REVIEW: Pop-Up Circus at Rich Mix - The Story of the Moon

The Pop-Up Circus Big Band directed by Andrew Oliver

Pop-Up Circus: The Story of the Moon 
(Rich Mix. 20th July. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Forty-five years on, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would no doubt be amused and warmed to see how enthusiastically and creatively their legacy was being remembered at the Pop-Up Circus event at Rich Mix in Brick Lane, celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

The tautology-toying Gods of Apollo set the tone for the evening. A five piece instrumental group weaved audio snippets from NASA's archives into their varied avant-garde sound. With strong interplay between the tenor and soprano saxophones, the texture of the performance built on the gritty 1960s recordings, sourced from the legendary dialogue of the space missions themselves, the warm analogue hum left in its absence, and the restrained throbbing backing of Jon Ormston's drums. While the NASA audio may have lent the piece an American bias, marking the success of one superpower over the other in the Space Race, composer/instigator/saxophonist Rob Cope was keen to point out, his piece had initially sparked into existence by the Soviet space program of the late 1950s, and the peculiar remark that Sputnik, and most of its satellite descendents, merrily beeped a concert D.

The collective performance scaled back, giving each individual an opportunity to explore the outer ranges of their instruments, and that was when the visual backdrop behind the band came into its own. Assembled by Manuel Fernandez, a sequence of animations and video collages was projected above the musicians, moving from themes of bacteria and animals (National Geographic and the BBC featuring strongly) through to the onset of mechanisation and mass-production, and finally the rapid scientific development in aerodynamics and aeronautics that led to the space programs' eventual success, shown in research film footage of fighter pilots having their bodies pushed to the limits by high G forces.

As the mesmerising combination of Hernandez’s animation and Gods of Apollo’s set came to an end, the sensory overload continued: all around people were painting small foam planets, helium balloons floated near the ceiling, and Katarzyna Witek and accomplices performed a short interpretive dance. An interesting foil to the jazz which preceded it, the four dancers, accompanied ably by Alex Roth on guitar and Alex Bonney with his trumpet and laptop, gave the jazz-savvy audience an opportunity to be reminded of what it is like to be nudged from your comfort zone and to concentrate on something unfamiliar and unexpected.

As the strains of the obligatory Sun Ra interval tracks faded into the background, Pop-Up Circus organiser Simon Roth introduced the 20-strong scratch Big Band for the second part of the evening. A group who appear sporadically to perform a rare mix of new compositions and jazz standards on wildly different themes were accompanied on this occasion by the surreal sight of many busy hands above the bands' heads illustrating space scenes. Apt and neat renditions of Fly Me to the Moon and It's Only a Paper Moon book-ended a set of exciting new pieces by friends and band members: amongst them a stomping Balkan piece imagined from a dystopian space parodies, juxtaposing chaotic brass lines with contained vibraphone work; another inspired by the Cassini-telescopes photographic successes and built around Conor Chaplin's electric bass and a Alex Roth’s strong guitar line.

Each new piece arrived with a scholarly introduction from conductor Andrew Oliver, thoroughly explaining at length the context of each composition, and any interesting asides en route. The pre-amble was strongest for his own piece Saturn V, charting the three stages in the journey of the most powerful rocket ever to have left the earth’s surface. Tom Green's trombone introduction heralded the ominous expectation of the countdown as the ensemble joined for the apocalyptic launch , before clarifying into an accelerating resolve, and dwindling into orbit and breakup, here as before Ralph Wyld's vibes crucial to achieving that bona fide 'space' sound.

Mechanical Moon closed the evening, a new group re-interpreting the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, with an expected lunar bent, into a compact 5-man rocky format. Erica Jarnes delivering the poetry with passion (and occasionally props) with a Joni Mitchell air, the music driven forwards by the strongly characterful drumming of Dan Paton.

While a close and stormy weekend was coming to an end, Pop-Up Circus’ multimedia onslaught and eclectic line-up did a fantastic job of firing a room in humid East London, and transporting the minds of an audience to places far, far away.

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