The evening began as it would go on: a surreal mix of the deadly serious and the absurd. As if heralding the opening of some esoteric religious ritual, six figures, clothed in white aprons, filed out onto the stage at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, ringing hand-bells with droning regularity. Accordingly, an awed hush descended. Bizarre, perhaps, but in retrospect what was remarkable about this opening was that it actually wasn’t that remarkable in the context of the evening up to that point. Before this mystical entrance I’d sat for about fifteen minutes staring at a vast, ten foot tall glass tank housing over fifty bells of sizes ranging from large to very large to clock-tower large. The instrument, situated towards the rear of the stage, was the carillion: an object exuding such an aura that it may well have been more at home a few hundred metres away in the Haywood Art Gallery. There, it could stand aloof, singular, and, perhaps most importantly, silent. But I’ll return to that later.
This wasn’t going to be an evening for the non-campanologically inclined, that much was clear. Alongside the carillion was an array of gongs, steel drums, tubular bells, and an orchestral xylophone. But there was also a drum kit and, centre-stage, a table strewn with laptops and electronics. As a venue usually home to contemporary classical performances, such a concoction of electronic and acoustic instruments didn’t seem out of place within the QEH, although the same couldn’t be said for the evening’s performers. Amongst the mysterious collective emerging from the wings was dance music producer Hendrick Weber, his less than supple wrist action with the hand-bell – coupled with a generally awkward demeanour – giving him away as a new-comer not only to the practice of bell-ringing but to the concert hall setting itself.
Just how this long-time proponent of dance music had come to be apron-clad and hand-bell-laden in the Southbank Centre requires some explanation. The last decade has seen Weber’s music under the Pantha Du Prince moniker trace a steady trajectory northwards from hips to head – gradually widening in scope, deepening in texture, and slowing in tempo. Long since having broken from the austere cinctures of minimal techno and house, the German producer’s developmental arc culminated in 2010 with the album Black Noise: an intoxicating symphony of shimmering bells and glockenspiels submerged in the all-encompassing throb of sub-bass. With his latest project, though, Weber seems intent on following this logical progression ad absurdum.
Which brings me to his five accomplices: The Bell Laboratory is a Norwegian group of self-styled bell scientists who have recently collaborated with Weber on the album Elements of Light, released in January this year. Armed with the Laboratory’s considerable arsenal of pitched percussion instruments, Weber appears to be making a final push towards a full-blown fusion of techno with the minimalism of middle- to late-period Steve Reich (think Desert Music, not Drumming). The evening’s performance consisted of a slick, no-nonsense rendition of Elements of Light, followed by an encore of ‘Lay in a Shimmer’ from Black Noise. Yet, despite the performance’s undeniable competence, I couldn’t help thinking that the inclusion of the Laboratory has had the lamentable effect of pushing the Pantha Du Prince project over the edge – from the sublime to the ridiculous.
As I intimated earlier, the inclusion of the carillion into Weber’s music is not only jarringly anachronistic but somewhat musically dissonant. Where the constellations of pitched percussion adorning Black Noise remained cloaked and elusive within the shadowy soundscape, the clanging of the carillion made no attempts to integrate with Weber’s beats. Instead, it brought an almost brazen religiosity to the evening’s proceedings, conjuring a faintly comical atmosphere that was only reinforced by those aprons – more Rick Wakeman than esoteric scientist. The whole affair was made yet more baffling by the sheer po-faced sincerity of the performance; with the six musicians failing to acknowledge each other let alone the audience, the lofty space of the QEH was imbued with the stuffy atmosphere of the sternest of classical performances. All of which left me with the dilemma of trying to work out just what stance to adopt towards the performance: was all this really to be taken at face value?
Yet, perhaps this concern was merely symptomatic of a more fundamental issue. Perhaps the difficulty of finding a suitable way to receive the music was indicative of the impossibility of working out exactly what this performance was supposed to be. Is not the possibility of such a seamless marriage of dance music and contemporary composition mere fantasy? No matter how grand the vision, no matter how baroque the instrumentation, Weber’s music still has its roots in a genre that remains bound to the logic of the dance-floor. And the programming of such a project in a concert hall setting, with its accompanying preclusion of bodily interaction with the music, only served to highlight the deficiencies of his attempted hybrid. Pantha Du Prince’s music remains structured and contained by the rigidity of four-to-the-floor beats, additive textures, and repeating melodic motifs – all features that yearn for spontaneous physical reaction. Some of those around me at the QEH appeared to find solace in the age-old combination of head-nod and foot-tap, but I couldn’t help feeling distinctly dissatisfied by this proposed solution.