That Aurora Orchestra is adventurous in its approach to music-making is not news for anyone who has seen them lately: they make the word ‘eclectic’ seem thin marketing gruel indeed when anyone else uses it. So here they offer something expectedly unconventional for New Year’s Eve, collaborating across genres and periods with abandon.

Nicholas Collon and Nico Muhly © Viktor Sugeng
Nicholas Collon and Nico Muhly
© Viktor Sugeng

“Northern Lights” – they are the Aurora Orchestra after all – took over the two performance spaces in Kings Place from 9pm till 1.30am, joined by Afro-Futurist DJ Lady Vendredi (Nwando Ebizie), Faroese singer-songwriter Teitur Lassen, composer Nico Muhly and the adventurous all-female pop/rock/jazz Lips choir. In Kate Wakeling’s accompanying ‘story’ for this concert (she is Aurora’s Writer-in-Residence this year, in another bold approach to something as ordinary as programme notes) the revellers seeking the aurora borealis end up with “bodies full of amber wine and light and music”; it was this kind of multi-sensory delight that Aurora and their collaborators promised us that evening. 

Hall One set us off with a collaboration between Muhly and Teitur, performing their song-cycle Confessions, which was conceived in 2007 and recorded in 2016. They were joined by harpsichord, recorder, lute and a gaggle of Aurora’s strings, and the sound world Muhly evokes has traces of Stravinsky’s arch-neoclassicism as well as being strongly redolent of Michael Nyman; Teitur’s vocals, on top of these jagged, fluctuating textures, brought us towards the work of crossover artists like Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, or even the wry anti-folk stylings of Jeffrey Lewis. The songs were sometimes purely instrumental and sometimes a more conventional set of refrains with instrumental interludes; the texts, Teitur explained, were derived from Youtube videos (and their appended comments), circa. 2007, and had the strangely melancholy quality and loneliness of the online world, both oblique and exposing: Die Schöne Muhly-rein, if you will. The sounds conjured are quite well-worn but grows a little wearying after a while, despite some lyrical charm (the song about the cat stuck in a tree was touching and funny). But if you like the genres at which the music nods, you’ll certainly like this, and Muhly’s accompaniment is smart and absorbing. 

© Viktor Sugeng
© Viktor Sugeng

We were encouraged to mill about, so whatever picture this review gives is necessarily partial, but the freedom afforded to the audience was as refreshing as the cocktails offered at the bar. Next door in Hall Two was an evocative string trio version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Ben Gilmore (violin), Hélène Clément (viola) and Sebastien van Kujik (cello). The environment was perfect, absorbing and involving, with low lights and audience seated on the floor or leaning against the walls, drifting in and out but mainly transfixed. The ensemble and individual virtuosity required to pull off this absolutely titanic work is enormous, and the relaxed atmosphere was in proportion to the utter dedication and commitment we saw from these three players. One could point out a few technical wobbles or scrappy moments, but that didn’t really seem the point: to stand in the dark and be transfixed by Bach was utterly cleansing in its contemplative intensity; the long silence at the end of the final Aria spoke volumes.

Terry Riley’s In C offered more music-making that was collaborative, exploratory, and democratic. Riley’s early minimalist masterpiece can be for any number of players in any particular arrangement, provided they work their way through, at their pleasure, the collection of motifs (all, as the title suggests, in C major) that constitute the score. Muhly returned to the stage with other players from Aurora and the ensemble soon settled into the tidal movement of the piece. Although constructed out of a deliberately limited harmonic and motivic palette, it’s a work that generates striking moments of invention: a spontaneous decision to hone in on one motif or register together, or to improvise new textures, all achieved through a very visible ensemble dynamism. 

Nwando Ebizie © Viktor Sugeng
Nwando Ebizie
© Viktor Sugeng

Pulse and ritual are integral in Bach and Riley, and these were both channelled in Nwando Ebizie’s excellent DJ sets, giving us a heady dose of psychedelia and magic, alongside a brushed-chrome coolness that obviously drew a quite different kind of crowd to Aurora’s Mozart and Strauss earlier in the evening. It was the Lips Choir who took us up to midnight, performing hits from the 90s that I hoped I’d forgotten and joined onstage by musicians from Aurora, who clearly relished every minute of it, even if you couldn’t hear them that well. Lips are stylish and fun, and their easy rapport with the audience made it clear why they make such good bedfellows for Aurora. Maybe we’ll see more of them together in 2019.