There are strong views in both directions on the BBC’s expansion of Prom concerts into genres other than ‘classical’, but it cannot be denied that ‘The Race for Space’ worked well in its late-night slot. An example of an eclectic Radio-6-type Prom, it took the form of a live, 12-movement thematic presentation featuring the multi-media band Public Service Broadcasting, The Multi-Story Orchestra (famed for performances in car parks) and London Contemporary Voices, the latter two directed by Christopher Stark.
As the title suggests, the theme was the ‘friendly’ competition between the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1960s to ‘conquer’ space, and the concert was a clever mash-up of music, voice-over clips from broadcast commentary of the era as well as the voices of astronauts and cosmonauts, together with television footage, charmingly framed by the projection of a sixties-era tv set onto a large screen (the visual elements designed by PSB’s Mr B) The lighting – a series of floods and spots projecting into the audience and onto set – further summoned mood, an LED-spangled model of Sputnik adding to the theme. The movements covered Kennedy’s famous 1962 ‘moon’ speech, the1957 launch of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin’s first human journey into space, the tragic deaths of three astronauts in Apollo 1, the first EVA by Alexei Leonov, Apollo 8’s transit of the moon’s dark side, a tribute to Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, a shout-out to Sergei Korolev (the engineering brains behind the Soviet space programme) and the (so far) final mission to the moon by Apollo 17.
The music itself was essentially minimalist; many of the movements were primarily a series of cluster chords or wandering melodies over a pedal note, occasionally interrupted by ‘novelty’ riffs, such as the strutting big-band huzzah for ‘Gagarin’, for which the brass of the orchestra came to the front of the stage and celebrated (putting one in mind of the cover to Madness’s One Step Beyond) while clips of the Moscow parades for the first man in space were projected behind them. The interest, though, came from rhythm and texture. The introduction and coda sections were almost formless shimmers of strings and wordless chorus, punctuated by short passages form tuned percussion (‘Coda’ also containing the sort of brass fanfares used in Star Trek themes). ‘Sputnik’ (for which PSB joined the forces onstage) began with an insistent deep-bass rhythm, over which the jazz chords, which began lightly on keyboards took on more instrumentation to end in massive guitar-and-brass clusters. A low, sinister double-bass and cello note began ‘Fire in the Cockpit’, and the movement was punctuated by the throb and whoosh of white noise. The strummed, upbeat cool of ‘E.V.A.’ became hushed for Leonov’s exit from Voskhod 2, with a few piano chords underscoring his voice. Silence was also a feature of ‘The Other Side’, the moving staccato rhythm in strings glockenspiel, vibraphone and guitar ceasing as the Albert Hall was plunged into darkness for the dark-side radio blackout. The simple chordal nature of ‘Valentina’ featured the choir drawing out the syllables of her name, and ‘Go!’ (the Apollo 11 triumph) was as big, blowsy and celebratory as you’d want.
For all of its 1960s retro references, though, this was essentially a musical visit to a decade later. It echoed the prog-rock/crossover concept albums of the 1970s (indeed, there were moments in ‘Tomorrow’ that were very close to Oldfield’s Tubular Bells). Slicker, certainly (the co-ordination between band, orchestra, voices and visual material was adroitly handled), but lacking the Grand-Guignol performances and sheer melodic joy of, say, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the virtuosity and musical invention of Yes’s Close to the Edge.