not just science fiction B-movie sound FX machines. Looking back through our nostalgic lens, this was a time of great innovation and creativity; but also a time when the new sound of the synthesiser was increasingly seen as a threat to more ‘traditional’ musicians and their acoustic instruments.
Even the great Bob Moog had to intervene saying you had to be a real musician to play one. We’ve moved on. And Moog the company continues to innovate and produce electronic instruments of the highest quality.
Yet the sometimes toxic relationship between the pure and acoustic, and the synthetic and electronic is still in memory, and this was alluded to, tongue firmly in cheek, by Gregory in his opening statements, thanking collaborators BBC NOW and hosts Hoddinott Hall for allowing him to contaminate their space.
Gregory continued on to introduce his Ensemble and their synths of choice – one by one, model number by model number – with each of them, in turn, playing a solo signature riff. This gave us a glimpse into their individual personalities, both the players and the instruments. Those that know, know these machines often have quirks and personalities of their own. This was just as much about them as it was the musicians.
The theme of the performance was the life, the myth, and the legend, Archimedes. Gregory’s compositions interpreting the mathematician’s works started with a progressive palette of arpeggios and sequences synonymous with their chosen instruments. To nod to another early synth pioneer, there was a feeling of Mort Garson’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia – a record originally produced as a promotional product to sell houseplants and furniture.
Prior to the event, there was a friendly quip on Twitter referring to the power consumption of the original and early versions of these synthesisers; perhaps reflecting on an imaginary of the dimming of city lights as an overindulgent Keith Emerson fires up his racks of patchbays, amps and filters. The integrated circuits and processors of their modern counterparts are much more efficient, of course, but as the performance went on, the real power became apparent as conductor Ben Foster played his part, expertly tweaking, manipulating and controlling the dynamics of the evolving, richly harmonic, and melodic landscape of sonic innovation unfolding before us. If there was still any preconceived notion of disharmony between the acoustic and electronic, it was now dismissed.
The polyrhythms and time signatures weaved in and out while the layers of harmonics danced around the room. An almost symbiotic relationship now permeated our time and space. It was commanding when it needed to be, but delicate and subtle in places often transitioning through the intervention of presenter Helen Arney. Delivered entertainingly and with knowledge, and passion, Arney informed the audience through a series of mini-lecture type interludes about the impact Archimedes has had on our lives, our social, and technological evolution. Often sighted was his desire to reach precision and perfection. If he was around today and witnessed this performance, it could safely be assumed he would agree that Gregory et al have made a damn fine attempt to square the circle.
There was much to take in and digest in its medium of fleeting, finite live performance. In a more permanent form, this would make a fitting addition to the BBC4 repertoire enabling us to relive, drill down, and deconstruct the complexities, and often ‘lushness’ of the compositions at our own leisure.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Fri 26 Nov
words ADAM WILLIAMS
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