Aran O’Grady and Seamus Ryan are seasoned veterans of Trinity Orchestra’s almost yearly homage to modern pop music. Regularly involved in the productions, playing saxophone and keyboard respectively, they each eventually turned their focus towards arranging and the bigger orchestral picture. Ryan recognises how being “a control freak” lends itself to being an arranger: “For me it was looking at the orchestra and thinking they should do Vampire Weekend and that no one else is going to do it properly.”
Having previously taken on orchestral arrangements like Sufjan Stevens and Vampire Weekend as solo projects, the pair decided that this year’s venture required a degree of collaboration: “Both of us are the same where the idea of having that kind control, or moulding something is really exciting for us.” The decision was easy, despite coming some time after David Bowie’s passing in January. “Bowie has died, and it would be so sad if that was just a week of news, and then the world moves on. It’s a testament to the legacy and influence he had that eight months on people are still mourning … In a way it’s both our and EP’s thank you to him”.
Trinity Orchestra opened Saturday’s proceedings of the Electric Picnic main stage with a rousing tribute to Bowie, outdoing themselves once again on the festival’s biggest stage. The crowd may have been rain-soaked and low in spirit, but the set invigorated them and blew the shackles off of any lingering hangovers, kickstarting another day of debauchery. The performance of the orchestra was emphatic and emotive, bolstered by the guest appearance of former Trinity student, Hozier. This addition inspired one of the most memorable sing-alongs of the weekend and created an unrivalled sense of occasion.
The crowd may have been rain-soaked and low in spirit, but the set invigorated them and blew the shackles off of any lingering hangovers, kickstarting another day of debauchery
“Having a big crowd in front of everyone [in the orchestra] makes a big difference, both in their playing and their enjoyment. At the end of the day, we’re not a professional orchestra, we’re just a hundred people wanting to play really good music together. That’s almost the most important thing.”
However, these brief moments of magic are the pinnacle of months of work, and O’Grady admits that this arrangement will definitely be his last. Channelling pop music, particularly rock, through an orchestra is at times challenging and takes a lot of energy and commitment. “It’s less the expectation on you and more the physical and emotional toil that arranging that much music takes on you … you go a bit mad”, confesses Ryan.
O’Grady and Ryan made an executive decision at the beginning of the project to remove any trace of guitar from their work, veering away from an instrument so rich and dense that it could mask many of the intricacies of the orchestra. “It would almost just be easier to do dance music, something with full texture like LCD [Soundsystem] that’s just vamping in the background. It almost doesn’t sound like an orchestra, but rather a chamber ensemble…”. This deliberate omission leaves a space in the sound, though, one that has the potential to cause a dilemma in the arrangement. “Something like Bowie can be a bit trickier, it’s already quite full and pristine. Think of “Rebel Rebel”, and it’s basically a guitar riff, drums and bass. Now think about that when you’re trying to write parts for 50 instruments. It’s quite daunting.”
O’Grady explains, however, that bigger issues lie in trying to translate some of Bowie’s more nuanced sounds to fit that of an orchestra: “Then again, you think of things like “Life on Mars” and “Space Oddity”, which I’ve seen so many orchestras do online, and it sounds terrible. They come to the end of the song, and no one quite knows what they’re doing, and then it just turns into a mass of noise. Much of what [Bowie] does can be quite hard to recreate.” The duo then went on to predict that the performance had the potential to take on a life of its own on the day, “such is the dynamism of Bowie’s work. It’s definitely the most eclectic thing the orchestra has done”.
“Something like Bowie can be a bit trickier, it’s already quite full and pristine. Think of “Rebel Rebel”, and it’s basically a guitar riff, drums and bass. Now think about that when you’re trying to write parts for 50 instruments. It’s quite daunting”
Not only do problems arise in the technical arrangement of the music, but they are also handling quite sensitive content. Very few artists were as diverse, colourful or popular as Bowie, and he left a lasting impression extending far beyond the world of music: “Everyone has a different interpretation of his legacy.” O’Grady and Ryan had to be quite firm at times regarding both the setlist and portions of the arrangement. “It’s the same workload, but we wanted to work on it together”. “It’s good to be able to tease it out and see what would work the best together.”
“When I did Sufjan Stevens and LCD Soundsystem, not many people in the orchestra knew the music, and they gave me quite a bit of trust to do whatever I wanted with it. This time there were a lot of people chiming in saying, oh you should do this and that … try as they might change it”, O’Grady adds.
The orchestra itself also has a legacy that has to be taken into account. Rob Farhat brought the Trinity Orchestra into the limelight with performances of Gorillaz and Daft Punk that became viral hits. “When we first started doing it, it garnered a lot of attention because the idea of playing this pop music with an orchestra was very novel. So it obviously got a lot of traction, and deservedly so, amazing players and amazing arrangers”. The aim now, Ryan believes, is to “do stuff that can be appreciated beyond the novelty, not that the previous ones wouldn’t be appreciated if they weren’t novel”.
Electric Picnic does not mark the end for this particular tribute, however. The orchestra is set for another performance in October, this time in the Exam Hall, where minor tweaks to the arrangement and a better environment for orchestration will fortify their sound further. The pair agree that despite any hype surrounding the big festival performances, as arrangers “a great sounding performance is almost second to none”.