Friday, 10th July 2015


In a different time and place I was a pupil at Norwich School. We had a music teacher called Bernard Burrell who put up with us as he endeavoured to teach music. I appreciate this teacher because one year the syllabus included Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". This piece started life as a piano composition, people know it best from the orchestration by Ravel. In a certain lesson Mr Burrell was generous enough to play a rather different version, a version with sounds I had never heard before. A version by a progressive rock group called ELP which included the bewitching strains of a Moog synthesizer. It just blew me away!

You may debate what is music. You may debate what is Art. All I knew was as I listened to ELP's numbers was my ears heard something beautiful, something on the edge of liberation, something alive and evolving, something alien and frail. From that day I no longer despised rock music, my horizons expanded, friendships deepened. I had a collection of LPs with striking cover. Keith Emerson's kingship of the keyboard inspired me to learn the piano (I'm not sure my piano teachers and examiners consider that a good thing). To this day I still listen to progressive rock, and especially ELP. But I never saw them live in concert, only in dreams.


The years turned. Internet and Facebook became part of my existence, I followed Keith Emerson's Facebook page. A month or two ago the page announced he was going to do a concert at the Barbican in London, as part of a series celebrating Robert Moog's contribution to music. To go to this was irresistible, I had only to take the afternoon off work and I get to the concert and back that very day. There was a minor complication - the date was my and Virginia's wedding anniversary. But Virginia is a kindly soul and gave me leave. I booked train tickets online in good time, reasonably priced as I was travelling out of peak time. I failed however to top-up my Oyster card ahead of time, and when I tried to do on the 10th of July itself the system only offered me topups on the 11th.

On the Friday I drove my trusty steed to Waterbeach Station carpark - I wasn't sure if there would be space to park but there were a few places. They had moved the car park ticket machine to the platform itself which was inconvenient - there was something odd with the machine as it gave me a ticket after I only put in one pound coin for a two pound ticket. I'm sure it knew what it was doing. The train was on time, and I managed to get a seat not on the sun facing side, and where provided the train was moving I was ventilated by air invading in through the open shutter. At Kings Cross I treated myself to a burger at Macdonalds, and then navigated the underground to get to the Barbican. I missed the overhead walkway which would have been more pleasant than going alongside a busy road on the way to the Barbican Centre. I was very early for the concert itself so had plenty of time for an ice-cream, a crossword, and a rest. The Barbican Centre is a pleasant venue, spacious inside, plenty of places to sit down and wait. There are shops too, and on the spur of the moment I got a birthday card.


With a quarter of an hour to go I joined the rest of the audience in the hall, there was only a sheet of paper not a proper programme which was a disappointment, but the usherette told me I could move nearer the front in the balcony which wasn't very full. So I had a good view of the stage and in particular the Moog synthesizer, standing proud with its tally lights flashing. The way music looks is important as well as the way it sounds, similar to the way food looks on the plate matters not just how it tastes. So the orchestra were clad in neat black. The brass was polished. Emerson plays like a virtuoso, flourishes of hand as well as notes. And the Moog itself was like the 2001 monolith on stage, a link to another universe. Perhaps the tally lights were part of its visual look rather than needed for it to work, similar to the dummy lights on early computers which reassured managers the computer was doing something.


The concert started without Keith Emerson on stage, he's a fit and confident 70-year old but I didn't begrudge him his late entry or that he had breaks while others played. The music was familiar stuff, versions of "Tarkus" and "Endless Enigma", the orchestra did Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and then Emerson's band (including Marc Bonilla) did the rock version. As a general comment I found the orchestra got in the way of hearing Emerson's keyboards - the Moog was most audible in pieces like the rendition of "Lucky Man", otherwise it was swamped by the conventional orchestra (perhaps they felt they had something to prove!) Orchestras were needed in the past to provide volume, rather like ornaments in harpsichord music - but here fewer might have been better. Rarely was there the sense of the experimentalism of early ELP.

I left after the second encore, hoping they didn't do more. I had been lucky enough to see one of my heroes in action, still going strong. Great!