Just after the interval of this special event to mark Science week, the veteran Irish broadcaster and space expert Leo Enright emerged on stage to give a brief history of Irish involvement in the Apollo space programme. With his professorial demeanour, he gave proceedings a slight flavour of a university lecture. This was no bad thing as Eno’s album Apollo (Atmospheres and Soundtracks) stands out in his canon as being very explicitly tied to a tangible concept. It was made to soundtrack footage of the American side of the space race, to somehow rise musically to the most quixotic endeavour undertaken by the human race. Thanks to a full performance of the album by the Icebreaker ensemble and BJ Cole, alongside archive footage of the moon landings, the capacity crowd in the National Concert Hall got to hear a beautiful album remarried to the context it gets so often divorced from on iPods and home stereos. The effect of the performance was revelatory.
Before Icebreaker played Apollo, they performed one of Philip Glass’s lesser known pieces ‘Music With Changing Parts’. This piece allowed the 12-strong group to demonstrate the full range of their virtuosity as it is based on shifting harmonic improvisations for each instrument involved. What did it sound like? Well, although lead Icebreaker guy (and pan-pipe player) James Poke explained that the piece was different from other Glass compositions in certain ways, it sounded pretty much like most Philip Glass does to the layman’s ear. A see-sawing organ pattern drew the listener into vast shifting patterns of harmonics that crawled over each other and intermittently rose to G-force levels of intensity. As an appetiser for the Apollo piece it was ideal, creating, as it did, a sense of moving forward in some sort of astral warp. Spacey stuff.
The main event got underway with the veteran pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole sitting up front and doing very little for a long time as the Icebreaker guys played to the remarkable footage from the Apollo missions on the screen behind them. When Cole did join in, on the likes of ‘Silver Morning’ the results were heart-stopping. A pedal steel guitar is not the first instrument you’d associate with space travel, but Brian Eno was never going to go for the obvious. His choice of instrument was ultimately inspired. As the keening and lonesome melodies broke out over the concert hall to footage of astronauts horsing around on the moon, the album made perfect sense. The music was simple, innocent and full of wonder. As were the astronauts, it seemed. Apparently most of them returned from space feeling fundamentally spiritually changed. The music Eno composed understood that. And Icebreaker performed it beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that when the utterly sublime ‘an ending (ascent)’ unfurled to footage of the earth hanging azure in space, this concert-goer felt a lump in his throat.