Concerto for Voice and Machinery II



Reflections on the re-enactment in London


London ICA

WHEN MY review of Concerto for Voice and Machinery appeared a week after the event in 1984 it did so as full-page feature in Sounds, complete with Steve Pyke's dramatic photos under the heading ‘Einsturzende Neubaten Demolish London’s ICA’. Wrong on both counts and with an incorrect spelling of ‘Neubauten’, the heading may have contributed to the myth that grew up around this night, such errors still being repeated 23 years on, as in Helen Sumpter’s article on art re-enactments in Time Out London (March 14-20, 2007): the spelling mistake in a photo caption and the ‘Neubauten gig’ myth reiterated in the text.

My impression of the original was that it was an extraordinary event that grew out of particular circumstances in a particular place at particular time, aided by chaos, opportunism and a lot of adrenalin in both performers and audience. Yet not only was it not a Einsturzende Neubauten performance, it was nothing like a Einsturzende Neubauten performance, despite several members of that band being on stage. It did, however, take one aspect of Neubauten, the use of industrial tools to make ‘music’, to its ultimate expression, complete with the demolition of a piano and with it all the symbolism that an attack on such an instrument carries.

The fact that the ICA was not demolished did not really matter, the point was it felt like it could have been. Similarly, that the much fabled drilling through the floor to reach tunnels running to Buckingham Palace, the seat of British monarchy, actually left no more than a scratch on a temporary floor, did not mean that the intent was lacking.

I hoped to reflect the intensity and energy of the night in my review. It should also be remembered that many of us in January 1984 expected the world to end fairly soon, or at least that a nuclear Armageddon between the superpowers would have an equivalent effect. It was a view shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the winders of the Doomsday Clock and it was their prognosis of the new year that introduced the pamphlet handed out at the re-enactment (see below).

The Concerto, with all its flying glass, showers of sparks, and industrial noise at dangerous volume, seemed the perfect soundtrack to the impending apocalypse. It was this sense of an epoch-defining moment that inspired my ‘best gig since the Crucifixion’ comment, which the ICA used in the marketing of the re-enactment and which may, in its original form, have added to the myth that developed around the night.

I calmed down fairly quickly, however, and while my view of the night as a unique and thrilling experience did not change, it was increasingly difficult to see the Concerto as a soundtrack for the end of the world simply because the world had not ended and life, and even the ICA, continued much as before. I was unaware of the escalating fame of the Concerto until 2004 when I read a comment by Alexis Petridis, music critic of the Guardian newspaper, which repeated the usual errors and compelled me to send a corrective reply which the paper published.

When, having read my review of the original, the artist Jo Mitchell first contacted me about her 2007 re-enactment, I thought the idea was pointless but very soon realised that the intention was not to create a tribute to the original, or to the myth grown around it, but to allow the re-enactment to focus the thoughts of interested parties on what really happened on that night in 1984, and on the whys and wherefores of how ‘myths’ come into being and evolve a life of their own, often with negligible connection to the actuality of the original.

As luck would have it, the re-enactment coincided with my being in the final year of a history degree at Kingston University and this twist of fate enabled me to assist in minor way with the re-enactment as part of my degree, the intention being to bring the ideas and methods of the historian to bear on the work of an artist, with the bonus for Jo that she got free labour and persistent reminders on the fallibility of memory and the unreality of myth.

My contribution to the re-enactment was soliciting recollections from those who were at the original, whether as performers, audience members or in some other capacity, such as ICA staff. The response was interestingly mixed, some memories were contradictory, most sang the night’s praises, a few were fairly negative, all were welcome however and served to illustrate the gaps between reality, memory and myth. These recollections, together with other contributions, were included a pamphlet handed out on entry to the auditorium on the night of the re-enactment. I would like to have done more with this pamphlet but it was beyond my remit to do so, not to mention beyond the ICA budget.

At the re-enactment, I spent the first five minutes or so hating it, thinking the whole thing had been a waste of time as it had none of the intensity of the original and, apart from anything else, it was remarkably quiet (despite the earplugs being offered at the door). But once I adjusted to the idea that I was watching a re-enactment, not a repeat, the whole thing became enjoyable in a manner which I’ve still not worked out. Blixa Bargeld apparently commented on hearing of the planned re-enactment that he found the idea ‘charming’, and the re-enactment was, for me, actually quite charming, though others would experience it in many different ways.

There were and are those who query the very notion of such a re-enactment but I for one, having become accustomed to the idea and thought about its purpose, was pleased that it took place and especially pleased at having the opportunity to be involved in it, enjoying the unique position of having covered the original as a music journalist and for the re-enactment being able put to into practice some of the things I’ve learned from studying the methods of historians on a project being presented as art.

In contrast to my review of the original, these reflections on the re-enactment are sober, simple and hopefully to the point, partly to avoid contributing to another myth (!), but mainly because so much written about the original and about the re-enactment serves to confuse more than to clarify.

Also, since I feel a bit responsible for the many years of rumour and conjecture, I’d like to take the opportunity to declare this the Final Word on the matter!

(That is, until there are some more words, obviously.)


© mick sinclair

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