Whenever the key parts of a sentence are the words “Brian Eno” and “new music ensemble,” I cringe a little. Usually, the sentence looks something like this – “New music ensemble X gives a whirlwind rendition of Eno’s masterwork Y” – and no matter what Eno album it is, it’s called a “masterwork” and the rendition is always described as being “a whirlwind performance” or “captivating” or some other adjective that doesn’t actually describe to the reader anything about the musical material or the ensemble. However, Icebreaker’s recording of Apollo with BJ Cole is a prime example of when Eno’s work is not only performed correctly, but is also able to stand on its own as a great piece played by a fine ensemble.
The original Apollo story begins in 1983, when Eno was asked by director Al Reinert to score a silent film. The film, initially titled Apollo was to be made up of entirely of stock footage of the missions and Eno’s score with no other dialogue. The film would finally see release in 1989 as For All Mankind, more of a standard documentary than Reinert’s initial art house film. While the released version only used portions of Eno’s intended score, Eno released his original contributions as the album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.
Apollo was standard Eno fare for the time. Released between Ambient 4 and More Music for Films, it contains several Eno trademarks – electronically treated guitars, synth pads and the usual tricks with tape echo and delay he’d been experimenting since his days with Robert Fripp. On hand was also frequent Eno collaborator, Daniel Lanois, who would add pedal steel guitar to a few tracks, as was his brother Roger Eno, who shares a composition credits with Brian and Lanois.
Icebreaker starts by picking up where Eno left off some 30 years ago. In the liner notes provided, James Poke discusses how Icebreaker collaborated with London’s Science Museum to produce live performances of Apollo which would accompany silent films of the Apollo missions – going back to Reinert’s original idea of only having the images and the score. Having not been in England when these performances happened, I can’t speak to how successful they were.
Based on the recordings, the performances should’ve been wildly successful for a variety of reasons. What comes to mind first is Icebreaker’s treatment of the material. It’s hard to take any album not composed in the typical classical idiom and fit it to the new music ensemble mold. Furthermore, it’s hard to do any performances of it convincingly. But what Icebreaker brings to the table other than amplification (which is by no means a criticism) is a deep knowledge of the work that comes through in the performances. This isn’t some self-indulgent group of players riffing on some Eno motifs – this is a living, breathing ensemble interpreting the work.
The individual moments are hard to explain, but you can hear it. You can hear them in “An Ending (Ascent) I” or “Deep Blue Day,” these moments that sound clear and inviting and so dang good that it makes you forget all about that Eno guy. Likewise, there are moments that are so tense it’ll have you on the edge of your seat for the entire track. The fact that Icebreaker are able to wrestle with tension and never let up like this with a track like “Matta” is astounding. And they do it all without it ever seeming cheesy or like they’re playing it up. What Icebreaker does is give the album a new voice that’s no longer restricted to what was created in a studio some 30 years ago.
Icebreaker had to face an interesting challenge. How would they interpret a score that consisted mainly of samples from a DX-7 and tape delay with acoustic and electric instruments? Enter composer Woojun Lee, who was chosen by Eno to score and arrange the original album for Icebreaker. While Icebreaker’s performances are stunning, it really is Lee’s interpretation of the recording that makes this performance so successful.
It seems that for every one instance when a group like Icebreaker takes a piece likes Apollo and does something amazing with it, there has to be three or four groups who attempt this and falter miserably. But why is this the case? Is it the knowledge of the material? Is it the skill of the players? Is it the technical aspect of the recording? And how are listeners supposed to react to the oversaturation of pieces like this being performed by new ensembles? If every recording sounded as great as this one, it wouldn’t be an issue. But until then, the best thing that can happen is for listeners to keep taking risks on albums like this and hopefully they can get something out of it and be reminded of why they listen in the first place.
Icebreaker and BJ Cole, Apollo (Cantaloupe Music, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon