The Droning Sounds of John Cale's Quadcopter Orchestra

By James Laird on at

John Cale was infatuated with drones long before western superpowers realised they were a particularly convenient way to bomb foreign countries. The Welsh musician can largely be credited with helping to bring the 'drone' sound to popular culture, dating back as far as his work in the 1960s with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and central to one of the Velvet Underground's best-known tracks in Heroin.

So perhaps it shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise when I saw, courtesy of Giz UK, that Cale would be conducting an art installation-cum-drone orchestra at The Barbican in collaboration with artsy futurist Liam Young. Being a bit of a Velvets fan and knowing my dad was a Cale aficionado with a healthy amount of bootlegs in his collection, this 'drone symphony' seemed to be ripe for some left-field father/son bonding. I snapped up a couple of tickets for the second of the two shows, both of which swiftly sold out.

The idea of the Cale/Young effort was to portray drones in a new light; to take them away from desert battlefields and Amazon's macabre fantasies of delivering books you didn't order (but secretly know you want). It sounded like a novel concept, for sure, but then Cale has always been one to favour reinvention and innovation, which is wholly to his credit. He could, after all, do what every other ageing rock star does and peddle lame renditions of a decaying back catalogue to soulless stadium crowds.

As a gig, Cale at the Barbican was impossible to fault. He threw in a teasing amount of classics – Sister Ray of Velvet Underground fame and Half Past France from his frankly sublime 1973 album Paris 1919 – alongside more recent works like the deranged paean to Afghanistan, Letters From Abroad ("They're cutting their heads off in the soccer field/Stretching their necks in the goal"). His sound was pretty radically overhauled on the night, with rare glimpses of his alluring singing voice playing second viola to thumping electronic backdrops that wouldn't have been out of place at nearby Fabric nightclub.

But what of the drones themselves, was it as much a draw for the younger members of the multi-generational audience as Cale himself? In all honesty, they were less than convincing. Hovering above the crowd at the venue, they added some intriguing aspects to the performance, and at first it was impressive witnessing them bop and blink in time with the music. The novelty wore off quickly, however, and they soon became a distraction to the main event; the flamboyant, unnecessary garnish for a cocktail that's perfect tasty on its own.

For one, the drones competed too vigorously for my attention. I was torn between taking in the triumphantly curmudgeonly Cale and gawking at the flying robots hovering above. More perturbing still was the giant net that separated the crowd from the stage. The biggest pleasure of live music for me – especially at a (relatively) intimate venue like the Barbican – is the dissolution of barriers between musician and audience. So the giant mesh awning that divided punter from performance felt like an affront to the joy of gigging. Perhaps it was an elaborate metaphor for the human/robot divide. More likely still, health and safety numpties were terrified one of the drones would malfunction and mistake an elaborately bearded hipster for an ISIS commander. Whatever the case, it proved even more disconcerting than any of the whirring and blinking occurring overhead.

Of course, I'm obviously missing the point. The event was really an art installation, right? Perhaps, but a handful of levitating bots aside, it was live music at a venue – and that equals a gig. A bloody brilliant one, for what it's worth, with Cale's 'drones' comfortably outshining the floaters. So while the intersection of tech, music and other forms of pop culture is a wonderful thing to be promoted and celebrated, certain archaic pleasures should be left unsullied. Live music is one of them. I saw a drone orchestra conducted by a rock legend and all I really wanted was a John Cale concert.

James Laird is the Associate Editor of Lifehacker UK, the expert guide to getting things done more efficiently, whether at home or at work.

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