Fast Forward Festival 2016: British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies


Fast Forward Festival returned to Bristol’s Colston Hall on 3 June 2016 for a packed day’s programming of music and technology workshops, performances and showcases. Closing the proceedings was a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ by the British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies. Review by Trish Wheatley.

Photograph of British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies perform ng 'In C'.

British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies perform ‘In C’. Photograph:

A collaboration between the British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies is, on paper, a fantastic idea. Both ensembles emerged from the 2012 Cultural Olympiad as new initiatives to support professional performance opportunities for disabled artists and musicians. Forward Festival, hosted by Colston Hall and Bristol Plays Music, provided the stage for a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.

The piece was created in 1964, by Riley, one of the cornerstones of minimalism. There is a pulse which grounds the piece, providing a basic rhythmic structure and tempo, whilst the musicians play ‘cells’ − small phrases which repeat over and over. There are a total of 53 cells in the work and the musicians cannot move more than three cells in front or behind at any time.

Photograph of a performer from Extraordinary Bodies, he is dancing with a pleased expression on his face, a green light dissipates in the background.

Both the music and physical movements were hypnotic. Photograph:

This results in a slowly transforming, hypnotic, trancelike auditory experience that only ever intends to engage the listener ‘in the moment’. It provides a frame for endless interpretations, of which there have been many, with no one performance the same.

At Colston Hall, a packed out auditorium was presented with a horseshoe of musicians dressed in white. The piece began, the cells turning around and around, each of the fifteen members of the Paraorchestra working as a tight ensemble to build this continually morphing atmospheric sonic space. Then, from the musicians, the performers emerged with their own ‘movement cells.’ The use of hula hoops early on introduced an effective mesmeric aesthetic, reflecting the music in a way that almost visualised the waves of sound.

As the piece progressed, the performers interacted more with one another, and with the Paraorchestra, imitating movements and responding to sounds. The movement on the stage was accented by aerial work on ribbons, hoops and trapeze that was, on the whole, very well executed.

There were incredibly successful sections in which a few of the musicians participated in the movement performance and vice versa, notably harpist Steph West and Guy Llewellyn on the French Horn. Vocalist Victoria Oruwari provided a strong connection point between the music and the movement, with the performers at points seeming transfixed by her outstanding display.

Photograph of a performer from Extraordinary Bodies, he is dancing with a pleased expression on his face, a green light dissipates in the background.

The lighting was particularly effective. Photograph:

The live sound mixing had the Paraorchestra’s levels at the best I’ve ever heard, and the changes in mood and atmosphere were enhanced by the excellent lighting design. The occasional blinding light in the audience’s eyeline was easily forgiven.

I remained ‘in the moment’ for almost all of the 1hr47min version of ‘In C’, a great achievement in itself.  To sustain that feeling of being utterly present, the last 15 minutes would have benefitted from some kind of shift in the whole performance; the movement vocabulary used by the performers began to feel a little limited and repetitive.

The Paraorchestra’s repertoire is becoming more sophisticated as the ensemble develops and matures. ‘In C’ with its non-traditional form, suits a diverse group of instruments and provides a structure that works well for the musicians for whom printed music is not an accessible performance format. It allowed the individual instruments to be heard in this eclectic ensemble, similarly to last year’s performance of ‘Towards Harmony’ by Lloyd Coleman.

The collaboration with Extraordinary Bodies was a bold experiment that was thoroughly enjoyable and demonstrated huge creative potential for the future. It would be fascinating to see this realised through a sustained period of investment in research and development. Both ensembles are finding strong artistic paths and when those paths cross, as they did at Colston Hall, something truly exciting emerges.