MUSIC / Pop go the classics: Stephen Johnson welcomes the latest voices in new writing

Time was when popular music in any form and new 'serious' composition were mutually exclusive universes. Cornelius Cardew might invoke the odd Chinese workers' revolutionary song, but that was about it. It was widely agreed that, after centuries of cross- fertilisation, high art and the vernacular had finally made the great divorce, and that the breach was irrepairable.

So what would a pundit of the Sixties or Seventies have made of the recent SPNM / ICA Oneday extravaganza? Dave Smith's note to his Disco Soleil Brilliant might have struck a familiar chord, with its talk of 'favoured licks of dated popular styles fed along an art- muzak conveyor belt'. John White's gentle toying with cliches ancient and modern, in three of his 130-plus piano sonatas, might too - though it can take a while to 'get' White's deadpan riddles.

But many of the new works in the SPNM showcase managed to lean popwards without obvious irony. The surprise in John Thomas's Let's Get Moving was not the use of modern-jazzy syncopations or the new-agey washes of tape sound, but their fusion, or rather non-fusion with a kind of perky Hindemithian counterpoint. Highlights of the evening concert, given by the 'theatre orchestra' George W Welch, were a piece of pure jazz composition, Carla Bley's Murder (skilfully arranged by the group's director Ian Gardiner), and Gardiner's own 45RPM. Like Smith, Gardiner has also been licking around 'dated popular styles', but while Smith's piece makes its point by sheer insistence, Gardiner prefers to entice the ear with wit, cunning, subtle surprise and elegant craftsmanship; in other words, it's the composition that counts. If that sounds rather Brian Sewell-ish, then maybe the man has a point after all.

It was the earlier improvisation session that produced sounds more akin to the popular bogey-image of 'modern music'. John Butcher's two short saxophone improvisations were inventive enough to pass for written compositions. Whether one found the Hession-Wilkinson-Fell session transcendent in its 'visceral power' or aggressive, undifferentiated rant was more a matter of taste. But when they complained at the end of the allotted hour that they hadn't been allowed enough time to get going, and that they felt artistically impelled to continue, quite a few people left the room.

The interval video (by Jonathan Borofsky) at London New Music's One Day Tradition concert at the Lilian Baylis Theatre last Wednesday was an idea, though putting it in a noisy, crowded bar meant that very few of us got the benefit of it. Otherwise, the three pieces by Wolfgang von Schweinitz revealed a composer with a strong personal voice, but with perhaps too much fondness for cluster-dissonance chords, while Gerald Barry's music trod a narrow aesthetic tightrope between moronically insistent banality and cunning faux navete. ' ' for ensemble fell resoundingly into Category 1, but Triorchic Blues for solo violin was one of the most compelling examples of folk reappraised I've heard in a while - splendid performance by Charles Mutter.

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