Fingering the guilty men

MUSIC : Sonorities Festival Belfast
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The Independent Culture
The two major visitors to this year's "Sonorities" festival dealt with the louder, electronically processed end of the musical spectrum: BEAST (Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre) with its elaborate set- up for the performance of what is still widely known as "electronic music"; and the 14-player amplified ensemble Icebreaker, with a line-up that includes pan-pipes, saxophones, accordion, guitars and synthesisers.

BEAST's three programmes offered a potted history of electro-acoustic music, from a 1948 tude by Pierre Schaeffer up to today. It was an impressive sight: 20 loudspeaker enclosures spread around the audience, with 48 tweeters suspended overhead. But the three men who ran the show carried out the "sound diffusion" with twitchy-fingered exuberance, pushing and pulling the faders on their mixing-desk like addicts at a one-armed bandit, and sending the sound every-which-way around the auditorium.

It's not easy to see what the basis for this sort of musical see-sawing might be. Such interference was hardly called for in the earlier works by Schaeffer, Xenakis, Stockhausen or Berio, and it was a pity that it should have vitiated a rare and valuable opportunity of hearing these pieces (far more interesting than the more recent works on offer).

Icebreaker, founded in 1989, seems to have developed a strong enough identity to find composers writing new works for it rather on the lines of pieces it's already performed. The typical style involves a punchy, post-minimalist repetitiveness, with an overlying effect of pulsing monotony, achieved at times in spite of considerable rhythmic intricacy. The available repertoire must be small, since both programmes included arrangements.

It was two group members, Damian le Gassick (in the mysteriously titled Evol) and John Godfrey (Euthanasia and Garden Implements), who handled the instrumental combinations with the greatest imagination. But it was the pieces by Stephen Gardner (They Think It's All Over) and Gerald Barry (a newly commissioned Octet, with a giddy, cadenza-like extravaganza of keyboard clusters in the middle), which, in going against the grain of the prevailing Icebreaker style, seemed to engage musical matters of greater import. A short snippet of Janacek was perhaps the most revealing of Icebreaker's sometimes tenuous relationship with conventional performing standards.

Besides Gerald Barry (whose droll radiophonic piece St Kevin and the Blackbird enlivened an otherwise dull electro-acoustic event), Stephen Gardner was the Irish composer most strongly featured. His Wanting, Not Wanting (played by the Ulster Orchestra) and Lemon on the Beach, for two pianos, exhibited a refreshing, no-frills directness and a fibrous strength that set them apart in each of the programmes in which they appeared.

Michael Dervan

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