Other Worlds

”Other Worlds’
London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir
Robert Ames, conductor
Barbican 31 October 2018

Giacinto Scelsi: Uaxuctum
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

It was an achievement that this concert took place at all. Giacinto Scelsi’s Uaxuctum is one of the most complicated orchestral works to perform. Although composed in 1969, nobody attempted to perform in until 1987. This was its UK premiere. The score includes four amplified solo singers and a chorus singing the most complex microtonal music in up to twelve parts. The large orchestra includes a solo ondes-martenot, vibraphone, clarinets, horns, trumpets, trombones, bass and double bass tubas, and timpani. A battery of other percussionists play instruments such as a two-hundred litre. The subtitle of Uaxuctum is ‘The Legend of the Maya City, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons’, and the music evokes that atmosphere of despair that led to the apparent self-destruction, around 900 CE, of this Mayan city (in what is now Guatemala) after a few centuries of varying fortunes since their conquest in the 4th century, . Its five movements move from evocative mysticism to violent outbursts in an arch form, the final movement reflective of the first. It last just over 20 minutes. 

Given the nature of the piece, its comparatively short length, the fact that it was the UK premiere, and the extraordinary amount of work that must have gone into its preparation, I would have liked a programme built around a repeat performance, balanced, perhaps, by something a little less challenging for audience and performances. But, instead of that, the interval was followed by the 45-minute Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, composed in 2014 and reflecting a similar story of devastation and destruction, but this time of our own seas. Inspired by a quotation from John Cage: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean” Become Ocean was described by Alex Ross of The New Yorker “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”.

The orchestra is divided into 3 separated groups: woodwind, brass, and piano and strings, all three with their own percussion group. Each group plays its own slow sequence of complex sounds, rising at intervals to crescendos that only coincide with the other two groups on three occasions. The spacing of the groups across a wide stage gives a three-dimensional effect. There are key parts for the piano and two marimba/vibraphone players of who play throughout. The structural complexity is such that Alex Ross prepared a visual aid to explain how the various groups interweaved. it is in the form of a palindrome, from the central climax the music is played in reverse. John Luther Adams original wanted coloured lighting to represent each of the three orchestral groups, but this only lasted for the first two performances.

Perhaps it was that short-lived scheme that led to the most curious aspect of this performance, the addition of “visuals that are automatically generated using an artificial intelligence algorithm in response to live music with aesthetics inspired by nature”. Bizarrely, this involved hiding the entire orchestra behind a screen with very limited visibility, a real shame, particularly given the complexity of both pieces and the interesting range of instruments used. Projections onto the screen covered the entire area, making the already obscured orchestra even less visible. I don’t have a problem with adding visuals to classical music, but I really didn’t see the need for this addition to an already complex concert. But if they had to project images, I don’t see why they couldn’t have projected them above the orchestra, leaving the players entirely visible to the audience. For those who had come to hear rarely performed music, this distracted from the experience. The visuals were provided by Universal Assembly Unit art direction, Artrendex Artificial intelligence. 

Robert Ames and London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir © Mark Allan | BarbicanPhoto: Mark Allan/Barbican