Contemporary music: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Click to follow
There was a time when the Edinburgh Festival devoted a whole weekend to contemporary music. That was in the days when we all believed in Schoenberg's doctrine that the avant-garde represented the future. Nobody really believes this any more; contemporary music has become a kind of colourful cottage industry, with its own composers, its own performers, its own European centres and its own audience.

It apparently has its Romantics, like Heiner Goebbels, and its classics, like James Dillon. The Festival managed to find a long evening for these composers, plus a senior figure, Gyorgy Kurtag, whose haunting Songs of Despair and Sorrow were sung late at night.

Dillon's most obvious background lies in the work of Xenakis and perhaps figures like Ferneyhough and Finnissy. But where Xenakis is gritty and elemental, Ferneyhough aggressively abstruse, Dillon (who has been a rock musician) has a love of sheer sound, with a delicate ear for timbre and texture.

His Uberschreiten seemed too uniform and short-winded, but the premiere of Blitzschlag revealed a richly inventive piece for flute and orchestra, the solo part swirling with bird-like embellishments - the eloquent player was Pierre-Yves Artaud - and an accompaniment that articulated individual notes and intervals, the chiming wind and pacing strings rediscovering metrical time. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, whose record for playing new music is honourable indeed, were conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

This Usher Hall performance was followed by a "music theatre" piece, Black on White by Heiner Goebbels, for which we had to trek to the Royal Lyceum Theatre just next door. There we found a stage full of low benches, amidst which the 17 musicians played draughts, batted a shuttlecock and played skittles with trombone mutes. There was nothing that could be called real musical invention. But this was not the point; this kind of event is meant to deconstruct the economy of normal concert life, to erode the nexus of score and performer, performer and audience, syntax and comprehension.

The members of Ensemble Modern traipsed around, flung tennis balls, recited fragments from Eliot and Poe, and occasionally showed that they could really play; together with normal instruments there were a contrabass clarinet, cymbalom, koto and electric clavichord. The nicest gag was the placing of a whistle on a boiling kettle, which played a sweet chord while a piccolo improvised in dreamy Debussyan rapture. The whole thing was poised between enigma, irony and send-up. Profound it was not. But then, it was meant to send up profundity, along with every other feature of our musical world.

The Kurtag songs, back in the Usher Hall, were atonal and enormously texturally dense, apparently in eight or more parts, and needed an unusually able choir. The Edinburgh Festival Singers, conducted by David Jones, proved themselves well up to the task, and the composer had come all the way from Hungary to hear their passionate and plaintive tones.