Saturday’s show by Pantha Du Prince was the first concert in the Barbican’s year long Life Rewired season which will explore what it means to be human in a world where technology is changing everything. Future events will focus on subjects such as artificial intelligence, big data, algorithms, virtual reality and IVF but the opening show showed an alternative side to technology, namely how it can help humans imagine forms of communication found within nature.
Conference Of Trees was described as an “audio-visual piece that gives resonance to the communication of trees” and saw Pantha Du Prince (German musician Hendrik Weber) play alongside under four other musicians under a specially installed canopy on the Barbican stage. While Weber started out as a musician primarily focused on techno/electronica he has pursued more in the way of conceptual projects over recent years, most notably his work with The Bell Laboratory.
First up tonight however was London-based multi-instrumentalist Leifur James who played a short support set that proved a good fit for the wider theme. The sound of rustling trees mixes with discreet birdsong before binary synths gradually take over. Later, freely moving piano suggests itself as fluttering musical foliage to go alongside the sturdier trunks and branches depicted by the juddering electronic rhythms.
Conference Of Trees begins in tranquil fashion before heavily interlocked polyrhythms are beaten out on specially created log drums by Bendik Kjelsberg, Hakon Stene and Manuel Chittka while Friedrich Paravinci plays ondes martenot from the back of the stage. The pace becomes more frantic, soon sounding like Steve Reich on speed. It is fluid, verdant, music growing without obstruction. Appropriately, it is a very woody piece, with various unconventional forms of percussion deployed with great effect (marimba, vibraphone and tubular bells are the more familiar instruments on stage tonight). There are times when the musicians commune, and others when they busy themselves individually. The irregularities of the first half of the piece help it stand out and it has an improvised feel in places, avoiding any obvious routes. Weber may have made his name as an electronic musician but this shows how far he has progressed away from those lean, pinpoint earlier sounds.
A 4/4 beat does emerge in the second half way and submerged melodies surface at the end, throwing out some euphoric moments as the music moves closer to the traditional techno realm. It presents itself as some form of musical photosynthesis in how one state is slowly converted into another. While it has a cerebral, heavily textured feel it also undoubtedly, to use popular current parlance, “sparks joy” and gets the Barbican’s Life Rewired season off to a successful, immersive beginning.