In his book The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross suggests: “One possible destination for 21st-century music is a final ‘great fusion’: intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers speaking more or less the same language.” What he didn’t mention was that, since any language needs its interpreters, intelligent, extroverted orchestras might be required to communicate that fusion.
Step up the London Contemporary Orchestra. Its directors — 25-year-old conductor Hugh Brunt and 26-year-old viola player Robert Ames — established the outfit in 2008 with a mission to “think very differently about what people want to listen to.” They themselves listen to everything from Aphex Twin to Brahms, Foals to Xenakis, and it shows in the range of their work. Over the past year they’ve curated concerts featuring pieces by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and turntable-manipulating young composer Shiva Feshareki alongside Olivier Messiaen and John Cage, toured with Belle and Sebastian and recorded a new version of Foals’ Spanish Sahara. “The crossover that happens between popular and more formal music is really natural to us,” says Ames. “We pinpoint where it happens.”
They’re not the only ones. The Heritage Orchestra, which came together in 2004 as the rather large house band of a classical/jazz/electronica club night, can be heard on Spotify performing Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. Meanwhile, the London Sinfonietta has been working with experimental pop band Micachu and the Shapes and jazz musician Matthew Bourne to expand the contemporary classical repertoire, enabling that “great fusion” of which Ross dreams.
In some ways, the boundaries between the three orchestras are blurry — the London Contemporary Orchestra and London Sinfonietta share the same pool of composers; the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Heritage both perform with pop bands. Yet there are also differences between their approaches to pop-classical fusions: they might all be fluent in the musical language, but their translations vary.
You feel those differences as soon as you meet the people in charge of each orchestra. Brunt and Ames are poised and thoughtful, friendly but restrained. The pair met as teenagers, performing with Britain’s National Youth Orchestra. From there, Ames spent six years studying at the Royal Academy of Music while Brunt went to Oxford University. If their backgrounds suggest elitism, the mantra of the London Contemporary Orchestra is accessibility. They seek out “the kind of spaces where you can make an audience feel comfortable,” Brunt says: not traditional concert halls but more rough-and-ready venues such as the Village Underground in east London, or the Old Vic Tunnels, beneath Waterloo Station in central London. The atmosphere here, says Ames, is more like that of “an event or a gig, so you can clap along, or go and have a drink if you don’t want to listen to the piece.”
A typical London Contemporary Orchestra show, says Brunt, is like “a mixtape”: its program for Reverb at the Roundhouse in March next year, for instance, juggles new work by Greenwood and Prokofiev with a dramatic concerto by Vivier, one of Xenakis’ experiments in sound and an electronic breather from Stockhausen in the middle. This suggests a question: when the London Contemporary Orchestra’s musicians are more used to performing the challenging contemporary-classical repertoire, aren’t they bored when it comes to playing pop arrangements? “It uses a different set of skills,” says Ames, tactfully. At the romantic end of the spectrum, players aim to create “a golden, silky-smooth sound — and doing that is really difficult. While rhythmic music is incredibly hard to get in time.” The London Contemporary Orchestra’s leader, violinist Daniel Piori, is more open. For him, the “technical ease” of playing with Belle and Sebastian, say, is as good as a holiday. “Soloists go through this incredibly rigorous training: sometimes we forget that the ultimate purpose of music is entertainment,” he admits. Looking at footage of the London Contemporary Orchestra dancing along to The Boy With the Arab Strap on stage, you can see why Piori, a 25-year-old who started playing violin when he was four, says: “That kind of gig makes you younger.”