Flash in the pan

NEW MUSIC Hear and Now ICA, London
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Sunday night at the Institute of Contemporary Arts has long been an institution for new-music enthusiasts due chiefly to the efforts of my colleague Adrian Jack. In October 1995, the BBC took over, presenting programmes, with spoken introductions, subsequently transmitted in Radio 3's Hear and Now series on Friday nights. Radio relays had suggested patchy programmes and dismal audiences. Last Sunday's concert - entitled Steel Pans and Marimbas - was the first I had attended under the new management,

This programme owed a lot to the percussionist Simon Limbrick, quite a bit to the composer Javier Alvarez, since it took off from an SPNM workshop project at the 1995 Huddersfield Festival fronted by the former when the latter was the Society's artistic director. The idea behind project and concert - as I understood it, to generate a greater interest in "classical" circles for instruments created for, and largely associated with, a popular and somewhat limited repertoire seems an invigorating, if also problematic, one.

Practical matters no doubt made it sensible to include solos and duos as well as ensemble pieces, and to add the old spice of the hardy marimba. Limbrick's own new Highway No 1 - a clever but musically rather vacuous exploitation of these instruments' timbral and dynamic potential for a four-piece ensemble - was the only work in the first half to employ more than two players.

The five solos and duos we heard altogether, including three featuring the marimba without pans at all, generally placed Limbrick centre stage. He's a good performer, inevitably more experienced on the wooden than the metal instrument. But neither of the short pan pieces, an arrangement of Frank Zappa's Peaches en regalia for pans (played by the award-winning Rachel Hayward) and marimba (Limbrick) and Brian Elias's Solo from "The Judas Tree" for pans alone (Limbrick again), were really convincing demonstrations of the instrument's viability outside its more familiar territory.

More substance was on offer after the interval. One of the technical problems faced by composers for the pans is a lack of melodic definition once the effort is made to get away from the instrument's characteristic reliance on tremolo for sustaining single pitches. Peter McGarr's Hillclouds, Rainwindows and Vanishing Orchestras for five players (conducted by Alvarez) integrates tremolo sounds into a subtle patchwork of changing harmonies. Things that could easily have been gimmicky - bowing the pans, the dropping of leaves on to oil drums, the whispered Portuguese text - all worked, since McGarr had created an imaginative and convincing context for them.

Alvarez's own new Cinnamon Song, also for five players, draws on his previous experience of composing for pans to create an artfully evocative lullaby for his newly-born son. The concluding arrangement of real Trinidadian pan music was hugely enjoyable. But it only drew attention to the stylistic and social questions that Limbrick's project has scarcely begun to address. Can't the vivid rhythms as well as colours of traditional pan music be used to new ends? Is it appropriate to employ black musicians only as extras? And how valid is "white modernism" as a basis for the compositions the project spawns?