As part of the Southbank Centre’s year-long retrospective festival The Rest Is Noise, the BBC Concert Orchestra assembled on Saturday 30 November 2013 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall to perform 19 eighties : the rhythm of a decade. The program boasted a sundry of diverse compositions, including a highly anticipated rendition of John Tavener’s The Lamb as well as Steve Martland’s Re-Mix. The evening was set to focus primarily on a side of the eighties that is perhaps less well remembered in the press and even in the public consciousness, a side that had forgotten the pop culture trivialities of shoulder pads, Bros and Teddy Ruxpin. With a 76-piece orchestra and the great conductor Richard Balcombe at the helm, there was a delightful feeling of expectation – rows of eager, beaming faces – as presenter Paul Morley approached the stage.
The event was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and so the audience had all been shuffled to their seats rather promptly before the show began. Although the venue was by no means full, we were instructed to applaud with gusto for the sake of the aforementioned radio program. This was not going to be a problem, as the opening number, Andrew Poppy’s 32 Frames for Orchestra made for a bounding introduction. It was attention grabbing in a way that cast aside all the cliched reference points one associates with the eighties as a consequence of the distribution channels that took off during that era. Once Poppy’s spellbinding number came to a close, it was a real treat to see him appear onstage to play piano on Almost the Same Shame. On its world premiere, the arrangement saw Poppy as a daring and agile composer, introducing the string section with a sequence that was delicate, complicated and wonderfully delivered – one of those rare moments that fully occupies the mind and allows for a visceral connection with the music.
Respects were of course paid to John Tavener, who tragically passed away earlier in November. They came in the context of his 1982 composition The Lamb, which was written for the composer’s nephew. It was a sensational rendering that challenged Poppy’s idea of the hybrid musician, where he had spoken of the fusion of influences spanning other genres. Instead of playing into that notion and working within a pattern of behaviors that might have resembled a trend in the decade at hand, Tavener’s piece made an incredibly bold statement through its stark minimalism and unparalleled serenity, for which his work is typically admired and cherished. There then followed an abrupt transition, which saw Anne Dudley – who worked as one of the original lineup from Art Of Noise alongside Morley – arrange a version of Into Battle. Art Of Noise very much belonged to the 1980s and the eclecticism that Poppy was intrigued by. Indeed, the experimental British outfit once attempted to examine the latter half of the 20th century by exploring specific rhythms, which were punctuated by the surrounding chapters in history. The live version of Into Battle was a brilliantly executed hodgepodge that excited the crowd by articulating the sharp and pointed tones that make it so much fun to listen to.
That energy continued into the second half, where the late Steve Martland’s work was revisited on Re-Mix. Despite the fewer number of musicians, it proved to be one of the most engaging performances of the evening, invoking ideas that the London composer had about alteration and re-imaginging music over time. His compositions are always so wild and energetic to see live, a reminder of how wide-ranging the 1980s actually were and of how they were home to some hidden gems. Those years weren’t limited to the stereotypes glorified by glossy magazines and VH1, there was some substance to the period and Martland’s music surely embodies some of the finest examples. As the remaining musicians reclaimed their space, Morley joked about the stereotypes those previous works had gone out of their way to demolish. His intention was to introduce Michael Nyman’s Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds, but in his self-assured approach, he inadvertently emphasized how there really is no ‘public memory’ or ‘consciousness’ of the decade, only a consensus based presentation of it. Chasing Sheep… has featured on several TV spots and was sampled by the Pet Shop Boys among others. However, even its rapid pace and distinctive use of piano sounded quite tame on the back of Re-Mix.
As a distinguished critic, Morley is of course highly informed, but for the world premiere of rhythm of a decade, he took his exuberance to new heights. As part of the Art of Noise decade exploration project, there ensued a mash-up of David Bowie, The Specials, New Order and Kate Bush while Morley reeled off a painfully long list of associations in a style that he refereed to as ‘documentary’. It was a thinly veiled act of self-indulgence that almost resulted in a hasty exit. However, the orchestra were flexible in their adaptation of the music that had been thrust upon them, especially the percussion section. But they still sat behind Morley’s mind numbing tirade of book titles, lyrics and movie quotes, which amounted to little more than a kick in the teeth to all that preceded it.
The first half of the show was assuring in that it highlighted some moments within a decade that are not perhaps immediately addressed, while managing to avoid surface level pop-culture references and over emphasizing the importance of Reflex DJ tracklists. The concluding recital, however, was a reminder that this is what children or even adults of the 80s remember the most, and that our recollection is always going to be trumped by the superficial spillage that mirrors the birth of our current consumption habits. But the works of Tavener, Martland and Poppy stood out above all else – they shone through as compositions incarnated on the brink of technological revolution while they touched upon distinctly human responses; appropriations of the unknown, of aesthetic realignment and of new beginnings.