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New Noise - Cross Talk Purcell Room, SBC, 6 May 2008

Iannis Xenakis Ohko
Pedro Gomez-Egana Clark nova
Steve Reich Four Organs INTERVAL

Karlheinz Stockhausen Kreuzspiel
Martin Parker Grab WP
Donnacha Dennehy Fold WP

Janey Miller oboe Richard Haynes bass clarinet Helen Reid piano Joby Burgess, Richard Benjafield, Scott Wilson percussion Matthew Fairclough sound design

Cross Talk is the title of Joby Burgess and Janey Miller’s project to expand their New Noise duo to perform new pieces alongside late 20th-century classics and, for once, a funky name bore a meaningful resemblance to the music presented.

Xenakis, Reich and Stockhausen – all composers with crossover appeal and influence – provided the scaffolding. Xenakis’s Okho for three djembes is, like many of his percussion works, disarmingly upfront about itself. No tricks, just drums. Its effectiveness, particularly in the hands of skilled performers such as these, is to conceal a profound range of colour and variation beneath that brutal surface.

Reich’s Four Organs attempts something similar by different means. This felt like a more idiosyncratic performance, however, that moved relatively swiftly through the piece’s opening units. Certain landmarks in the process – the completion of an attack on every quaver in the bar, for example – stood out from the surrounding music and, as a result, it was more sectional than gradually transitional. Interesting, but it carried the risk of some areas feeling less energised than others.

Stockhausen’s snappy Kreuzspiel was much more convincing and found the ensemble in its most relaxed groove. One of the strengths of this concert was its programming, in which intersections were explored between older and newer works as well as works from both the European avant-garde and American minimal traditions, and Kreuzspiel was the joint that connected these various arms together. Dennehy’s Fold, for example, shared much of the same ground in its development of musical processes across heterogeneous layers. But Donnacha Dennehy’s influences come from the USA as much as Europe and Fold was a post-minimal cascade of ringing tones and queasy microtonality. His strong harmonic instinct made this a beautifully unsettling piece, but it was a shame the group weren’t able to bring the same breeziness to it that they had to Kreuzspiel. This is probably the difference between playing a new work and an established classic, but it slightly undermined Cross Talk’s ambition to connect the new with the slightly older.

No such questions with the performance of Martin Parker’s Grab. The piece employs a live computer-generated shadow of the oboe, bass clarinet and percussion trio, which is triggered by the on-stage performers, growing Hydra-like until it threatens to utterly overwhelm them. This simple arc is made much more interesting by the complexity of the live music the performers are required to play, even as the rich details of their efforts are obliterated by the computer. The drama was in the palpable sense of waste and futility as performing skill and commitment was digitised and then redeployed against itself.

This was, on the whole, a successful programme. The unfortunate exception was Pedro Gómez Egaña’s Clark Nova, written for oboe and percussion duo with additional electronics. Each performer followed Flash-animated graphic scores on laptops (it wasn’t clear whether this score was always the same or was computer generated in real-time). It took a very long time to get going and before it did was almost excruciatingly vapid. Sounds were stripped to the minimum and those that did tiptoe forward were simply too meek (some crumpling cellophane, a ‘whirly’ sound tube, the odd oboe motif) to meet the responsibilities required of them, and they collapsed under expectation. Things got more involved halfway through, with bowed and struck metal bowls providing a steady underlay to the oboe’s explorations, and the work finally found some confidence in its own voice, in particular making interesting sonic connections between oboe and percussion. It all remained sparse, neutral and introspective, but progressed now in a greater spirit of shared endeavour. An instructive lesson that, even in the most rarified of soundworlds, more really can be more.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson
(Information Officer Society for Musical Analysis & Editor of its Newsletter,)

A welcome to contemporary music specialist Tim Rutherford-Johnson on his first contribution to Musical Pointers. I too was at this enjoyable and enterprising New Noise concert (regular reviewers from the media were conspicuously absent) having been alerted to it by good memories of the New Noise Duo at Rotterdam 2001, and of Joby Burgess since then. [Editor]