Edinburgh Festival: Tuning in to the music of movement

Michael Church and Andrew Stewart meet the men behind the music to which the Mark Morris Group comes dancing
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First impression: two ancient hippies, one portly and slow, the other so seized-up with arthritis that every step is an achievement. Both sport faded floral shirts, turquoise Mexican amulets, patriarchal beards, and flowing white pony tails. West Coast flower power in its dotage?

Definitely, you feel, as they get down to business in the lecture room, the portly one - Lou - holding forth, while the arthritic one - Bill - dozes off in a corner. After a few minutes' discourse, Lou raises his voice. "Bill! Bill!! Would you do me the honour of inserting the tape?" His manner is patient, amused, Dickensian. Bill struggles across the room, sets the music going, then goes back to sleep in his corner.

After an hour of unpunctuated chat, the action shifts to a room full of gongs and iron pots where Lou positions himself behind a drum. But here Bill is magically transformed, filling the air with flute music, and sending his mallets skittering up and down the metal range. Meet Lou Harrison, composer-guru of the gamelan, and his lifelong associate, William Colvig, the West's leading builder of oriental instruments. Both will be 80 next year, but that first impression was wrong: this is flower power in its vernal prime.

At the Edinburgh Festival Theatre tonight, the Mark Morris Dance Group will be performing to one of Harrison's gamelan scores, World Power. When I encountered him last week, however, Harrison was doing a stint as composer- in-residence at Dartington Summer School, beguiling his students with ancient soundworlds, and blinding them with a science that is both romantic and dauntingly rigorous.

His opening gambit is to declare war on computers: his audience of budding composers, who take it as axiomatic that computers are what you create on, are instantly struck dumb. Next he declares war on "equal temperament" - the tuning system on which all Western music has been based since its invention two centuries ago. Equal temperament was created so that musicians could modulate smoothly from key to key; in the tonal system that preceded it, modulation was fraught with complication.

Harrison wants passionately to return to that earlier system. "Equal temperament deprives us of real beauty - it deprives us of things we are genetically wired for. Engineers did this - reboring the woodwind instruments, standardising the keyboard ones - and it's time musicians took back what they've been robbed of. When I listen to music played in equal temperament, I get dizzy, because it's not a natural thing - it's artificial, a fake. A Bach fugue played in a different key from the one it was written for has a different character and colouring. The old intonation has a richness we've lost." He only permits his piano concerto to be performed if the instrument has been retuned to suit it. He has twice forced retuning on an entire orchestra.

But he also wants to go back a lot further in time, to the tuning modes discovered in 18th-century BC cuneiform script. From the nine different modes of the Babylonian harp, he progresses to the chromatic scale recorded by Didymus in the first century AD, where he pauses to note an extraordinary fact: the music Nero fiddled to was, as near as dammit, based on the scale used by our present-day blues. On, then, through the scales recorded by the astronomer Ptolemy, and those recorded by the Persian physician Avicenna. Harrison plays a snatch of each - some with echoes of flamenco and Turkish classical lute music - and winces when Bill inadvertently releases a blast of the modern stuff. That blast makes the point: amid the swirling fecundity of the ancient modes, a sudden whiff of formaldehyde.

But Harrison and Colvig are dedicated first and last to the gamelan: Colvig makes the biggest in America, and Harrison composes for them. Harrison's encounter with oriental music began when he was studying in San Francisco: visits to the Cantonese opera inspired visits to scrapyards to find brake- drums that could serve as percussion. His exhilarating 1941 Fugue - initially thought unplayable, but now performed across the world - is scored for five brake-drums alongside a washtub, cowbells and maracas.

But what is it about the gamelan that so obsesses him? "It's a world of sound conceived and tuned by one maker. This was a new idea in the West, until Debussy and Ravel were bowled over by it. It's beautiful from top to bottom - when you hear that great gong come in at the end, it can raise your hair. Composing a major gamelan piece is like building a cathedral, and shipping it into outer space. No other music in the world has that scope and grandeur."

Harrison has been in his time a dancer, calligrapher, critic, Esperantist and teacher, and he has long held the torch for that American rebel tradition epitomised by the sometime hobo, Harry Partch, who created a scale with a mind-boggling 43 intervals per octave. As a pre-eminently practical man, Harrison can see the funny side to that, but he and Colvig are always on the look-out for new ways to stand convention on its head. Next year they plan to build a straw-bale house on a strip of desert they've bought. Back to basics again.

But you couldn't get more basic than the gamelan, as even Shakespeare sensed. For what else are the sounds and sweet airs, the thousand twangling instruments that hum about Caliban's ears?

n Mark Morris mixed bill, featuring Lou Harrison's 'World Power': 7.30pm today, tomorrow, 2pm/7.30 Wed, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-225 5756). Recordings of Harrison's music are available on the New Albion label

At some point during the evolutionary process, it appears that the gene controlling dance skills vanished from the DNA of most classical musicians, its demise hastened by Puritan zeal and Victorian restraint. Cultured audiences of Monteverdi's time would doubtless have been puzzled by today's concert presentation of Renaissance madrigals, in which po- faced performers remain rooted to the spot, even in pieces based on the funkiest Baroque dance rhythms or coloured by the most gut-wrenching of harmonies.

A new collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and Concerto Italiano aims to rekindle the lost spirit of music and gesture with a choreographed programme of Monteverdi madrigals, commissioned to celebrate the Edinburgh Festival's 50th season. An anthology of works from the composer's years in control of the music at St Mark's in Venice, I Don't Want to Love includes the emotionally charged "Lamento della Ninfa", "Zefiro torna", one of the most seductive of all dance songs, and the intensely passionate "Soave libertate".

Having established a considerable international reputation through their award-winning recordings on the Opus 111 label, Concerto Italiano and their director Rinaldo Alessandrini are now generating a renewed pride back home in the nation's "antique" music and encouraging other Italian groups to explore the rich repertoire of Renaissance and Baroque vocal music that has lately been colonised by performers from overseas. Verdi and Puccini may well stand as the ultimate test for Italy's young singers, but those drawn to the music of Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Marenzio and their contemporaries are at last being taken seriously.

"I think the line of interest in early vocal music was never completely broken in Italy," observes Alessandrini. "Half the problem was that we had so few opportunities to do detailed work on the music, since there were no specialist record labels at home. Then there was a lack of a suitable concert structure in Italy." Italian concert associations proved stubbornly reluctant to programme early vocal music unless they could include the redeeming word "opera" somewhere in the publicity material. Meanwhile, eager amateur choirs did little to convince professional promoters that 17th-century madrigals made box-office sense.

"There are many people able to perform madrigals in Italy, but opera is so present in our musical life that it seemed to be the only way for singers to make a career. Soon I think we'll have at least two or three other young Italian ensembles that can bring this repertoire to life."

Alessandrini points out that members of Concerto Italiano, although specialists in early music, have all undergone thorough training of the operatic kind. Technical security and fine musicianship, he adds, are essential qualities, but he also looks for singers prepared to take risks and experiment with matters of interpretation. "It was very hard at the beginning, and we would often rehearse for eight hours a day for many weeks. Now we are able to draw on things that are deep in the group's vocabulary and apply them to the mood of a particular text."

And when it comes to wresting their Renaissance repertoire from foreign hands, native groups like Concerto Italiano have one undoubted advantage: as Alessandrini says, the tonal subtleties of Italy's madrigalian verse are best realised by Italian singers. "I have to say that when I listen to the early recordings of the Consort of Musicke, for example, the results are not so exciting. But they were almost the only ensemble capable of singing Monteverdi's madrigals 20 years ago, and became well known mainly because of the high profile of their record company. It is natural for us to sing in our own language, so we don't think it is anything special. The colour of the vowel sounds we produce is enormously varied, and the character of Italian voices is so different from that of English or German singers. We try to get the maximum expression from the words, so the soul becomes more important than the sound quality of the voice."

In addition to their dance duty accompanying Mark Morris, Concerto Italiano are offering Edinburgh another chance to hear the force of their unrestrained response to textual imagery in an early-morning programme, at the Queen's Hall tomorrow, charting the course of Monteverdi's development as a madrigalist. "The musical career of Monteverdi was the career of the madrigal in the first half of the 17th century," says Alessandrini. "As one passes from his early works to the later publications, the words become the most important thing and the music so often represents an ideal form of declamation." Concerto ltaliano's passionate, committed performing style turns that ideal into reality in a way that's hard to resist. AS

n Mark Morris mixed bill: for details, see opposite. Concerto Italiano sing Monteverdi madrigals: 11am tomorrow, Queen's Hall (0131-225 5756)