A concrete epiphany from the Multi-Story Orchestra

This concert in a Peckham car park offered an unusual sonic experience.

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Yet again, the Prom of the season was broadcast from a car park in South East London (26 August, 3pm). “This is going to be a performance of thrilling intensity,” promised Tom Service, who’d been listening in on rehearsals of John Adams’s three-movement, Mahler-ishly shattering Harmonielehre, played by the Multi-Story Orchestra.

In Peckham, the venue was so rammed that the orchestra was sitting almost amongst the audience, the sounds of the street rising loud from below, even though the concert was happening on a floor near the very roof of the building. My sister was one of the orchestra’s violinists, and she said that when the time came to start, you just picked up your bow and immediately felt the music in your blood. It was something to do with the heat of the afternoon and the low ceiling of the space and the smell of meat and bread being sold in the shops beneath, and the fact that people were crying – players and audience – rattled by each flinch and pulse of the opening surge of E chords. These had been inspired in Adams by the sight of a gigantic tanker in San Francisco Bay, and some of the rest of the piece came from a dream about his young daughter flying through the cosmos on the back of a medieval theologian.

“I could feel my belly fat wobbling,” texted my sister later, still experiencing the near-neuralgic reverberations that had been concentrated and amplified to such a degree that the car park had acted as one immense concrete speaker flinging sound across the city. What exactly had she been doing on her instrument? “Slow high tunes with precise bow control. Solid rhythmic quavers crossing all the strings. Harmonics, fast tremolo, glissandos…”

Occasionally, we heard the cry of nearby trains hurtling past, “casting our applause into silence” as Service gasped during his radio commentary. He sounded increasingly like someone experiencing great love for life. When he interviewed members of a local youth choir, also singing on the programme, one of them – 12 years old perhaps – said that the afternoon had made him want to rise up and think. Somebody should print that on a T-shirt.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire