London Sinfonietta, Kings Place / Division Lobby, South Bank Centre

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The Independent Culture

The Kings Place electro-acoustic weekend opened with a potential killer-question from its presenter Robert Worby: was it not high time we stopped talking about ‘electro-acoustic’ music altogether?

As he pointed out, these days sound emerges everywhere from loudspeakers: whether coming directly from instruments, or electronically piped to us in a myriad different ways, it’s all just ‘music’ now. What he and the London Sinfonietta proposed to do was show us the possibilities inherent in the new world which sound-recording had created, assuming our willingness to listen, rather than just hear.

The weekend opened with Ligeti’s ‘Artikulation’, a 50-year-old avant-garde collage which now feels like the sweetest trip down memory lane. Meanwhile, breathily performed on bass flute and contrabassoon, Luigi Nono’s ‘A Pierre’ (Boulez) was a vivid demonstration of what can be achieved by digitally transforming and replaying sound as it’s being created, with the players accompanied by their own distorted ghosts.

Francis Dhomont’s musique concrete ‘Flight of Swallows’ was a lovely evocation of a Provencal landscape, but Luciano Berio’s ‘Differences’, which sought to transform our perception of acoustic sound by ‘sampling’, was - for me at least - a laborious failure, since the instruments sounded exactly the same at the end, as they had at the beginning.

Then things got bolder. Javier Alvarez’s ‘Le repas du serpent’ for cello, tape, and film sought to fuse sight and sound as one experience, but the film of a boa constrictor consuming a live rabbit was so horribly mesmerising that the cellist’s efforts went (by me) unnoticed. The evening’s highlight was James Tenney’s ‘For Percussion perhaps, Or…’, in which David Powell and his tuba became the still centre of a swirling universe of exotically reverberating sounds.

While the London Sinfonietta looked forward, the punningly-named Division Lobby ensemble was looking resolutely back, with some fascinating demonstrations of the largely lost art of improvisation. The basic message was that classical musicians should think like jazz players, whose chord-books are the modern equivalent of the ‘division’ books of 17th- century Italy.

A division, as practised by singers and lutenists, is the splitting-up of a single note into a convoluted and melismatic run: armed with her gigantic chitarrone, the diminutive Paula Chateauneuf led her fiddlers, cornettists, harpsichordists, and the brilliant tenor Mark Tucker, in a revelatory exploration of this wonderfully fertile technique. Back? Yes, but to the future.