MUSIC / Approaching Meltdown: Nick Kimberley on the opening Marathon concert of this year's South Bank Meltdown festival

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The Independent Culture
Although the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen provides the foundation of the second Meltdown festival, the eight-day event offers rather little of his music.

Sunday's Meltdown Marathon - three concerts lasting some eight hours - offered barely an hour of Andriessen; a couple of works crop up later in the week; and that's all until next Sunday's British premiere of his opera De Materie. With Andriessen still a rarity in British concert life, this could have been a major retrospective, but Steve Martland, Andriessen's ex-pupil, acting as compere for the Marathon, explained that the point was to focus not only on Andriessen, but on composers and musicians associated, in one way or another, with his music.

So we got works by his students (Martland, Graham Fitkin), by avowed Andriessenist ensembles Icebreaker and the Bang On A Can All Stars (whose own New York festival was a model for this Marathon) and Steve Reich and Philip Glass, whose ur-minimalism provided one of Andriessen's escape routes from European classicism.

It was an unvaried diet to take us through from lunch to suppertime, and indigestion threatened, especially since, whenever one emerged from the auditorium, there was the City Degung gamelan in the foyer. A little musical silence is sometimes welcome.

In his opening remarks, Martland suggested that what mattered about the day's music was its relationship with 'normal music' - meaning popular idioms. 'Normal music' is a restrictive notion for Andriessen, whose capacious intellect was apparent in the day's opening piece, his 1977 Hoketus, scored, like most of the Marathon music, for amplified ensemble - in this case, Icebreaker.

Jazzy exuberance jostled with medieval hocketing, pan-pipes battled with booming bass-guitars and brash saxes. Its boisterousness contrasted with the unexpected introversion of La Voce, a tiny fragment of music theatre in which a solo cellist half sang, half spoke a poem by Cesare Pavese while either playing, not quite playing or hitting her instrument.

There was more Andriessen for voice in the closing concert by the Steve Martland Band; but with the singer Electra preferring volume and vibrato to expressity, the two political songs seemed unsubtle.

More interesting was When You Leave the Opera House, developed by Kingsway College students and members of the Martland Band. Here phrases spoken by right-wing figures were chanted in cut-up fragments that became musical motifs for the instruments. Although too long, the piece lacked neither energy nor purpose.

Such a long day is bound to have ups and downs, but the balance favoured the former, notably Piano Circus's riveting performances of Steve Reich's 1970 Four Organs and another piece built on Reichian foundations, Julia Wolfe's 1993 my lips from speaking.

Bang On A Can, displaying a rhythmic vibrancy quite different from Andriessen's, gave an exhilarating performance of the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal's Arapua. If you include the gamelan, the Meltdown Marathon spanned four continents - not bad for a single day's journey in which Andriessen's distinctive imagination provided a firm anchor in choppy waters.

Icebreaker, 8.30 tonight; Mecklenburgh Opera, 7pm Wed; Bang On A Can All Stars, 9.30 Wed; Gavin Bryars, 7.45 Thu; Philip Glass 8pm Fri, Sat; De Materie, 7.45 Sun. All at South Bank, SE1 (071-928 8800)