Classical: Making it up as you go along

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The Independent Culture

FIVE MUSICIANS sat in a circle, playing bass flute, bass clarinet, trombone, viola and double bass. To one side lurked a solitary organist who, in addition to some crucial interventions of his own (including one unintended when part of his instrument fell off), provided many of the drones - some high and ethereal, some deep, throbbing and a trifle disturbing - that underpinned the whole

38-minute improvisation.

This performance of Cornelius Cardew's now venerable graphic score of the Sixties, Treatise - confined to 30 of its 193 pages - was given on Thursday by Music Projects/London as part of the British Music Information Centre's ongoing, and very successful, weekly series at The Warehouse. This venue is well suited to this intimate kind of musical experience; the audience, seated on either side of the playing-space, greeted the performance warmly.

Over the next couple of years, Music Projects hopes to do a complete read-through of Treatise. The decision is timely: Cardew's work gets insufficient exposure these days, and Treatise challenges performers of all kinds to employ it as a focus for improvising.

These seasoned new-music specialists - Nancy Ruffer, Roger Heaton, Roger Williams, Bridget Carey, Corrado Canonici and the ensemble's founder, Richard Bernas (here the organist) - may have been a bit too "classical" for some. The atmosphere was often subdued, though the rate of ebb and flow was fast, and some gestures were quite forceful and insistent. But I much enjoyed these players' responses, to each other as well as to the ambiguous graphics; and in particular their willingness to allow space for the music to breathe, while always holding the attention, and the subtle inclusion of triadic materials. Why don't more jazz musicians and amateurs attempt this magnum opus of experimental ingenuity?

The performance of the other work on the programme - Morton Feldman's 1978 composition Why Patterns? - was less successful. Part of the blame must surely lie with Feldman himself; in this trio, the flautist - here the commendable Nancy Ruffer, playing a variety of flutes - is always going to stand out in ways that unacceptably ruffle the rapt surfaces of the composer's typically soft and slow music.

Here, though, Richard Benjafield's glockenspiel (played with hard sticks) threw these delicately interweaving and repeating patterns (generally high, in contrast to the Treatise's improvisation's predominantly low ones - a nice touch) even more severely off balance. When I could in fact hear the piano playing of Richard Bernas it sounded, by contrast, exquisite. The audience didn't seem to concentrate as they had done in the Cardew. And what happened to the co-ordinated coda (present on all three of the commercial recordings which I have) in this otherwise unco-ordinated - and here 36-minute piece?

Music Projects is too seldom heard in Britain these days, though Bernas himself is still busy conducting abroad. His intelligently planned and always fascinating programmes used to be a staple of the London new music scene. I miss them.