The London Contemporary Orchestra's Imagined Occasions: Not as scary as you might think

In a world of built-in obsolescence, everchanging fashions and even faster-changing technology, the arts might just be the last field in which age and experience have increased their value. Audiences will pay more now to see greats on their way out – Plác

The London Contemporary Orchestra.
The London Contemporary Orchestra. Photograph: Jane Stockdale.

The London Contemporary Orchestra
Imagined Occasions

In a world of built-in obsolescence, everchanging fashions and even faster-changing technology, the arts might just be the last field in which age and experience have increased their value. Audiences will pay more now to see greats on their way out – Plácido Domingo, Ian McKellen, the Rolling Stones – than those on their way up. So it’s something of a surprise to meet a classical group with no grand plans for the future.

“We have given real thought to what happens if we’re still going in ten or 15 years’ time,” says Hugh Brunt, the twenty something artistic co-director of the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO). “When we get to 35 or 40, we may have to sack ourselves and find other artists and directors to take things forward.” He isn’t joking – it’s a mark of his seriousness, his faith in an ensemble whose raison d’être is staying relevant, that he would walk away from the group that he and the violist Robert Ames have built up from scratch.

In the five years since its beginnings as a one-off project, the LCO has created a cool but credible niche for itself. Combining pop collaborations and film soundtracks with avant-garde art music performances, in an increasingly polarised field the ensemble is forcing the Janus faces of the contemporary music scene to look one another in the eye.   

Brunt’s and Ames’s orchestra is an evershifting group that can equally comprise a quartet of soloists as it can 80 musicians. It has worked with artists such as Foals, Belle & Sebastian and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood but also has ambitions to stage Karlheinz Stockhausen’s experimental chamber music behemoth Klang – a project beyond the fantasies even of the directors of the Stockhausen Foundation.

For the orchestra’s fifth anniversary, it is pushing the boundaries still further, staging a triptych of bold, new, site-specific concerts entitled Imagined Occasions that may startle even its staunchest regulars. Locations range from the top of Primrose Hill at sunset to an abandoned Tube station.

“The producer Helen Scarlett O’Neill introduced us to Søren Kierkegaard’s Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, which gave us a sense of trajectory and broad thematic development for the series,” Brunt explains. “Kierkegaard meditates on three episodes: a confession, a wedding and a scene at a graveside. In a simplified form, our three concerts follow this journey, moving from death to life in the first, pausing at the graveside in the second and then pondering the afterlife in the third.”

The music of the Canadian 20th-century composer Claude Vivier – which Brunt describes as “very direct and heart-on-sleeve” – is the continuous thread through the concerts. His “Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele?” (“Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”), left unfinished after Vivier’s murder by a teenage male prostitute, forms the centrepiece for the opener. A musico- dramatic monologue, it describes with terrifying prescience a journey on the Paris Métro in which the narrator becomes suddenly obsessed with a young man. The disused Aldwych Station will be the perfect setting for the LCO’s performance.

“By creating a physical narrative and context, we hope that we’ll allow the audience to engage more closely with the music than they might be able to in a concert hall,” Brunt tells me. “Here, the performance will start off outside the station at a newsstand where people will collect a newspaper that is their programme. They will then have their train tickets checked and continue into the ticket hall, where they’ll find themselves among the hustle and bustle of commuters – as though we have reopened the station. This is where sounds first attract the audience and they’ll be drawn down the 100-odd steps to the platform by the sounds of Philippe Manoury’s “Inharmonies” from below. It’s almost as if they become the spirits of past commuters.”           

The actual performances of the Vivier and the rest of the concert (which includes a new commission by Gregor Riddell written for the space) will take place on the train tracks, with audience members then retracing their steps to a now deserted ticket hall. It’s an ambiguous journey that will begin again in August at the top of Primrose Hill, where the LCO will perform Vivier’s Zipangu at sunset, before walking their audience down to the Roundhouse (to a specially commissioned musical soundtrack) for four hours of immersive, multimedia Stockhausen. Then, in October, the action relocates to Bethnal Green’s Oval Space, where the audience will move between derelict buildings around the site, to round off the process with a vivid experience of musical fragmentation and decay.

“It’s not as scary as you think” might as well be the subtitle to all performances of contemporary art music, so desperate are performers to reassure their audiences with promises of accessibility and reinvention. The London Contemporary Orchestra is young and hip and its performances are definitely not as scary as you might think – they are scarier and all the more exhilarating for it. Catch one while you still can: they may not be around for much longer.

The London Contemporary Orchestra’s “Imagined Occasions” performances are on 24 May, 22 August and 3 October at various locations in London