Live review: Carl Craig’s Synthesizer Ensemble – Barbican, Friday 6 April 2018

Carl Craig and his lucrative Synthesizer Ensemble tour certainly lacks a certain sparkle, but, as Piers Barber argues, smug music journalists have no place criticising those who prefer to enjoy his intelligent techno away from dark nightclubs. Indeed, in many ways, the Barbican setting is probably a neat fit for many of the artist’s own perceptions of his music


Carl Craig’s Sythnesizer Ensemble tour sees the vital ‘second wave’ Detroit techno producer reimagine his back catalogue live with the assistance of five musicians. Backed by artistically beautiful moody shots of the Detroit skyline, tonight his group includes Underground Resistance’s Jon Dixon and remarkably talented pianist Kelvin Sholar, as well as three others on a range of synths. Craig dictates things from a raised platform at the back.

The show is objectively good, with versions of Craig’s biggest hits, like ‘Sandstorms’ and ‘Technology’, delivered with complete respect to the original compositions. A final encore section gives these obviously talented, jazz-schooled musicians the chance to flex their creative muscles as each in turn is given a chance to solo over the top of a rolling drum beat. Craig comes on the microphone several times throughout to reminisce about how the songs were made, how they make him feel, and what kit his group are using (three Dave Smith Prophet 6’s and an Oberheim OB6, for those interested). His interventions are a bit awkward, but at times genuinely interesting.

Of course, it’s easy to find multiple wise music journalists who will revel in the chance to tell anyone who will listen that this isn’t true techno. Jeff Mills’ orchestral shows and Craig’s own dalliances in similar formats (his latest Versus release is an orchestral collaboration with Francesco Tristano and Les Siècles Orchestra) have persistently attracted the ire of techno purists, who yearn for the days when this music first stunned in-the-know clubbers in previous decades.

And yes: sitting down in an elegant concert hall isn’t how I’d personally chose to get the best out of Craig’s imaginative, unique dance music, and it does feel slightly bizarre politely applauding his epic compositions after each concludes. And there’s truth, I think, in the argument that this show constitutes something of a depressing epitome of how edgy outsider music is given a government funding-friendly spin (“look: real instruments!”, the set-up can be seen to say).

But here’s the thing: to a point, these arguments just don’t really stack up. A lot of these gleeful commentators forget that Craig has always been like this. The artist and his music has never pretended to not be a bit smart, pretentious, and filmic – in many ways, Craig probably feels the concert hall environment is a logical location for his elegant and intelligent compositions. In addition, his work has always been meant to work with visuals – Craig has actively repeatedly discussed composing his tunes with films such as Blade Runner at the forefront of his mind. Delivering his music with the audience’s full focus on his carefully cultivated visuals is almost how this music was meant to be heard. It is, of course, his right as the artist to decide where his music should be played.

It is depressing that it sometimes requires reiterating that art shouldn’t be guarded, policed, and only permitted to thrive in certain narrowly-defined environments.

Finally, and most importantly, despite the exceedingly successful marketing operation of the likes of “Mad” Mike Banks and Underground Resistance, techno music is meant to be crowd pleasing – not inaccessible and selective – and be sufficiently powerful and accessible to both reach big crowds and make them feel good (Inner City, anyone?). As well as personally not really blaming him for trying to spin as much out of his back catalogue as possible, here Craig seems to be doing little else than trying to extend his work to a wider audience. Who, after all, has the right to say that this music should only be played in dark clubs to people willing and able to stay up to 3am to hear it? Such environments rule out a whole host of music lovers (and, as a great Am I Too Old For Clubbing review of the show points out, tonight is a chance to hear this music for those who prefer short bar queues and decent toilets). Besides, many here can also be heard using the occasion to wistfully reminisce on their former clubbing days. That’s also a great thing, I think.

As I’m leaving I hear a man of around fifty, clearly new to Craig’s catalogue, say to his friend, “you were right, that really is aspirational music”. It is depressing that it sometimes requires reiterating that art shouldn’t be guarded, policed, and only permitted to thrive in certain narrowly-defined environments. If these shows give more people the chance to discover and revel in techno in a context where they feel more comfortable, I certainly would never dream of thinking I had the right to tell them that that’s wrong.

Follow Piers and the Music Factory on Twitter @piersbarber18 and @MusicFactoryNo1.

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