Photography by Tom D Morgan -

In Conversation With The London Contemporary Orchestra: Where Classical Meets Contemporary

Whether you’ve heard of the London Contemporary Orchestra or not, I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard their music. Most recently featured throughout Radiohead’s ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool, they’ve also performed and recorded with Foals, Beck, Belle & Sebastian and plenty more. In a more experimental, less radio-friendly environment, they have blended light, art and music in a collaboration with Ron Arad, have worked with Boiler Room to perform with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and producer Actress, recorded soundtracks for films including Macbeth, The Master (composed by Greenwood) and Slow West, as well as having performed a live score of the Academy Award-winning film There Will Be Blood, again composed by Greenwood.

The blend of orchestral music, instrumentation and other elements is something we see more and more often across every style of contemporary music today, from pop, to rock, to electronic and many more. While bands like Radiohead and Foals have a fruitful history of collaborating with orchestras, it’s now a much more common occurrence in other styles too, perhaps most interestingly within the realms of electronic and even hip-hop, such as the Hilltop Hoods’ recent album and stadium tour with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, production duo Flight Facilities’ 2015 performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (which is being replicated this year in Sydney), and Berlin producer Pantha Du Prince’s extensive work with The Bell Laboratory, to name a few.

The London Contemporary orchestra first formed in 2008, and I was first introduced to them when I saw them performance at London’s Roundhouse as part of Ron Arad’s Curtain Call in 2011. In that time, they have become one of the most interesting musical organisations around, stretching their hands far, far beyond what one might expect of a typical orchestra. Having worked with artists across countless areas of the musical globe, not to mention having performed in incredibly unique locations like the top of London’s Primrose Hill and a hydraulic power station, they not only bring their incredible talents to the recordings and concerts of others, but seek to challenge and change common perceptions of what an orchestra can do. For instance, during a performance with Greenwood, the crowd were encouraged to act as if they were at a regular gig – not a classical performance, including cheering, moving around and standing up. They went so far as to even encourage audience participation via an interactive mobile phone app.

I was honoured to speak to LCO co-artistic directors, Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt about the marriage of electronic and orchestral instrumentation both live and on record, some of their many thrilling experiences with and the challenges and differences involved in working with an orchestra in a remarkably cutting-edge, modern environment.

How did the LCO first become involved in electronic and rock? What attracted you to that as opposed to typical orchestral work?

Hugh Brunt: The programming of our first season, in 2008, was deliberately eclectic. We opened with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Scorched – a series of reconceptions of jazz guitarist John Scofield’s compositions – written for jazz trio and large orchestra. That season also featured Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver (which features heavily in his score to There Will Be Blood) programmed alongside pieces by Xenakis, Messiaen and a newly-commissioned work by Emily Hall.

Our first direct collaboration was with electronic duo Matmos at Village Underground, Hackney in 2009. Soon after we toured with Belle & Sebastian, and performed Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark at the historic Roundhouse in Camden, part of a festival overseen by the Zappa family to mark what would have been Zappa’s 75th birthday.

Then Robert and I just started exploring and seeking out interesting collaborations across any genre – it didn’t matter if it was indie rock, ambient electronica, techno that you can’t dance to, etc. Just great, engaging music – sometimes complex, sometimes simple. That’s how we’ve ended up working with artists like Foals, Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire), Actress, William Basinski and Beck.

With Jonny Greenwood at Best Kept Secret Festival. Image: Supplied

With Jonny Greenwood at Best Kept Secret Festival. Image: Supplied

Do you look for anything in particular when considering a collaboration of this kind?

Robert Ames: Really it’s just the quality of the music. Jonny just writes really incredible music, so we recorded the soundtrack to The Master – that’s how the relationship started – and it just carried on with him from there. Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, he’s a classically trained musician and writes beautiful music as well. The relationship with Foals, they approached us to have strings on one of their albums (Holy Fire). There’s no complex formula, it’s just a feeling, really, when the collaboration feels right.

Most of these are live performances. Apart from soundtracks, the main recorded collaborations have been with Foals and now Radiohead. What are the main challenges when recording as opposed to playing live?

RA: It’s a different challenge. When you’re doing a live performance, for me, live performance is always more tough because you do it once and it’s gone. Obviously with recording you’re in a more controlled environment, but you’re still looking to get the freshest performance of that recording. So one of the biggest challenges is to try and keep it as fresh as possible, even when you’re doing it for the third or fourth time to get it really perfect.

So is there anything special you do to keep it fresh? Or do you often use first takes?

RA: Yeah, a lot of the time it works out the first or second time *laughs* not to blow our own trumpet, but we’ve got a great group of musicians, they’re really interesting, so I think we sound quite fresh. It’s a young group, 25-30 years old, and a lot of the musicians are doing their own stuff: we’ve got improvisers, composers, people creating their own electronic music as well.

And what are the most exiting aspects of putting it to record, like adding production values and effects?  

RA: The people we’ve collaborated with are quite open to working with us, so a lot of the time musicians will give examples of something that could be slightly different or something could work better, just to mix it up. Sometimes we’ll workshop different kind of sounds and effects with those artists. So the project we did with Actress recently at the Barbican, we spent a long run up period with him working with individual musicians and workshopping different sound effects on the instruments. It’s so nice to hear that palette of colours being used in different ways.

How involved are you within the composition process of each project, or is it more strictly on the recording side?

RA: It’s really different for each one. Holy Fire, for example, pretty much all the music was already down on paper already, arranged by Hugh, who was also conducting. But he would take on ideas on how to slightly change the sound, in dialogue with the band during the sessions, so it became a more fluid process. Yannis [Philippakis, Foals frontman] would listen to a take, he’d have some fresh input and we’d keep on working, so it would adapt as we went.

HB: With Jonny Greenwood, all the material comes from him, but we’ve been fortunate to work with him closely in workshop scenarios – just a small group of seven string players and a pianist, and him on ondes Martonet and guitar. He’s fascinated by drawing new colours and timbres from these instruments, and equally sensitive to the personalities – interested in the characters, the dynamic of the ensemble, not just the instruments the players are holding. We’ve ended up performing eight, maybe nine, new works by Jonny written for the group over the past couple of years, and toured to some amazing cities including Moscow, Geneva, Budapest and festivals in the Netherlands and Poland.

When performing live with these collaborators, what are the main considerations that are different to a typical orchestral performance?

RA: A typical orchestral performance would be planned out months in advance. The Curtain Call concert that’s coming up [with Ron Arad], we already have a really clear idea of exactly what pieces we’re going to play, exactly when we’re rehearsing. With Jonny it was really fun, we treated it much more like how a band would have a set list that would change for very concert. We’d have a pool that we’d choose what to play from and we’d finalise it just before we went on stage. We’d get a vibe from the spaces we were playing in and we’d tailor the music accordingly to what we thought the audience was gonna be like, how much energy would be in the room. So we’d play at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest, which is a really traditional, amazing massive concert hall, and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station for example, which is a really raw space with the audience standing up, and we played The Roundhouse with the audience surrounding us, so we tailored the program to fit the situation. 

What’s an example of what you would tailor, say to the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station but not the Roundhouse?

RA: The Wapping Station was the first one that we did. It’s not a concert venue, it literally was a hydraulic power station and after that it was used as an art space. There were two large spaces, so we started off the concert in one space – that was just acoustic string stuff, and then we moved everybody into another space that was really cavernous, and we chose pieces of music that would specifically suit that acoustic. In Budapest, we really enjoyed playing music that could really test people’s listening, test people’s patience, so we weren’t so frightened about playing really slow music that took time to reveal itself. But when we were in Moscow we were in a mega club called Yotaspace that could take a couple of thousand people, so we were playing shorter, faster pieces with more energy. 

Is it challenging or more exciting to have a set list that changes, coming from that much more planned out orchestral background?

HB: It’s a bit of both. The way in which we respond to (and are led by) the space is key, so this means that we tend to rehearse most, if not all, the material to see what’s speaking well with the acoustics, look at the trajectory of the programme, and draw up the setlist accordingly just before the show. It can be a much freer way of working.

RA: And we come from a world where everything is practised and rehearsed and refined, almost to the point where you can take it so far that it loses some energy. But I think we’ve got to the point now where we relish that challenge, we enjoy things when they’re fresh. The Barbican show with Actress, we were still refining a lot of the elements in the dress rehearsal itself. It just worked really well, it had a special kind of energy.

I’m particularly interested in the work you’ve done with electronic music – the Radiohead album, as well as these Boiler Room collaborations with Actress and Jonny Greenwood. How does it work? Where you start when you have to bring such different forms of instrumentation together?

HB: With Actress, it started with a series of workshops, out of which we spun the arrangements, scored for a chamber line-up of four strings, clarinet, prepared piano, percussion and harp. We were looking to realise as close as possible the timbres and colours of Actress’ electronics through acoustic means; something of a physicalisation of those synthesised sounds. That involved utilising various accessories: plastic bags; keys; Blu-Tack (to dampen the piano’s upper strings); milk frothers. There was also subtle manipulation of the acoustic sounds, live on stage with the electronics. For us it was a really positive example of how these kinds of collaborations can work – all about enjoying and celebrating the ambiguity of sound colour that sits between electronic and acoustic spaces.

RA: Another example is we’ve got a show coming up called DEEP∞MINIMALISM, where we’re playing a piece by Daphne Oram, who set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She wrote this piece years and years and years ago, probably one of the earliest examples of a piece of music for orchestra and electronics. It’s so old in fact that it’s for orchestra and vinyl. DJ/ turntablist Shiva Feshareki will be manipulating vinyl live on stage from recordings of the piece that we’ve previously done of the orchestra. So we’re recording the piece in a dry acoustic and also in a wet acoustic. She’ll have the wet acoustic recording on one vinyl and the dry acoustic on one vinyl, and she’s going to be live manipulating that with the orchestra playing live, acoustically. So that’s just one super early example of how it could be done.

And when you put that to record, are there any particular challenges you face with marrying electronic and orchestral sounds?

RA: A lot of the time we end up working with strings and electronics, it just seems to be a really happy marriage. When we were playing with Jonny, it was guitar and strings, and a lot of the time he was playing the ondes Martenot, a really funky electronic instrument that you can do vibrato on. It sounds a lot like a human voice, you can do a vibrato on it like you would a string instrument.

You’re also working on a performance of In C with Terry Riley and you worked with him last year too. It’s one of those pieces that’s so influential, but also so interesting and transformable, depending on who’s working on it. What’s it like to have worked on this with Riley himself?

RA: Last year we did a piece called Bell Station III, a brand new piece that he wrote with a really funky line up of instruments. He used a toy piano and children’s choir, all sorts of stuff. That was a fairly straightforward piece of music, but it was just amazing to be on a stage with him, listening to him improvise and freak out on synths. For In C, it’s him and his son playing guitar, but we haven’t started the process with him yet. I can’t tell you too much because I’m not too sure! He’s a super open guy so I imagine it’s going to be a really open rehearsal process.

Do you have a favourite moment on the Radiohead album?

RA: Yeah, recording Burn The Witch was my favourite bit. It’s a great, great tune and what Jonny does orchestrally, and with the strings, is just a really amazing sound. It’s not a sound you can put to anything else. It’s his and Radiohead’s.

HB: I love the production and engineering (by Nigel Godrich and Sam Petts-Davies) particularly, the strings in Glass Eyes is beautiful – you hear this amazing fluid, fully dimensional quality in the sound.

Feature image: With Actress at The Barbican. Image: Tom D Morgan