Imagined Occasions: London Contemporary Orchestra celebrates its 5th birthday


I don’t recall what I did for my fifth birthday but I certainly will remember the London Contemporary Orchestra’s fifth birthday. I visited the abandoned Aldwych Underground Station on the 24th May to experience behind the scenes of the first of the London Contemporary Orchestra’s ‘Imagined Occasions’ series (performed that evening). Helen Scarlett O’Neill and Harry Ross have produced a series of site specific, immersive performances and “the series seeks to engage its audience in a subtle participatory narrative, in which the audience are observers, creators, protagonists and the observed”. These events encourage us to question our urban existence, particularly the ‘voyeuristic and dissociated’ nature of public transport. One had a sense that this would be an intriguing event; as we heard the opening performance of The Viola in Life 3 (Feldman) in the Ticket Hall I slowly became less aware of the sirens and traffic sounds of the nearby Strand. One became immersed in the subtle timbres and delicate playing of the Feldman, with Adès’ Darkness Visible to follow. Both works seemed ideal for the space, and I could feel the ticket hall darken through the performance.


It was the musicians from this first performance who led us down the stairs – quite a few steps at this station – to the next ‘happening’; a new commission work by Gregor Riddell for percussion, viola and ‘cello. It felt utterly right to be played in the confined chamber just off the space at the bottom of the stairs, and though difficult to see the players the music became very much part of the location.


The next performance in the tube carriage was confined, more intimate and lit really rather beautifully; the small ensemble included an array of small percussion instruments, guitar, cello and clarinet performing the UK premiere of Neon Forest Space by Øyvind Torvund. One felt something of a voyeur watching this performance in the carriage, and even more so when we encountered a choir singing in a tunnel, lit by head lamps. It was difficult to glimpse the singers but there was something rather nostalgic about hearing Harvey’s The Angels waft from this tunnel. Beautiful, ethereal singing which felt completely right for the space and made me glance around and consider the intricacies of the disused space as much as the complexities of the music. It was the final piece performed on the track next to a platform that concluded the event – a performance of Vivier’s unfinished Glaubst du an die Untersblichkeit der Seele (a London premiere, conducted by Hugh Brunt) – that was particularly engaging; we were plunged into darkness as the performance commenced, only the headlamps and stand lights of the musicians to be seen. This was a compelling piece and like everything else performed in the event, felt nothing but right for the location. Vivier’s work concerns itself with a journey on the Paris Metro and is tinged with nostalgia. The line “then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart” is an eerie premonition of Vivier’s fate; the composer was found stabbed to death in his apartment in 1983.


The composer Claude Vivier is the central character in the event and series as a whole, and this music deserves to articulate with interesting spaces that fulfil the aims of the producers ‘to engage its audience in a subtle participatory narrative, in which the audience are observers, creators, protagonists and the observed’. The series began on 24 May at the disused Aldwych Underground station on the Strand and will continue at the Roundhouse on 22 August, ending on 3 October at the Oval Space, Bethnal Green. More information about the series can be found here

All photos: Jana Chiellino. Used with permission.

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