To infinity and beyond
The moon never ceases to fascinate and inspire. Brian Eno set the story of the 1969 lunar landing to music in his ambient album Apollo, which has been given new lease of life and is coming to the National Concert Hall, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
WE CAN’T get enough of the moon. We gaze at it. We write poems and songs about it. We include it in movies and paintings and myths of all kinds. The fact that human beings have actually landed on our nearest celestial neighbour doesn’t seem to have dimmed our enthusiasm in the slightest; in fact, nearly half a century after Neil Armstrong set his ungainly foot on its surface, the story of our 1960s lunar voyage is still one of our all-time favourite cultural tales.
In the 1980s, Brian Eno set this story to music when he produced his spacey ambient album Apollo. Written as the soundtrack to Al Reinart’s documentary film For All Mankind, it was the musical equivalent of a lunar module. Its dreamy soundscapes and multi-layered guitar lines, concocted entirely in the studio using what was then cutting-edge technology, were never intended for live performance.
A new arrangement by the Korean composer Jun Lee, however, has given Eno’s music a new lease of life. The contemporary British music ensemble Icebreaker has been touring the piece in the UK, complete with Nasa footage on a big screen and the stellar presence of veteran pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole, to rave reviews.
“It was a bit of a departure for us,” says James Poke, who plays flute and pan pipes with Icebreaker. “Normally we’d be associated with playing rather loud, rhythmic music – post-minimalism and so on. Playing an ambient score was a little bit different. But it very much suits our way of playing and our instrumentations. There are a lot of different colours available within the ensemble – Icebreaker is a 12-piece group with keyboards, cellos, saxophones and clarinets as well the core of guitar and bass.”
While some of the music is quietly contemplative, other tracks – especially those that feature country and western-style guitar – are infused with dry wit and humour.
“In our version, the later tracks have a bit more movement – are more like normal ‘songs’,” says Poke.
One of the most abstract movements is called Matta, which Eno has never explained but is probably just “matter” – as in “stuff” and, more recently, “dark”. It was, says Poke, the trickiest for Jun Lee to arrange. “He’s tried to capture the atmosphere of it rather than a literal representation, because it’s really a collection of sounds – there’s hardly any conventional musical notes in it.”
One instrument is blended into another to produce a constantly-changing instrumental texture. “You maybe hear a clarinet, and then, without being aware of it, that sound has turned into the sound of a flute.”
Poke is an unrepentant fan of the much-maligned pan pipes which, he insists, are perfect in the Icebreaker context. “Obviously they’re a bit of a cliche in most circumstances but we don’t use them as pretty, mellifluous instruments. The thing about pan pipes is, it’s a closed pipe: this makes the wave-form closed, and gives it a much harder edge. So the characteristics of the sound are actually quite strange and you get a really sharp attack.”
The pipes are used on just three tracks in the Apollo show, including one – Signals – where the instrument sounds a bit like a morse code. Playing a more central role are those iconic Nasa images, starting with the preparations for the Apollo project. “There’s one point late on where you get pictures of the astronauts falling over on the moon – which usually gets a bit of a laugh from the audience,” Poke says. “But overall there is a feeling of something incredible happening. Maybe even more so now than at the time, because we’re aware now how primitive the set-up was, how little people actually knew, how weak the computing power was.
“There’s a nice quote from one of the astronauts. He was asked: ‘What were your thoughts when the spaceship was blasting off?’ And he replied that the people who made [the Apollo] had put in the lowest bid.” Some things just never change.
Apollo is at the National Concert Hall tomorrow night
Lunar tunes What's the best space song ever?
That would be Bowie’s sublime Space Oddity. And don’t give us that nonsense about it not being – technically – connected to the moon. If it’s lunar titles you’re after, though, here are some of our favourites:
Dancing in the Moonlight –Thin Lizzy; Clair de Lune– Debussy; Dark Side of the Moon– Pink Floyd; Walking on the Moon –The Police; Whole of the Moon– The Waterboys; Song of the Moon– Dvorak; Man on the Moon– REM; Moonlight Sonata– Beethoven; Fly Me To The Moon– Frank Sinatra