1969 marked the first manned mission to the Moon. It was a triumph of science, ambition and group perseverance, making its 50th anniversary this year well worth celebrating. The idea behind Icebreaker: Apollo is to do just that by combining a live performance of Brian Eno’s groundbreaking ambient album Apollo with unedited footage from the lunar landings. Unfortunately, that only starts after the interval.
A memorable and stirring way to commemorate the Moon landings.
Before it, the 12-piece ensemble (with a brief appearance from BJ Cole on the peddle steel guitar) play a selection of pieces from various artists, the first three of which are Anna Meredith’s. They don’t have an easy beauty – the disjointed and chaotic style can at times feel verging on unrefined noise, so it takes an open mind and some serious concentration to find their merit. The finest moments are the simpler ones, featuring just two or three instruments, and giving the musicians a chance to showcase them, as well as their own impressive skill.
The atmospheric respite of Gavin Bryars’ The Archangel Trip followed. In marrying snippets from different genres – electric guitar and soaring woodwind, for instance – it exhibits the best of Icebreaker; one can easily recognise this as the piece which was written especially for them. During it, I discovered the benefit of closing my eyes to listen better, and in doing so, help myself visualise the herculean ship for which the band, and song, are named. There weren’t any visuals to miss out on at that point anyway, as the action on stage was largely concealed by music stands and the video element wasn’t integrated until later. The few interludes of commentary similarly lacked the showmanship, or even audibility, to make their otherwise relevant and interesting content engaging.
When it did begin, it was alongside Epizootics! by the late great Scott Walker, in the form of a collage of video snippets: petals rain into a pair of shoes, a Hawaiian dancer grins through terrible teeth, maggots squirm in a flower bud, a couple Charleston in a time loop and a woman vaults gracefully over a tennis net. This strange and intriguing sequence combine in a dizzying relationship with the song to challenge, provoke and gratify its recipients. Together they are unique multi-media art, as opposed to just music.
The merging of the two components is equally, if not more complete during the Apollo section, when the deliberate, lethargic notes speak of the vastness and unfamiliarity of space. However, the very nature of ambient music is that it is ‘easily ignored’ (a quote from the programme notes), and while the footage contains a few golden moments of the astronauts falling over in the new gravity and posing for photographs by the flag, it too is sometimes boring. There’s a limit to the number of sweeping shots of a distant Earth which an audience can enjoy.
Icebreaker: Apollo is a memorable and stirring way to commemorate the Moon landings. It has striking highlights, but in truth, takes too long to get to them, and features too much else.