Music: Axaxaxas Mlo and other tall stories

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The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago The Shout, the 15-strong choir put together by the composer Orlando Gough and the composer/ singer Richard Chew, would have been called a bold experiment. But Tuesday night's performance was so well organised, conceived, written and performed (and, importantly, well funded) that you couldn't possibly call it an experiment - it was a huge success.

The choir is a smaller spin-off from The Shouting Fence, the fantastic outdoor piece that Chew and Gough devised for the open spaces, concrete balconies and steps around the Hayward Gallery, and one of the highlights of last summer. Something like 80 energetic performers, amateur choirs, children's groups and professional jazz and straight singers graced some of the bleakest vistas of the South Bank Centre with a vibrant piece of three-dimensional music-theatre.

Indoors requires a rather different approach, so after half an hour of Scanner's quiet ambient sounds, the choir took to the stage in a horseshoe shape to attack Chew's complex and impressive "Tall Stories" with great energy and conviction.

After an interval, five of the singers returned for a dramatic performance of Gough's "Axaxaxas Mlo", a Borges-inspired sequence that, at times, threatened to escape into abstraction. Fortunately the sheer intensity of the piece - and its realisation - held the audience's attention, as the quintet sang, chanted and made beautiful noises by candlelight, framed by a wide brick arch at the club's far side. For the final piece, Gough's "Why Do You Sing", the full 17-strong choir returned to the main stage, filling the small space with a joyful, complex noise that was still totally unamplified, with impressive solos from Mike Henry, Wayne Ellington and Angela Elliott. Occasional uncertainties and glitches may have revealed a lack of time for rehearsal or revision, but the event was a robust, unpretentious success for all concerned. The club context worked fine - the sympathetic audience clearly relished the opportunity to listen to intelligent music with a drink to hand.

A feature of The Shout is the expressive use of a variety of vocal timbres - from full-blown "operatic" vowels through natural singing, to more earthy sounds. There was plenty of bravura writing - tumbling lattices of counterpoint, dissonant clusters, rhythmic riffs and chants, and special effects - yet you never heard this as an abstracted choir. Distinctive voices such as Melanie Pappenheim's, Jeremy Birchall's and Chew's, are discernible in the acoustic mix. This is not hybrid or "fusion", but a practical and constructive coming together of styles, traditions, and musicians, that makes a lot of contemporary vocal music - and a lot of contemporary club music for that matter - sound silly, institutionalised and redundant. Ensembles such as The Shout and Gogmagogs and events such as The Shouting Fence are showing the way for a more meaningful form of music theatre in the future.

The event was billed as being "framed by a sampled sound mix" by Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), whose low-density sounds, originally sampled from The Shout, provided an effective contrast to the intense contemporary choral music. Most people seemed to appreciate the Shout/ Scanner contrast, but Rimbaud was unhappy, expecting something more in the way of collaboration (and deserving a more comfortable space to work in). Rimbaud's best work has used frequencies that work with and around spoken voices - the found conversations he scans from mobile phone networks; Harriet Walter's monologue in a radio version of Cocteau's La Voix Humaine. The sounds he provided on this occasion were transparent enough to provide a background for conversation, yet interesting enough to reward quiet attention if you preferred solitude; genuinely ambient, in fact.

John L Walters