Over the last four years Filthy Lucre, the alt-classical brainchild of Cambridge grads Joe Bates and Anthony Friend, has been breaking new ground in the realms of live music. Their events, which move from classical concert to gig to club night, are held together not by genre boundaries but by overarching artistic concepts or themes. Last Friday, Hackney's warehouse venue Shapes, played host to 'Sound Icons' their largest-scale event to date, and the launchpad for their upcoming installation in Somerset House. This 'sound icons' theme referred to the large playable sculptures used in the music of the mystic Romanian composer Horațiu Rădulescu (which in this case took the form of two upturned pianos).
Under Will Cole’s authoritative direction the Filthy Lucre orchestra opened with Grisey’s spectralist classic, Partiels. The group were on top form throughout, building unearthly soundscapes out of the harmonic spectrum of the trombone's opening blast. The evening then continued in a similarly spectralist vein with Rădulescu’s Intimate Rituals, a composition written for solo viola and 'sound icons'. Strummed at the back of the stage with an array of objects by the ‘iconistes’, the upturned pianos provided a tambura-like drone, an overtone wash over which viola player Zhenwei Shi, guided by Rădulescu’s idiosyncratic notation (colour-coded letters and geometric shapes), added his own virtuosic string harmonics. Though one couldn't doubt the conviction behind Shi’s playing, the lack of obvious development over the course of the piece's considerable length would suggest it would have been better suited as a accompaniment to a passive activity like meditation rather than the concentrated listening expected in a concert environment.
Next the Filthy Lucre orchestra changed gear from contemporary classical ensemble to cover band as they tackled Hannah Dilkes’ arrangements of songs by Animal Collective and Björk. Sparse orchestral textures accompanied Kerry Andrew’s intimate close-mic’d vocals, creating an atmosphere that was well-matched to the contemplative mood of the preceding Rădulescu. The covers were followed by the only new composition of the evening: Hearing Colour: Blue to Red Shift by Sharon Gal, an exploration of 'the psychology of colour and the relationship between colour and sound'. As Gal took up position kneeling at the front of the stage, a projector began beaming a Jarman-esque rectangle of blue light onto the wall. Using this light as a guide through the unconducted aleatory score, the orchestra, accompanied by Gal's wordless vocals, then enacted a kind of synaesthetic musical response to the colour displayed on the wall as it moved from an ambient blue, to an abrasive purple, before ending in a flurry of angry red. As the final strains of the orchestra died away, the projector was left again displaying blue, this time split down the middle, like a Rothko, with a streak of black - perhaps hinting at a lost innocence or an irreversible change.
After a short interval the ensemble regrouped for their second batch of indie covers. The crowd were noticeably buoyed up by Samuel Hall's punchy arrangements of Bat for Lashes and Björk. However, the orchestra were unable to carry this energy forward into the final Fly Lotus, Four Tet and Caribou numbers, suffering from slips in ensemble which detracted from the strictly rhythmic character of the electronica they were covering. This did not go unnoticed by the crowd who noticeably began to get restless despite the best efforts of Kerry Andrew to call them to order. This perhaps could have been solved by programming a few more upbeat covers as the event was winding up to its club dance finale.
Unfortunately at this point, like many other non-Hackney dwellers, I had to leave before the DJ sets kicked in and so I can only speculate as to how the evening would have fully panned out. But as I wound my way back to Hackney Wick station I felt satisfied that 'Sound Icons' had given me a good enough glimpse of Filthy Lucre's innovative musical approach. Though the players struggled to pull off the less familiar pop covers towards the end, the works by Grisey and the Gal showcased a group at the top of their game, confidently exploring music at the very fringes of instrumental possibility.
This wasn't a concert entirely without blemish, but then maybe I shouldn't have expected a squeaky clean performance from a group named Filthy Lucre.
If you missed Filthy Lucre, you can catch them again from 2nd-15th November at Somerset House where they'll be presenting their Sound Icons Installation.