International touring requires a great deal of planning and preparation, but when you’re the leader of dozens of musicians, you truly need to go above and beyond. Christopher Wheeler, producer and founding member of the Heritage Orchestra, is in a mild state of panic when I call him to ask about their upcoming Australian trip.
“Oh my god, it’s just ridiculous,” he says with a nervous laugh. “There are so many things to do, logistically as well as artistically, to get everything up to scratch. It’s a massive undertaking – there are so many instruments and cases and specialised bits and bobs that we’d never be able to rent anywhere. It’s the farthest and most adventurous trip that we’ve ever done with the orchestra, and not only that, we’re performing two shows when we get there! It’s great, but it’s a lot of work.”
Heritage Orchestra are different from your standard, polite orchestral players – while they count strings, horns and woodwinds amongst their number, their repertoire is anything but standard.
“We started this orchestra as we were coming out of university,” Wheeler explains, “and there was a lot of post-college idealism there. We thought that we could change the world by forming an orchestra that didn’t play classical music. The idea has always been to take a wider view than what we learned at school – we specifically sought out young players who had really aspirational ideas about their instruments, and were willing to try new ideas.”
In a career spanning nearly a decade, they have collaborated with everyone from John Cale to Jamie Cullum, but when they come to Australia for Vivid Live, their true range will be on display.
The group will play two shows over the course of Vivid Live, one of them inspired by the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, the other by cult post-punk outfit Joy Division. Of the two, the Joy Division project is the strangest, not to mention the most ambitious. Entitled Live_Transmission, the work was originally commissioned for the UK’s Brighton Festival, and it serves as a modern reimagining of the Manchester band’s output.
“Someone said that this show is possibly what Joy Division might sound like if the singer Ian Curtis was still around,” Wheeler says. “God knows if that’s true, but what a statement to live up to!” The show, in fact, pays homage to Joy Division, taking elements of their music, then deconstructing and reinterpreting them through a modern lens.
Putting the show together proved quite a feat. “I was aware of Joy Divison before, but didn’t have a massive amount of knowledge,” Wheeler says, “so I scrambled around to find a musical director who could recreate the band’s music as electronic demos, and Robin Rimbaud, otherwise known as Scanner, was the perfect guy for that job.”
The orchestra commissioned a series of electronic tracks from Scanner, and then, in a process not unlike Chinese whispers, they passed the recordings on to a live band, who jammed over them and reinterpreted them, and then onto an orchestral arranger, who transcribed the mess of sounds and reinterpreted them yet again. The end result was a musical score so thrillingly weird that the Heritage Orchestra weren’t sure what to do.
“When we got the written scores from the orchestrator, we gave them to the orchestra to play, with no idea of what they would sound like or what had come out of this process,” Wheeler says with a laugh. “It was a really experimental approach, and it was very exciting. Even the day before the first concert, at the Brighton Dome, we still didn’t know what was going to happen or how successful it was going to be. The idea behind the show was to present the essence of Joy Division and the signature spirit of that band, while deconstructing it and exploring musical motifs and ideas. The music always comes back to the tone of Joy Division, the essence. Miraculously, I think it worked.” Just how did it go over with the band’s fans? “The old beardy guys who went to their gigs seem to love it!” Wheeler says. “It’s a respectful tribute, but a total artistic deconstruction of the music.”
On a slightly less mad tangent, Music From Blade Runnersees the group playing their own version of the score from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic. “That show was originally conceived for Massive Attack’s showcase at the Meltdown Festival,” he says. “I love the film and its Vangelis soundtrack very much, but the interesting thing is that there’s no written score, so we had to transcribe it ourselves, and reinterpret it in our own way. I love the sound of Blade Runner, and I’m not just talking about the music, but about the background noises – the blips and beats and the sounds of the rain, because they’re very important, and they appear on the soundtrack recording as well. I deconstructed it all as I saw it, and passed on my notes to three amazing orchestrators, and that was that, really.”
Choosing what part of Blade Runner to put where was the difficult thing. “We had debates about whether to play a particular melody on a French horn or keep it on the original CS-80 synth,” Wheeler says. “Usually we opted to keep it on the original synth, to be true to the sound of Blade Runner. There were a lot of decisions as to what we could do to avoid sounding like a terrible pastiche of the original, and bring something new. The bottom line is that it’s a tribute to the music of Blade Runner. It’s our own version of the music, with total respect for the original.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN