Inspired by the great Carl Sagan’s prime directive that we should "preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known", Manchester’s two year old Bluedot Festival has already distinguished itself as a celebration of humanity's best side quite unlike any other.
The concept is simple: a weekend of scientific talks and musical performances beneath Jodrell Bank's hulking Lovell Telescope (lit up by night with an incredible light show from Japanese artist Daito Manabe) from various artists and intellectuals chosen to embody the values of exploration and discovery that drove Sir Bernard Lovell to found the observatory in the first place.
It’s a place where you can feed your brain with a comprehensive lecture celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of pulsars one moment and then gawp as Leftfield perform the whole of Leftism the next; you can lose yourself in Jane Weaver’s warm bed of synths in the morning before wrapping your mind around the concept of dark energy after lunch. Headline slots from musical juggernauts like Pixies and alt-J sit side by side with engaging talks from Professors Chris Lintott, Monica Grady and Tim O'Brien, the latter of whom pops up everywhere like a brainier Michael Eavis. These two composite bodies of music and astronomy might not be the most immediately obvious bedfellows, but when viewed alongside one another, their shared mores of invention, curiosity and harmony are clear for any observer to see.
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The concept of building a compelling project on top of two ostensibly ill-fitting pillars couldn’t be more familiar to Saturday night headliners Orbital. Having now reformed for the second time, it’s not hard to see why the two brothers didn’t really speak to one another for a number of years after their last record, 2017’s ‘Wonky’. Paul Hartnoll is the chalk - an obsessive creator, entranced by the nature of composition and prone to spinning any number of plates at once. Phil Hartnoll, on the other hand, is the cheese – easygoing, quick to laughter and quite happy to spend his later career travelling the world with his wife DJing occasionally.
Given that the Bluedot organisers tend to go for acts that either share the festival’s passion for discovery and invention or have a suitably space-themed name, booking Orbital must have been a no brainer. “We’ve got double-bubble on that one” chuckles Phil, “”I love the whole theme of Bluedot and the Carl Sagan poem that inspired it, the ecology of the Earth and the planet.”
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There aren’t really any other themed festivals. It’s very unique.
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“And I love giant telescopes and pulsars,” adds Paul, laying out their plan to open their headline performance by building samples over a recording of the steady throb of a pulsar (a highly magnetised neutron star that spins over 600 times an hour). The duo rarely personalise their performance to reflect the festival they are performing at, but then, as Paul reasons, “There aren’t really any other themed festivals. It’s very unique.”
Another one-off for the evening’s performance is a collaboration with the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop to perform a certain seminal science fiction theme tune. By the time Orbital start their set, the ageing sound-sculptors, who are all well into their 80s, have already delivered one of the most memorable and rapturously received performances of the weekend over at the Orbit Stage (which also featured Paul guesting on an unreleased song which will apparently see the light of day on one of their long awaited full LPs soon).
Seeing them decked out in Orbital’s signature torch glasses on the Lovell Stage, blasting out the remixed theme from Doctor Who, however, is nothing short of transcendent.
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The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s early experiments with electronic sound under the leadership of Delia Derbyshire, on programmes like Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, ushered in a new, more scientifically minded era of music; one where a listener could put on a pair of headphones and convince themselves that the strange synthetic swirls they were hearing genuinely came from the other side of the cosmos. “They were so important in developing the sounds and textures of sci-fi, certainly for Britain,” recalls Paul. ““It was before synths as well, when they were doing all the tape editing and sampling stuff. It was so creepy and cold sounding compared to conventional music at the time, almost alien… I found it incredibly compelling. I honestly think my earliest inspiration would be Doctor Who.”
Having been founded in 1958, the year after the launch of Sputnik, Radiophonic Workshop were one of a number of acts whose work reflected the fervour for all things scientific and astronomical that the Space Race inspired.
For most musicians, however, it took some time for the best tools to convey the sounds of distant planets and alien civilisations to become apparent. “The problem with synthesisers when they first came out was that people would always try to emulate the French horn, or a string section, or other pre-existing instruments. So it got a bad rep,” says Phil. “Then someone said ‘Well hang on, you can do this!’ BYOOOILEP-GRUUUUUGH ‘What do you want to copy a violin for?’”
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You’ve gone beyond the realms of what a human can play with their fingers...
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Since the time of Radiophonic Workshop a new wave of electronic composers, from Jean-Michel Jarre to Vangelis, have helped electronic music overtake Holst’s ‘The Planets’ as the go-to soundtrack for that most final of frontiers. Paul largely put’s this down to the shared sense of exploration - as above in the space station, so below in the studio. “It’s also what you’re able to play,” he explains, “you’ve gone beyond the realms of what a human can play with their fingers. So you can do crazy stuff like playing a keyboard with the notes spread over loads of different octaves which previously nobody could do without an orchestra.”
“Or a piano playing octopus,” quips Phil.
For Paul and Phil the best music encourages listeners to use their imagination, to envision the otherworldly origins of the strange sounds and frequencies they’re hearing without, as Phil puts it, “simply thinking ‘Well that’s a synthesiser and that’s a guitar’.”
Watching them hunched over their decks, silhouetted by their own torch glasses, doing God knows what to the pile of machines in front of them in order to create the squelching grooves of 'The Girl With The Sun In Her Head' and the beautiful lift of 'Halcyon And On And On', it's clear to see that Orbital are just as vital a piece of this legacy of electronic experimentation as the Radiophonic Workshop.
Using the infinite canvass of sound available to them the brothers are able to summon planets of sound with far more freedom that Pixies, who headlined on the Friday evening (none of the weekend's decent crop of guitar bands really manage to capture the spirit of the weekend like their keyboard-toting peers). Orbital's fascination with mystery and discovery remains undimmed, and Bluedot offers the perfect haven for the rest of us geeks who share this passion.
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Words: Josh Gray