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Live review: Jon Hopkins at Usher Hall, 04/03

ByFrances Tappin

Mar 11, 2020

The first night of Jon Hopkins’ Polarity Tour begins with a night in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall: drawing in an audience for an evening of striking contrasts. Producing starkly varied music encompassing genres from classical piano music and film scores to bass-heavy electronica, ‘polarity’ perfectly describes the unique meshing of music that Hopkins displays.

The grandeur of Usher Hall, occupied by middle-aged couples setting themselves down into plump concert hall seats seems an incongruous environment for a DJ known for extravagant performances at the likes of Berghain, Warehouse Project and Glastonbury. Lit by warm yellow spotlights Hopkins sits at the grand piano and opens with a gentle melody. Engrossed in the deftness of his performance and the softness of the tune, a palpable feeling of anticipation fills the auditorium. There is a sense of unpredictability, of uncertainty as the audience attempts to discern whether an evening of peaceful piano lies ahead or whether an evening at Usher Hall will ignite into a scene reminiscent of a Berghain rave. This is a distinctly unfamiliar sensation.

An echo of electronic beats begins to merge with the delicate tune of the piano, the lights merge from their warm hues into a flickering bright white. There is a lull before the violin, cello and guitar accompany the melody. Hopkins moves away from the piano towards a vast set of decks at centre stage. Now the polarity begins to reveal itself.

It feels so alien to sit still tentatively nodding along to bass-heavy electronic music, the likes of which is normally performed for crowds in the stuffy rooms of Mash House. A man, clearly at home in a more riotous environment, gets to his feet and begins dancing in the aisle. Before long he is escorted out by security, facing much contestation from the audience, and just as swiftly brought back in to a warmth of cheers and a shout that security are ‘fucking Nazis’ for thwarting one man’s urge to dance.

Following this bizarre altercation, the audience morphs from their restrained admiration within the comfort of their seats to something closer to a scene from a club night or festival. Bright lights dazzle as the whole auditorium gets to their feet for Emerald Rush, a song undercut by a gentle ambient tune building into a heavy plosive techno sound. Everyone seems to lose sight of the incongruous surroundings as they begin to dance just as if they were in any other club rather than an extravagant concert hall that will be filled with a Beethoven symphony the very next night.

The polarity, emblematic of Hopkins’ performance, exhibits itself through the sharp shifts in tempo, volume and genre. Moving between such distinct spheres of music creates constant variation throughout the concert, at times nearly seamless and at others almost jarring. The transition from Emerald Rush to a soft piano piece such as Scene Suspended evokes a subtle discomfort, the unfamiliarity of sitting silently and attentively not a minute after the whole audience was on their feet fist-pumping the air.

Hopkins finds the polarity he seeks to display, captivating an audience whose reactions mirror the minute movements of the music. Ending with a performance of Luminous Beings, a piece merging the extremes of the evening that gradually builds before petering out, leaves the crowd engrossed as the lights dim once more leaving a silhouette of Hopkins and a grand piano.

Image: Aleksandr Zykov via Flickr