At 6 pm on Wednesday evening, St Paul’s — an iconic part of the London skyline for hundreds of years — concluded its choral evensong service as usual. And just an hour later, the nearly 350-year-old Church of England cathedral was ready to stage its first techno night.
The historic venue has been the backdrop for a number of grand events. The Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria in 1897, the funerals of Admiral Lord Nelson in 1806 and Winston Churchill in 1965 and marriage of King Charles III and Diana in 1981. But this week, as part of a collaboration between the City of London Corporation and Fabric nightclub, it was home to a performance from Australian techno-rock artist Ry Cuming, known by their stage name Ry X, accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra.
“We wanted to bring people back to the City,” said Jorge Nieto, the creative director at Fabric, just hours before the event. The area surrounding St Paul’s has been somewhat lost to an abundance of office buildings and corporate lunch spots, Nieto said. “It’s about reconnecting younger audiences with the city and re-conceptualizing spaces.”
The public’s reaction to the event was overwhelming. According to Fabric, 95% of the church’s 2,000 capacity sold in three hours via a pre-sale registration (with the rest of the tickets selling out within minutes of general release) creating a waiting list of over 4,000 people.
On the night, a distinctly youthful crowd sat in secular awe as the sounds of electric guitars, drum kick machines and synthesizers filled the 17th-century domes. Aside from outdoor security, the event was managed by the cathedral’s regular ushers —who typically oversee services such as Eucharist, Mass and Holy Communion — dressed in their religious regalia, no less. Unlike a typical techno gig, there was no bar. The stage, despite being the site of the performance, seemed almost inconsequential — rather it was the blue, red and orange lighting bouncing off the gold leaf frescoes, or the intricacy of stained glass windows that held your attention as the music swelled.
For Ry X — a 35-year-old Grammy-nominated artist and producer who flew over from California especially for the gig — the right venue can make or break a concert. And St Paul’s, he said, was a no-brainer. “There’s not many things you drop everything for,” he told CNN in an interview ahead of his performance. “If you have a space that already has reverence and beauty and majesty to it, when people enter (it) they’re already changed. Then half the work is done.”
Staging a techno-rock concert inside a protected landmark, of course, comes with its challenges. The cathedral’s unique architecture and abundance of negative space proved to be particularly challenging for Ry. “I don’t think a synthesizer has been played in this building before,” he said. “So I was thinking, ‘How’s this going to go? Is it going to rattle something?’” He was also reckoning with considerable reverberation — every sound producing a chain reaction of echoes that hang in the space for 11 seconds; play too fast and you risk an aural pile-up. “I’m going to play in a way that I wouldn’t anywhere else, right for this room,” he said. “I’m almost making the music fit (St Paul’s) specifically.”
With the cathedral in active service up until an hour before the performance, so Ry and Nieto’s teams had just one soundcheck the night before to get it right. “We just took our best guess,” said Nieto. “We were here until 2 am, getting the sound down to a T.”
Perhaps it was the cathedral’s imposing iconography or simply the power of live music, but during the performance a certain fervor was in the air. When Ry commanded the audience to rise from our seats during his finale, we did — whooping and hollering much more than the average congregation. Guests left their seats to approach the pulpit, and some even stood on their chairs. “Who said you can’t play techno in a church?” Ry shouted out to the crowd, amid thunderous applause.