The Night With… Wooden Elephant – review

The Night With… Wooden Elephant, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 8 August 2018


As if emerging to satisfy the daydreams of a weary Generation-X composer, international chamber group Wooden Elephant and their violist-composer Ian Anderson have produced a unique programme of acoustic arrangements for string quintet (doubling percussion) of two era-defining albums:  Björk’s Homogenic and Radiohead’s Kid A.  While these together make for a lengthy concert, the audience remained enraptured throughout:  Anderson’s arrangements are fascinating, consistently imaginative and extremely well written; the brief song-length of pop music helps to maintain concentration without fatigue; and, mainly in Homogenic, the diversity of stylistic reference points is about as fresh as it was in 1997 (by all accounts, as I was busy watching The Simpsons at the time of the album’s release).



It is very common to hear strings in pop arrangements, and increasingly so in large-scale jazz groups, but this concert makes it obvious how different the quality is when the string writing is by a trained composer and string player.   It is a work of translation – from the rich sound palettes of the original albums to the relatively homogenised space of the string quintet – and there were many aural delights: the spiccato shudderings in the opening track ‘Hunter’, the stunning bell sonorities in ‘Alarm Call’, the incessant sul ponticello in ‘Pluto’.  Austrian composer Peter Ablinger is renowned for his work which involves translating one kind of sonic information into another, for instance the speaking voices of the artistic celebrities of yesteryear rendered on a piano or the ticking of a Swiss watch replicated by a string orchestra.  But in these Björk and Radiohead arrangements the stakes are higher.  Hearing Björk’s vocal lines replicated by a cello or violin was the weakest aspect of the concert and made some of us long for the singer herself:  obviously, Björk is irreplaceable within her own music.  What is fascinating in this context is how the pop song form becomes a miniature sonic world that lasts only a few minutes before disappearing forever.   To a contemporary classical composer, despite all the talk about Stockhausen and moment form, this is still a remarkable notion of structure.  In a sense, this concert was a celebration of ‘album-form’, because, translated into another context, this flowing succession of little sonic vistas is something special.

But there is another reason why these arrangements work:  the source albums already contain a shadow of chamber music, especially Homogenic which uses faux-classical music as a generic element.  Anderson’s arrangements are isolating this element and taking it much further, relocating it in the sonic world of contemporary classical so that every signifier of pop music strangely reforms into something quite alien, an act of translation and adaptation akin to Aisha Orazbayeva’s take on Handel or her on-site recordings of Sciarrino but working across genre divisions.  Kid A makes for less interesting arrangements simply because its music is chord- and groove-driven and because there is much less of a gap left by omitting the vocals.

Wooden Elephant brought a lot of energy to the entire performance, each musician with a clearly different stage personality.   One of the biggest challenges to classical-pop crossover is the difference in gestural style – think of string quartets playing pop covers with the swooning body language of the 19th century chamber music.  Body language is without doubt an alienating factor in a lot of classical music, so to push their ambition further, Wooden Elephant could refine this element and find a performance style which fits completely naturally with this hybrid music – a goal which they are already close to achieving.   There was also no need for Homogenic to be split in two halves, making the concert into three sections.  I’m sure everyone could have listened all the way through it, and then through most or all of Kid A, despite being a considerable demand on attention.

This concert is a bold start to the new season of The Night With… and it proves that the series’ vision is stronger than ever.  Attracting diverse, passionate audiences eager for exciting, vivid musical experiences is crucial for concert series today and Matthew Whiteside is setting the bar high.  The Night With… has now established itself as one of the most important events on the musical calendar for those with a curiosity for anything imaginative, exciting and strange.


Upcoming concerts:

James Turnbull – new music for oboe and electronics

Turning the Elements – new music for clarinet and voice

Vocal Juice Ensemble


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