I promised Alasdair that this review would actually be about the music. Not me. I intend to keep that promise, so here we go: It was a crisp Autumnal day when I rose from my slumbers. I stretched, scratched and showered with a blissful languor before heaping little black piles of coffee into the machine and watching as the first blobs hung then fell into the pot like inky raindrops. As I watched the brewer steam, splutters and spew I couldn’t help but think of my childhood, iced with snow and tainted with sadness… Then I drank the coffee, left the house and went to see a gig.
Actually it wasn’t a gig, it was a laser, haze and cello spectacular. But more on that later. The plucky Scot and I had been invited by GetJazzical favourite Peter Gregson to King’s Place in Norwth Landon to see him and friends play as part of a series called ‘Faster than sound‘. This was something of a landmark concert for us as:
- The last time we recorded a show was when we played Gregson and I had wistfully mused that we may one day drink a G & T with him at The Hospital Club. Well, shortly after that we did and, in the manner of Chris Evans, Orson Wells and Boyzone, we peaked and let ourselves slide into a mire of Japanese beer, tattooed waitresses and Jude Law. Have you seen Entourage? Well it’s been a lot like that but with classically trained musicians.
- This was the first time we’d actually seen Peter Gregson play. I know. Top quality journalists, right? In our defense we’d totally heard his records and stuff it’s just we’d seen him holding a beer more often than a cello. Whatever, don’t judge us!
When we met Peter for an informal chat after an extended soundcheck, he told us there was enough technology in the hall to cure all disease, but instead they’d chosen to use it to power a ‘hyper bow’ which enabled a sensual string experience of previously unimaginable aural awesomeness. The interview was epic – he dropped gold like a fleeing robber trying to ditch the evidence, but you’ll have to listen the exclusive GetJazzical interview to hear it all!
But I can say we were promised lasers, lights and fake smoke from a man who’d rigged the stage for Jay Z, U2 and the X Factor. Alasdair was staring hungrily at Peter by this point with what I imagined to be desire, but what turned out was actually just hunger, so we left Peter to be alone with his tea and went to Nando’s.
Chickens later we returned to the undulating glass and stone pebble which is King’s Place and descended into Hall. One. Hall One. Feeling like a Chilean miner as I stared up at sea level I tried to recall what Peter had told me about the concert: It was part of Tod Machover‘s pioneering work at the MIT media lab into hyperinstruments and the application of technology onto music, sort of Spotify meets Stradivarius. With the aid of “a computer under my chair!” Gregson would control not only computer generated accompanying chords but also the the visual effects (with which body part I did not dare to guess).
The usual suspects made up the audience – geeks, old dears and hip young podcasters. The first half was… technically interesting. All the pieces followed roughly the same format: A chap who looked like he’d be more at home inventing Facebook clambered on stage with a doppelganger in tow (no chicks but loads of ponytails if you know what I mean). One would sit in front of a laptop and the other would pick up an instrument. Now I’ll preface what I’m about to write by admitting that I’m a boring traditionalist who likes melody, rhythm and consonance. With that in mind:
It was daring and undoubtably technically brilliant – I heard instruments like the midi drums, piano and cello making sounds that I had never heard before; first a footstep, then a crash, then a bass throb all from playing with tempo and pitch. It was pretty remarkable but I’m not going to pop on headphone and drift away to it anytime soon.
Confused, wary and a little drunk we took seats (not sure if they were ours by this stage) for the second half and waited. The space was in darkness now and a cello lay in the middle of the stage surrounded by a dozen or so black poles making it look like the instrument was imprisoned. Peter was not lit as he took the stage and the audience did not applaud – it actually felt disorienting and tense: A trip into the unknown.
When Peter began I was struck by a number of things: Firstly he is a fine live musician, the performance felt immersive, visceral and immediate – even if it did look in the gloaming like it was Brains from Thunderbirds playing. Secondly the sound produced was incredible in its depth and intensity, there was an ongoing argument between my ears which could hear chords octaves apart, tremble and bass along with erie reverberating pizzicato over the top and my eyes which could see a dude and his cello. It was all very impressive, but that was before Gregson cued up the visuals. Da wow. LEDs lit up and danced up and down the poles in etherial sync – one minute they would glow orange lighting up the stage and then extinguish before floating around like lanterns caught in the wind. The effect was marvelous and augmented the piece with sublime understatement.
It was a confident and genuinely original twenty minutes of music but I’m not going to say it was easy listening. It wasn’t meant to be. Like a designer dresses his catwalk models in clothes that most find outlandish and extreme, the concert was designed to be a showcase of what can be done and to highlight the possibilities inherent in Machover’s Hyperinstrument project. After all, this is the lab that invented the technology behind Guitar Hero. I can’t wait to see what they do next. If you missed the gig, don’t worry you can watch it below: