- London Contemporary Orchestra
As if on cue, with the first ebbings and flowings of Electric Counterpoint, two trains, one inbound, the other out, appear and disappear alongside the lesser used southern platform of Edge Hill Station. How many passengers are on those trains? A few hundred? A few hundred people on the way to or from Leeds and York who have no idea that they’ve just been soundtracked by guitarist MATS BERKMAN, accompanying himself nine times over with tape loops. This concerto for electric guitar, written for Pat Metheney (and appended to the Kronos Quartet’s Grammy-winning 1987 recording of tonight’s main attraction) is as close to a warhorse as American minimalism gets, but it’s still refreshed by such a locomotive environment and the outdoor soundsystem that magnifies the nuances of Berkmans’ playing: sometimes snappy, sometimes silky, and even descending to a clubworthy bass throb in the third movement.
Why have we gathered here, heads a-bobbin’? Is this a club night, a gig, or a concert? A happening? More importantly, why is American composer STEVE REICH standing out in the cold on a Victorian platform under the heavens on a September night the week before his 80th birthday? Well, two similarly venerable institutions approaching major anniversaries is reason enough (the train station has a century on Reich. It was built 180 years ago, on the first railway in the world, which was just six years old at the time), but it’s also pregnant with the status of Liverpool as a centre for contemporary art – Edge Hill-based collective Metal, for whom each day at the office must sound like an eight-hour performance of Different Trains, have collaborated with the London Contemporary Orchestra to put on this one-off event during our Biennial. Oh, and it’s the premiere of a film by BILL MORRISON and Reich to accompany the performance. As such, it’s a real confluence of talent, not just nationally but transatlantically too.
“This is a piece about place and about trains,” says South Bank Centre boss and METAL founder Judy Kelly OBE (one of the city’s most prolific exports as far as the arts sector is concerned). Trains are nothing without places to go to. It’s been argued that the Eurasian road network, not the Great Wall of China, is the largest artificial structure visible from space. To go one further: it’s the railways – there’s no tarmac between us and Europe. But these are flights of fancy, and trains are fanciful. They enthuse people who know nothing about engineering or telecommunications. Tonight, art and technology meet until they’re one and the same, as those Victorian engineers probably intended. Indeed, the Greek word techni means art, but forms the root of our own technology. With samples of steam trains and the testimonials of holocaust survivors providing the string quartet with their rhythmic material, nothing in this performance has a fixed status. If you’re far enough back in the crowd, you might not be able to tell the difference between the notes played live and those of the pre-recorded strings. Indeed, trains aren’t any one thing either. As carriages, they aren’t fixed in location, use, or nature. They aren’t intrinsically bad or good and have been both, whether transporting the victims of genocide to their deaths or connecting the coasts of a continental nation. They are only as useful or useless as the function we decide for them, like most human art and technology, and Morrison and Reich’s film shows them in both capacities.
By the end, it still isn’t clear what kind of event this was. I have a feeling that, even if there was an answer to that, be it concert, gig, or whatever, it would simply label it, and tell you no more. What this event is, is self-evident. The four LCO players onstage are probably conservatoire-trained musicians, who’ve performed Beethoven for a person waving a stick more times than you’ve had hot dinners. But they’re still gyrating and moving with the music, bedding in the tempo changes with physicality as well as a superior sense of tempo. They move like you’ve seen drummers, DJs, and backing dancers move.
When I arrived, hanging back across the street to lock up my bike, I studied the queue that stretched back towards the top of Smithdown (and, closer to kick off, almost up to Matalan). Passers-by, mostly residents, kept asking what was going on. They would have found out anyway (re: the soundsystem above), but hopefully they won’t have minded an hour of Steve Reich – more than a few of the curious had heard of him. Extending the catchment area across L7, it’s great to have such a huge crowd for a truly Liverpudlian event, imbued with history, but looking toward a future involving the rest of the world. In short, well worth getting off at Edge Hill for.
Stuart Miles O’Hara / @ohasm1