Friday 31st August marked my first ever venture up to the beautiful and widely familiar (thanks Geordie Shore) city of Newcastle. For my first experience of The Hexagon Experiment we headed down to the Boiler Shop, an industrial giant of a venue self-dubbed to have “great character and rugged charm.” The space had a gritty edge to it, with a confidence that can only have come with the recent renovation back in 2016, casting a modern spin on what had previously been the first locomotive works back in the 1800’s. A really remarkable space. “The Boiler Shop venue in Newcastle is dead cool”, said manager of Kraftwerk – funnily enough a band who also inspired the mysterious Wow Machine and its creators.
Before the ‘Wow’ began however, the evening was introduced by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Nemone who was joined in-conversation by Stealing Sheep, comedian Helen Keen and lecturer in Sound Production at the University of York and Chair of the Audio Engineering Society Dr Mariana Lopez. The discussion told audiences a little about our previous commission with Stealing Sheep, the currently touring Suffragette Tribute, before giving us an insight into the influences of Wow Machine – particularly electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, the unsung heroine of British electronic music most widely known for her creation of the original Doctor Who theme. The band explained their trip to The Radiophonic Workshop where they were sent some of Delia’s previously unheard foley recordings which they had resampled for Wow Machine, using her various techniques to do so.
The conversation then moved on to the state of the music industry today and the gender imbalance that currently exists within it. This imbalance is why Both Sides Now, our three year programme to celebrate and showcase women in music, of which The Hexagon Experiment is part of, exists. Statistics were shared, opinions were given and questions were asked. A conversation was had which is just what events like this are meant for: championing the work of inspirational women in music and inspiring other women to conquer the music industry and bridge that gap.
Back to the Wow Machine. What is it? A question on the minds of many as audience members filtered in with a curious uncertainty in their eyes. What was to come? They were promised “a theatrical-musical-dance-art spectacular”. Their only hints included a hexagonal stage, sci-fi sunglasses and sparkly suits – very Stealing Sheep! As they entered the space they were greeted by the three-tiered light up stage produced by Liverpool’s experimental performance producers The Kazimier. The dormant contraption loomed in the middle of the room, empty, waiting. Eventually the lights dipped and the chatter was drowned out of earshot by the sound of cowbells and a rumbling bass that shook the room. It was at this point Stealing Sheep and their geometric gang of dancers made their humble but powerful entrance. They took their places across the three tiers, Stealing Sheep occupying the three light up podiums at the very top, and the music begun.
A robotic narrator greeted us from above, introducing “the fantastic, magnificent Stealing Sheep”. Silent anticipation became a flurry of abstract sounds, almost certainly belonging to Delia, which grew and intensified before being replaced by a harmonious repetition of the words “Wow Machine”. Then suddenly the audience was transported into electronica. Or down the rabbit hole. Or through Wonka’s psychedelic tunnel. All of the above to be honest! The harmonising voices of the electro-pop trio commanded lights, sounds and bodies alike. Dancers, dressed in their stunning costumes, courtesy of Hannah Bitowski who took part in a Both Sides Now residency earlier in the year, posed for us in multitudes of impressionistic and abstract shapes. Choreography and music combined in a continuous stream of experimentation and confrontation from band members and dancers alike. The dancers’ minimalistic yet complex movements emulated the work Delia brought to the table back in her heyday and complimented the beats that echoed throughout the space. Bodies moved in time to the rhythm of the Machine which was cohesive and robotic throughout.
There were a number of sections or movements –whatever you want to call them – that made up the performance, all of which I wanted more of. The Wow Machine was ferocious; an almost nonstop locomotive of abstract sounds and movements which teased a number of different tracks that were jam-packed into the short timeframe given. There was little room to reflect on what we were seeing as we were pulled away from one house heavy soundscape and plunged into another which made some moments within the hour-long set feel lost or left behind.
The Sheep delivered on their promise of a theatrical-musical-dance-art spectacular for sure. I only wish there had been more time to experience the Delia Derbyshire x Stealing Sheep wow child.