Outer Limits: How Prog are North Sea Radio Orchestra?
They’re the collective specialising in alternative chamber music with plenty of twists and have been compared to the late great Frank Zappa. But how prog are North Sea Radio Orchestra?
They are a London-based collective who have been known to perform in churches and public libraries and boasted, at various points of their 15-plus years’ existence, anything up to 20 instrumentalists, featuring bassoon, oboe, clarinet and organ players who conjure images of court musicians, alongside guitarists, bassists and drummers. They have refashioned the music of Robert Wyatt in tandem with veterans of Henry Cow. They are affiliated, variously, with members of 80s/90s progressive punk cult heroes the Cardiacs and contemporary proggers Knifeworld. They are led by a composer, conductor and musician who admits his first band obsession was Gabriel-era Genesis. Their music – part improvised, part classically notated – is a blend of ye olde worlde and modern, of classical, chamber and baroque, rock of the kraut variety, electronica and folk. It has been compared to everyone from Incredible String Band to Frank Zappa. Prog would venture that they are pretty prog.
“We’ve been called prog folk,” says Craig Fortnam, the leader of the merry band of men and women who operate as North Sea Radio Orchestra. “I like it when they say we’re ‘chamber music’ because that covers a lot of things. What does ‘prog’ mean? We do have rock tendencies. But really, we’ve always ploughed our own furrow, which is great because nobody else is doing what we do. We are unique. The problem is, what are we? People in the [music] industry find it hard to know what to do with us.”
How do record companies respond? Are they baffled into silence?
“Well, the reason we release our own records is that record companies like us but don’t know what to do with us,” he replies. “Likewise concert bookers. Where do we play? Not rock venues.
I mean, we can, but it’s not ideal. We fall between stools.”
Do people confuse NSRO, because of their name/acronym, with those other outer limits proggers British Sea Power and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)?
“Maybe,” he allows. “But both of those bands are much more rock. We’re chamber music, which is small ensembles playing in rooms. Rock bands are loud. Mind you, we can be rocky. Our new album [Dronne] has a couple of tunes on it with drums.”
Fortnam, 48, has been in bands for most of his adult life, starting with mid-80s “Hawkwind rip-off band” GNI, through whom he met the Cardiacs. During the late-80s and 90s he was busy on the gig circuit with psych-pop outfits Lake Of Puppies and The Shrubbies. Then he went to Dartington College to study composition. There, he decided, “I wanted to be Stravinsky.”
So he went from wanting to be Lemmy to Stravinsky overnight?
“No,” he corrects. “From Dave Brock to Stravinsky.”
In his heavy gigging years, Fortnam was delighted to be playing in bands but appalled by the number of people who would use the concerts as glorified social events and natter throughout.
“They’d just turn up and chat with their mates – it was pointless.”
So he vowed that his next foray would demand seating and total concentration. Hence NSRO. Hence, also, the accusation from some quarters that they are prim and precious purveyors of bourgeois smugness.
“I’ve never really worried about that,” parries Fortnam, inured to criticism. Besides, the cries of middle-class mimsiness are far outweighed by critics falling over themselves to hail their music’s ethereal beauty and choral splendour. And anyway, as he points out, NSRO’s audience largely comprises rock fans, and their reactions are far from fey.