Arctic Circle’s catch line, An Expedition Into New Music,is an apposite strapline for what is London’s most adventurous, inventive, tenacious yet delightfully unpretentious concert promoter and event producer, and an increasingly vital component of the capital’s 21st century live music culture. Having supported over a thousand artists, and hosted performances everywhere from the glamorous cellar of the Notting Hill Arts Club to the vertiginous ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park, Arctic Circle is now a byword for going the extra mile when it comes to staging sometimes elaborate, always magically-themed events and presenting prestigious, cutting-edge international musicians in some of London’s most atmospheric, characterful venues.
It’s an accessible approach made manifest by AC’s regular, free, Saturday afternoon ‘Daylight Music’ concerts which have been taking place at Islington’s glorious Union Chapel since 2008 – a genuinely unique, wonderfully accessible live music phenomenon that has inexorably sewn itself into the very fabric of London’s cultural life. Attracting several hundred souls every week to enjoy a panoply of music from both new and established artists, while tucking into delicious homemade tea and cakes, its combination of social conviviality and high calibre artistry now provides the charming highlight of many a Londoner’s weekend, with crowds regularly topping the 500 mark, transforming the venerable chapel into a nexus of free-spirited creativity and genuine good feeling. Themed events are becoming an increasingly popular Daylight Music feature. Daylight Music, it seems, is one strand of activity that is destined to run long into Arctic Circle’s second decade.
Ten years on from its inception, it’s surely time to celebrate the organic yet inexorable evolution of Arctic Circle, which has, over time, acquired the curatorial clout to present performances by the stellar likes of Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars while continuing to foster exciting, emergent young talent. After all, it was the AC that gave early breaks to artists such as Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm, Hauschka and Peter Broderick, and has promoted everything from the critically acclaimed and esoteric (Ex Easter Island Head, the Portico Quartet…) to next generation leftfield stars-in-waiting (Haiku Salut, Ed Dowie) and even the tea-time TV mainstream (Paloma Faith) along the way, alongside many dozens of other established or potential 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, programme note writer, interviewer, all-round musical fixer and more…), his unquenchable passion for music that 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 on March 17 2006, by 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 that refuses to be easily pigeonholed. 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 stuffy musical elitism, the avuncular Eshmade has always been fastidious in circumventing obscurantism and cliques – the AC’s genial, unassuming ethos underscored by its infamous penguin-themed visuals and an overriding spirit of child-like wonder.
Things developed significantly for Arctic Circle during the remainder of 2006 and into 2007, with events staged at the ICA, The Spitz, the aforementioned 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 (winner of the 2010 Time Out London’s ‘Best British Venue’ gong) that would become established as Arctic Circle’s, as it were, ‘spiritual’ home. AC sold out an early Notwist show there and early events included a bill containing 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, Max Richter, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, The Waves Pictures, Stick in the Wheel and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the chapel’s stage. It was these events that led on to the establishment of the aforementioned ‘Daylight Music’ series.
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 Ninstasia, 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 the Loaf label. Furthermore, a sort of AC supergroup, Age of Not Believing, under the stewardship of Ben Eshmade, was formed in 2011, releasing on EP, Lantern Waste, on the AC’s own Arctic Sound imprint, in 2013. A collection or expansively arranged yet intimate original compositions alongside covers of Henry Mancini and Sherman Brothers standards, it drew affirmative reviews (“…an intriguing enterprise… happily leaves us wanting more” opined Delusions of Adequacy) and galvanised the ensemble into further recording. A debut ANB album was released on state51 in December 2018 entitled - Rainbow Plumage, Blue Shadows and Emptiness and showcased on the 6music breakfast show.
It surely goes without saying that, ten plus years since its first tentative steps, Arctic Circle’s Expedition into New Music is still going strong and shows no sign of abating any time soon – the snow shoes are still on and the ears wide open…David Sheppard, April 2016