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
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

The London Contemporary Orchestra. Photograph: Jane Stockdale.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear