Sydney Festival: Two men, 20 instruments deliver Tubular Bells

11 January 2012

(L-R) Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts recreate 'Tubular Bells' with only two people.
(L-R) Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts recreate 'Tubular Bells' with only two people.

It may take two to tango, but on Tuesday night Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts showed that two people can achieve much more than that.

Inspired by a fireside jam, the multi-instrumentalists have responded to Mike Oldfield's audacious 1973 Celtic-folk-rock album Tubular Bells with daring of their own, juggling more than 20 instruments to recreate the album live in a Sydney Festival performance that is both mesmerising and madcap.

From the moment the two performers take to the stage of the Seymour Centre's Reginald Theatre, behatted and barefoot, their dexterity is breathtaking. Holdsworth's right hand moves to a piano to pick out the opening theme - familiar from its use in the 1973 film The Exorcist- before his left joins in on glockenspiel. From that plain (but rhythmically challenging) opening, Roberts adds more piano, then percussion, then guitar while the duo's feet continually dance over loop pedals that capture then repeat different elements of their performance.

In fact, the loop pedals are core to Tubular Bells for Two as they enable Holdsworth and Roberts to layer phrase upon phrase with their feet while their hands move from instrument to instrument. At one moment the musicians may be duetting with each other; at another they are deep in concentration as they interact with a phrase they have previously performed as it replays on a loop, all the while preparing to stretch out for another instrument.

As the first half reaches its climax, a bass guitar loop driving the music forward, Roberts leans towards a microphone to introduce each instrument as it enters the fray (Vivian Stanshall's 'Master of Ceremonies' role on the original album). As Holdsworth mills around him, Roberts balances a mandolin on a guitar while leaning towards a keyboard before crossing the stage to ring out the central motif on - what else - the tubular bells.

In the second half the two create a cacophonous guitar-driven crescendo, with Holdsworth dropping to his knees to wring the maximum impact out of the effects pedals before finding the energy to leap into the air and dash to the back of the stage, thumping out a groove on the hitherto unused drum kit as Roberts bellows into a microphone and slams out a rock-driven piano riff.

Then, suddenly, silence falls (apart from the gasps for air following the performers' exertions), and it is in these sudden contrasts that the audience can find so much to enjoy in this performance of Mike Oldfield's classic.

The duo's demeanour rises and falls with the mood of the music, but the audience can discern a real joy throughout as Holdsworth and Roberts grin in recognition of the other's playing, nod to signal a progression in the music, or shut their eyes as they lose themselves in the score.

Back in the 1970s, Tubular Bells threw its young composer into the international spotlight and kick-started Richard Branson's Virgin music empire, as the album hit number one in charts around the world. Through Tubular Bells for Two, Holdsworth says he and Roberts hope to bring the work to a new audience.

"We are not trying to give audiences a Mike Oldfield tribute show, but rather take people on a musical journey with an exciting and vibrant performance of an intricate piece of music that is as relevant today as it was in 1973."

Audiences at the Seymour Centre, the University of Sydney's performing arts hub, have until 15 January to experience the journey themselves. Tubular Bells For Two then transfers to Parramatta's Riverside Theatres from 18 to 22 January.

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