Arts: Drumming their way out of a plastic bag

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The Independent Culture
LIKE A great string quartet or jazz group, the four percussionists of Ensemble Bash seem to have developed that almost telepathic form of ensemble communication, an empathy that allows them to play a wide range of genres with accuracy and gusto.

But unlike the Modern Jazz Quartet or Kronos, they don't have an ensemble "sound". The nature of their calling means that each member plays at least a dozen different instruments - tuned and otherwise - from all over the world.

What makes Ensemble Bash distinctive is their way of doing things, plus a variable but expanding repertoire of percussion quartet pieces they have built up through commissions and adaptations.

The most satisfying music in their concert for the Spitalfields Festival came from pieces and idioms they have been playing for some time. The single-set concert opened and closed with new arrangements of African music that incorporate several gyile, big Ghanaian xylophones that dominated the stage. For these pieces, ensemble regulars Richard Benjafield, Chris Brannick, Stephen Hiscock and Andrew Martin were augmented by percussionist/composers Paulinus Bozie and Mario Deiekuuroh.

The resulting sextet, a bigger Bash, produced a dense, exciting ensemble sound with timbres that shifted and developed slowly over ten or fifteen- minute stretches, the musicians moving from instrument to instrument with evident ease and enjoyment.

Other core repertoire favourites included Benjafield's clever arrangements of a handful of Chick Corea's Children's Songs used as punctuation - short, quiet interludes between the longer works.

Yet the two big new pieces, heralded as "major world premieres", were disappointing: maybe they needed more "playing in" to do justice to their composers' intentions. Where jazz and rock groups develop work in progress on the road, and theatre companies do out-of-town previews for plays and musicals, contemporary "classical" concerts tend to make a big deal about the first performance - which often turns out to be the last.

I hope this is not the case for The Art of Concealment by Christopher Fox or for Nocturno y Toque, by Javier Alvarez. Fox's was one of Ensemble Bash's "carrier bag" commissions for instruments that can be carried to the gig (without the fuss of big trucks and difficult "get-ins"that bedevil percussionists).

The episodic structure of the piece, which involved instruments hidden in coat pockets, waistcoat pockets and plastic bags with manuscript paper concealed in carefully chosen books, resulted in a kind of deadpan music theatre of the absurd. Fox's best music has a knack of catching the listener by surprise, hovering in the space between captivating miniature and ambitious magnum opus, but this was neither.

Alvarez's piece, for two tenor steel pans and two marimbas, produced some lovely washes of sound, blurred tonalities and a kind of heat haze of interacting system patterns formed from the intriguing combination of instruments, in which the sour tones of the steel drums dominated the sweet timbres of the marimbas.

And however adventurous Ensemble Bash's programme might be, they had the commercial nous to include at least one classic work by a dead composer.

Second Construction, by John Cage, was a highlight of the concert, given an appropriately sensitive and reverent performance in the beautiful ambience of Christ Church.

John L Walters