CLASSICAL MUSIC: Icebreaker; Queen Elizabeth Hall, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
As the group's concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday made clear, Icebreaker have come a long way since their formation in 1989 to play the works of Louis Andriessen and Diderik Wagenaar. At the time, doubt was shed on the continuing relevance of this Dutch brand of minimalism, raunchier and more dissonant than most American varieties. Seven or so years on, things have changed, of course; some would argue that Andriessen - whose work has become much better known internationally in that time - is more in tune with current concerns than, say, Philip Glass.

Andriessen has become a father figure for the composers of New York's Bang-on-a-Can Festival. Two of the instigators of this - David Lang and Michael Gordon-- were the focus of Icebreaker's latest programme. While they are perfectly prepared to require their audiences to submit to sonic onslaught, what is perhaps surprising about their work is a degree of structural rigour, sometimes clearly perceivable, that would surely appease most die-hard minimalists.

Veteran though I am of some pretty decibel-heavy things perpetrated over the years in the name of minimalism and postminimalism, I have to admit that this concert - boasting the Sound Services of Richard Nowell as well as Icebreaker's familiar line-up (including saxophones, pan-pipes, guitars and an accordion) - was loud. Seriously loud. It was also designed (and I use the word advisedly) to "ramp up the audience's visual input to an equal energy level" to that of the sound, to quote the programme notes, with computerised video and lighting effects provided by Hexstatic.

I found all this rather too much to take: a response that will, I dare say, be written off by those in the audience used to the sensual bombardment of raves. But even after I'd adjusted, after a fashion, to the promised "unstoppable wall of never-before-heard mega-sounds from beyond the cutting edge" (with the help of the cotton wool kindly provided by my better-prepared companion), I felt that the visual stimulus often interfered with, rather than enhanced, the musical impact. Much of what we saw, too - whether figurative (the inside of the body as well as the outside, I think) or abstract - was gratuitous, indulgent and sometimes merely cliched.

As for the music, distortion cast a veil over the first half. Ensemble appeared loose, but it was hard to tell. Conlon Nancarrow (arranged by Icebreaker's artistic director, James Poke) and Rhythm Schmythm by Lukas Ligeti (son of Gyorgy) were impenetrable. Lang's Slow Movement simply seemed texturally and harmonically boring: a piece, as promised, "in which nothing happens".

The full works were reserved for Gordon's Trance, a 52-minute epic inspired by the global availability of music, in which the usual group was augmented by brass, sampled pygmies, Buddhist monks, sheikhs and much else, and intermittently strafed by coloured lights. Musically, this was much better: rhythmically and texturally imaginative as well as vital, and benefiting from improved control from the giant mixing desk as well as more incisive playing. The trite, extended ending seemed a serious miscalculation, though.

Keith Potter