Contemporary music ensemble Icebreaker were last seen in Leeds performing the music of Brian Eno.
Their new project places the songs of another groundbreaking electronic act from the Seventies – Kraftwerk – in a new context, with orchestration.
James Poke, the 12-piece ensemble’s artistic director, explains that Kraftwerk Uncovered is the second part of a trilogy of artistic projects that Icebreaker planned with the Science Museum in London. The first – Eno’s Apollo – combined music and film and was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.
“We liked the idea of investigating music created in the studio with an electronic aspect, taking that out of the studio into live performance,” explains the 51-year-old University of York graduate. German techno-pop pioneers Kraftwerk – whose hits include The Model, Tour de France and Autobahn – provided the “obvious line to go down” after Eno. “They were the two different origins of electronic music as we know it,” he continues. “The ambient stuff on the one side, with Kraftwerk the more repetitive side on the other.”
Poke, who plays flute, panpipes and wind synthesiser, sees parallels between the developments in electronica in the 1970s – with the use of drones and repetition – and Minimalist classical composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
“When you’re living through any period you see disparate elements, you don’t necessarily see how they connect. In the latter half of the 20th century there was the explosion of rock music while classical music was going down into obscurity...But a lot of things have more in common than was possibly realised. Minimalism and the classical avant garde from the Fifties used atonality and tonal idioms, they were both using systems very much, they were very methodically created. The repetitive element was one of the fundamental building blocks of most non-classical music. When you look back on the second half of the 20th century with hindsight you can see links between different types of music made at the time.”
On Kraftwerk Uncovered Icebreaker worked with German electronic composer J Peter Schwalm and film makers Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish. The concert culminates with a reworking of Autobahn that takes its motorik beat and “builds up to a climax” that, says Poke, is “in keeping with the nature of the track [which was originally 22 minutes long and traces a journey down a German motorway]”.
Clements and Cornish drove around Germany to make their film then combined the footage with “rhythmic symbols that link up”.
“It’s a fabulous film which is shown on three screens,” says Poke. “There are three independent elements.”
Like Kraftwerk’s music, its tone is simultaneously modern and nostalgic.
“There are images which do look back. Kraftwerk is very much concerned with looking at Germany past and present – what needs to be left behind, what needs to be preserved and what needs to be recreated. It’s an important theme in German culture.”
The third part of Icebreaker’s “trilogy of electronic projects” is currently under wraps, but Poke does reveal that “the idea is to go back to a particular classic album, more like Apollo than Kraftwerk”.
“It’s not necessarily finalised,” he adds, “but the plan is probably to be touring it roughly a year from now, in 2016. We’ll be taking it around the UK at that point if all goes to plan.”
January 23, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 7.45pm, £15. ww.operanorth.co.uk/productions/icebreaker-kraftwerk-uncovered