“Nothing gets round the Arctic Circle! There's nobody drilling under these guys!” (Robyn Hitchcock)
“It was a pleasure to work with Arctic Circle…I wish them well for the years ahead as they build on a successful past.” (Gavin Bryars)
Arctic Circle is London’s most persistently inventive, progressive, passionate yet delightfully unpretentious concert promoter and producer, and an increasingly vital component of the capital’s 21st century live music culture. With a track record for staging sometimes elaborate, always magical themed events on the stages, in the foyers – sometimes even up in the gods – of London’s major arts centres, Arctic Circle is now a byword for going the extra mile when it comes to presentations of prestigious, cutting-edge international musicians in some of London’s most atmospheric, characterful venues.
Over eight, event-packed years, Arctic Circle has evolved organically and exponentially, in the process acquiring the curatorial clout to present performances by the stellar likes of Michael Nymanand Gavin Bryars, while continuing to foster exciting, emergent young talent. It was the AC who gave early breaks to such rising stars as wunderkind composers Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm, Hauschka and Peter Broderick; currently hipper-than-hip ‘post-jazz’ soundscapers the Portico Quartet, and chart-friendly pop chanteuse Paloma Faith, not to mention dozens of other incipient musical luminaries.
While Ben Eshmade, Arctic Circle’s tireless organiser-in-chief, is not one to blow his own trumpet (he’s actually a French horn player, as well as radio broadcaster and producer, podcaster, reviewer, interviewer, all-round musical fixer and more…), his unquenchable passion for music which eschews cliché, and an innate grasp of what turns a ‘gig’ into a transcendent live experience, is combined with a sleeves-rolled-up, ‘let’s-put-on-a-show-here-right-now’ enthusiasm that infects everything he touches. Eshmade has subsequently seen the labour of love he began as an offshoot of his Classic FM Chiller Cabinet ambient/‘post-classical’ radio show evolve into a ‘go-to’ place for the finest in live contemporary classical, chamber experiment, electronica and miscellaneous leftfield pop, folk and singer-songwriter forms.
Arctic Circle breathed its first back in March 2006, presenting The High Llamas, ISAN and Minotaur Shock at the Hayward Gallery, on London’s Southbank, an event tied to the Dan Flavin exhibition then on show. Momentum was quickly established, galvanising a burgeoning cosmopolitan audience for the kind of inventive music which refuses to be easily pigeon-holed. While providing a club-like hub where fans of Steve Reich, The Wicker Man, Moondog, Brian Eno, Sufjan Stevens, Jonny Trunk, Vernon Elliott, Efterklang et al, could gather, might, in the wrong hands, be a cue for musical elitism, the avuncular Eshmade has always been fastidious in circumventing obscurantism and cliques – the AC’s convivial, unassuming ethos underscored by its infamous penguin-themed visuals and a spirit of child-like wonder, underscored by the bowls of free sweets and hand-crafted, Arctic-related toys and masks which he and his team would habitually lay out for the punters.
Things developed significantly for Arctic Circle during the remainder of 2006 and into 2007, with events staged at the ICA, The Spitz, the Notting Hill Arts Club (whose cramped environs witnessed a typically ambitious AC event: the Smith Quartet tackling the imposing three-movements of Steve Reich’s Different Trains), and an early coup, promoting Danish avant-pop sensations Efterklang, along with Wildbirds & Peacedrums, at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. 2007 also saw the first of several AC Tate Britain evening concert presentations (the most recent of which drew in the region of six thousand punters). In subsequent years, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Purcell Room and even the Barbican (a major, sold-out show, again with Efterklang, supported by Ninja Tunes collective Jaga Jazzist) would all witness memorable AC nights, but it would be the stunning, Gothic environs of Highbury Corner’s Union Chapel which would become established as Arctic Circle’s, as it were, ‘spiritual’ home (and which the AC sold out for an early Notwist show – the venue recently landed Time Out London’s ‘Best British Venue’ gong).
Arctic Circle Union Chapel events began with a bill including Leaf label artist Colleen playing looped viola da gamba, a choir singing John Tavener and Max de Wardener playing Harry Partch’s cloud chamber bowls. Subsequently, the AC has welcomed everyone from Vashti Bunyan to Robyn Hitchcock via Max Richter, the Leisure Society, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and the Heritage Orchestra to the chapel’s stage. Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars (and his ensemble, essaying Bryars’ seminal Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet) performed there as part of the annual Marginalised season, in aid of homelessness charities, promoted by Arctic Circle in collaboration with the UC.
Since 2008, the Union Chapel has also been the venue for AC’s increasingly popular ‘Daylight Music’ series: free, Saturday lunchtime concerts, presented with typical ingenuousness, at which up-and-coming acts rub shoulders with established artists as diverse as the London Bulgarian Choir and psych-rock cult hero Mark Fry, all in a spirit of amiable conviviality. Audiences of 400 and more now make ‘Daylight’ a regular part of their cultural weekend.
Daylight Music is the yin to the yang of Arctic Circle’s major ‘festival’-style themed productions. The first of these was named The Bubbly Blue and Green and staged at King’s Place, in February 2010. A four-day carnival of eclectic ‘water music’, it saw the likes of feted turntable artist Philip Jeck deliver a special composition based on Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ poem The Wreck Of The Deutschland and singer Dale Grundle, of The Sleeping Years, performing coastally inspired songs arranged by Nick Drake collaborator Robert Kirby. Hauschka, film composer Harry Escott’s Samphire Band and ISAN (who built their own astonishing, bespoke ‘Dripsophone’ instrument especially for the show) all contributed to this dreamlike maritime celebration.
The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me followed in August 2010. An ambitious, audiovisual wanderlust fantasy staged at Tate Britain, it featured singer-songwriter Dom Coyote, composers Paddy Steer (sometime Homelife leader, aka the ‘Manchester Moondog’), Harry Escott and Ted Barnes, along with visual artist Damian O’Hara (whose hands are responsible for AC’s delightful penguin art hallmark) and singer-songwriter Emily Barker delivering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s ‘Hushabye Mountain’ from the balcony of the Duveen Galleries, with an airplane suspended below. Paper Cinema’s performance of their ‘Lost Worlds’ received a standing ovation.
June 2011’s three-night-long Fairytales & Monsters event, again at King’s Place, offered a miscellany of heart-stirring music, visuals and workshops informed by the magic and mystery of childhood. Mapping the enchanted world of the imagination via the music of Moondog, performed by the Guildhall Saxophone, Percussion and Recorder Ensembles, harpist-singer Serafina Steer and a heart-stopping musical tribute to the beloved animations of the late Oliver Postgate, this was another bold curatorial tour de force whose magical spirit connected with the inner child of all who attended.
Arctic Circle continues to gather pace. In addition to presenting choice concerts by the likes of Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains (who were signed by Domino Records immediately after their AC performance), The North Sea Radio Orchestra (critically acclaimed mainstays of the AC, whose performances for Ben Eshmade now number in double-figures) and Nils Frahm & Anne Müller, 2011 saw AC curating musical acts and visuals in a crammed cinema tent at the Green Man Festival and producing the Memory Band’s Listen to Britain: Folk Music and Film event at King’s Place. This year also saw the first of many events in the unusual setting of the Westminster Reference Library where, between the bookshelves, they hosted events themed on around the sinister (two Halloween shows) and the celebratory, namely a cake and knees up celebration of their sixth year existence in 2012.
Always seeking to broaden its remit, Arctic Circle also supports a burgeoning infrastructure of subsidiary activities. Chief among these is the self-explanatory Arctic Circle Radio, broadcast on Resonance FM, and ‘The Hut’, a weekly one-hour show delivered by Ben Eshmade from AC’s own secluded cabin and broadcast on Chill and podcast via iTunes. Spinning a warm glow from the outer-reaches of the snowy wastelands, The Hut features guests and live sessions from AC’s extended family, including artists such as Nina Nastasia, Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains and Laura J Martin. (“Both a surprise and a delight… It’s quite a challenge to be cool and welcoming, but this show manages it,” was The Guardian’s verdict on The Hut).
In a further commitment to parlaying music beyond the gig stage, Arctic Circle also releases records, notably two Fuzzy Feeling Christmas-themed compilations (via the Static Caravan and Loaf Recordings imprints, respectively), featuring a number of AC regulars, as well as the ambitious Explorers’ Club singles series in conjunction with Loaf. The AC’s own label, Arctic Sound, was launched in late 2013. It’s first release comes from the AC’s own ‘supergroup’, the Age of Not Believing, featuring assorted gifted AC family members. An eagerly awaited debut album is about to be unveiled, with much further activity promised for the near future.
It surely goes without saying, but, eight years on, the Circle remains not only unbroken, it is expanding inexorably…
David Sheppard, March 2014