Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble Harnessing Retro Technology

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble: Hall One, Kings Place, London 10.5.2013 (GDn)

Squelch, plop, a huge swell out of nothing; the language of the Moog is already well-known to anybody with an interest, so doing something new with this retro technology is quite a challenge. Will Gregory’s approach is to assemble a group of about ten similarly enthusiastic Moogists to perform a mixed concert of new and old works. Gregory himself is an affable compère, and mercifully he spares us the details of the technology onstage, but from his brief introduction it consisted of about half a dozen Moogs of different designs, one or two other early keyboard synthesisers and a bass guitar for good measure.

Hall One at Kings Place is a versatile space, but I’m not sure it was ideal for this concert. The whole point of the Moog is that it can project keyboard lines through the surrounding noises of a rock concert. Presenting the instrument in an acoustic that could easily accommodate the finer delicacies of a spinet, for example, made that quality irrelevant, and brought out a number of acoustical issues that did neither the hall nor the technology any favours. And the sheer number of these instruments on the stage laid bare their many practical problems: the sound of ten highly amplified Moogs tuning up simultaneously is pretty grim.

That said, the quasi-classical atmosphere of the setting was ideal for the repertoire. The first half consisted mainly of popular classics, each Moogified to within an inch of its life. The Moog’s ability to project individual lines made the Renaissance and Baroque selections effective. A Gabrieli Canzona was given fairly reverential treatment, although it was a shame the players didn’t explore the potential for antiphonal Moogs here. Then came Brandenburg Three, a fitting homage to Walter/Wendy Carlos, whose pioneering work had inspired the whole project. Doing the concerto complete was a risky strategy, but having Adrian Utley (of Portishead fame) jamming some crazy electronic noises over the Adagio second movement prevented it from becoming monotonous. One of the most interesting pieces in the first half was the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with Utley playing the cello solo on his mini Moog over an all-Moog accompaniment. The instrument’s round diapason sounds and its wide dynamic range made it almost seem like an ondes martenot. Sadly, the idea was much better than the execution. Utley had his left hand on the gain throughout, but couldn’t quite get the dynamic swells to contour the phrases as precisely as the music needs.  The first half concluded with Bacharach’s South American Getaway, an ambitious piece given the rhythmic accuracy it needed to groove. It seems churlish to complain about issues of ensemble or passage work in a Moog concert, but the sheer number of keyboardists on the stage, often playing in rhythmic unison, did mean that the inevitable, if only occasional, finger slips often stood out.

Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble was founded seven years ago to premiere The Service of Tim Henman, to which the second half of this concert was devoted. I’m assuming the title is intended to sound quasi-liturgical, a reference perhaps to the reverence in which Henman was then held. He isn’t any more, of course, but a sense of nostalgia for the days of Henmania prevented this bizarre work from seeming passé. Henman appears in the work through a film of him on court. Individual shots of him serving, returning, jumping and running are slowed down to the point that the images often seem almost static. They are accompanied by music that is considerably more frenetic. After the various homages in the first half, the musicians return here to their home territory: hard-edged minimalism – did I mention that Graham Fitkin was among the players? – and trancy synth pop  of the kind that made Gregory famous as one half of Goldfrapp. Most of the music (for which no composition credit was given, but I’m guessing it was predominantly by Will Gregory) consisted of funky, squelchy riffs, often on loops, with the players overlaying melodies or repeated treble patterns.

The disjunction between sound and image induced a range of curious emotions. Watching Henman’s actions being satirised by the slow motion photography led occasionally to sympathy for him – a common response to his performances back in the days of his tennis career. And the fact that Henman had been chosen as the subject seemed calculated to increase the sense of English whimsy surrounding the whole piece. But in the quieter sections (movements?) there was a keen sense of poignancy about the music, often surprisingly understated and quite charming in its own way. But those were exceptional moments of calm in an otherwise loud and abrasive score. Interesting as the piece was, it went on far too long – but hey, that’s minimalism for you.

Gavin Dixon