Philharmonic gives power to Elbow

A one minute segment of First Steps is used in the BBC's Olympics titles

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When Elbow's singer Guy Garvey walked the corridors of the old BBC Manchester building, he occasionally heard music drift from the BBC Philharmonic studio.

So it was natural that, when the Mercury-winning band was chosen to score the BBC's Olympic theme, he asked if the orchestra could get involved.

First Steps

Athlete
  • Elbow wrote and produced six-minute theme
  • Orchestral score arranged by conductor Nick Ingman
  • Performed by BBC Philharmonic and NovaVox choir, with some elements from Elbow
  • Soundtracks BBC Sport's "Stadium UK" title sequence and marketing trail
  • Imagery made by Red Bee and RKCR/Y&R, who created last year's Bring me Sunshine trail, and Passion Pictures

Not one to give up on this unique platform, general manager Richard Wigley replied "We'll find time anyway" after the marketing agency inquired whether the BBC ensemble could fit a recording day into their busy concert schedule.

And so, on a wintry Sunday at their Salford studio, the 90-strong orchestra gathered, complete with horns, a harp and strings.

Within a six-hour day, they went from first rehearsal to final recordings.

"The musicians have been training all their lives and it wasn't technically difficult. It was hard but it wasn't impossible and they are very, very quick," says Wigley.

"The good thing is that [Elbow's keyboard player] Craig Potter, who was producing in the booth, knew what he wanted and how to get it, so musicians will always respect that because it's easy to faff about but he really understood what he wanted."

"A real art"

Garvey told 6 Music that the band wanted "something rousing and anthemic and bold".

He has previously written: "The Olympic Games is about the coming together of people to celebrate our best athletes and it was as important to have a sympathetic theme for the losers as it was for the winners."

The wonders of multi-tracking, where separate tracks can be mixed into a single whole, meant Elbow could record their elements before the BBC Philharmonic's rehearsals.

BBC Philharmonic and Elbow Conductor Nick Ingman worked with Elbow's Craig Potter and Guy Garvey

After performing the theme as a full orchestra, the different sections, e.g. violins, trumpets etc, were then recorded separately.

"It is a challenge," explains Wigley. "Normally the orchestra are playing together, but to pull out and record single lines is a different skill.

"And then to deliver that for about 10 takes at a consistently high level, until it's just what the producer wants, is a real art."

Lyrics performed by gospel choir NovaVox in London were later added to make up the six-minute theme First Steps.

There are so many different segments from the track that one of Wigley's colleagues forgets how the whole melody starts (answer: it's the brass section).

Wigley says Radio 5 live's marketing trail uses a "very percussive" segment, while medal ceremony coverage may include a short fanfare.

There are no plans for the BBC Philharmonic, NovaVox and Elbow to perform live together, but the full theme will be available as a digital-only download from the day of the opening ceremony on 27 July.

Elbow have also waived all fees and royalties for the download, and profits will be donated to BBC Children in Need and Sport Relief.

"Abbey Road of the north"

The collaboration on First Steps, which the BBC Philharmonic recorded on 4 December, ended an eventful year for the orchestra.

BBC Philharmonic and Elbow frontman Guy Garvey Guy Garvey at the BBC Philharmonic recording in December

In March 2011, the musicians were on tour in Japan when a massive earthquake struck and they felt the magnitude 9.0 tremors while crossing a suspension bridge.

A few months later, they were the first BBC department to move to MediaCityUK, celebrating their arrival with a festival of collaborations across network radio.

Start Quote

Richard Wigley

I love it when Guy Garvey and Craig Potter come into our studio and go 'Blimey, isn't this good'”

End Quote Richard Wigley BBC Philharmonic

Known as BBC Philharmonic Presents, the performances - including 5 live's Film Review and the Dubstep Symphony on Radio 1 - drew 11 million views and listens and will return this autumn with events across northern England.

In the spirit of increasing northern cooperation, the orchestra have spoken with the Woman's Hour team in Salford about future projects, something which Wigley says would not have happened at their previous Manchester studios, even though they were on the same floor.

However John Myerscough's recent review of the BBC's performing groups (five orchestras around the UK and a choir) recommended that a maximum of 10% savings should be made to the total budget, possibly at least £2.1m per year by 2016/17.

Wigley admits this could lead to a loss of posts and discussions are taking place with the Musicians' Union.

But he still has ambitions for BBC Philharmonic's studio to become the "Abbey Road of the north".

"I love it when people like Guy Garvey and Craig Potter come into our studio and go 'Blimey isn't this good'.

"In fact I like to think it's better than Abbey Road. If it takes 10 years to get to that point then that's fine."

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