Music: Beating around the bush

New Music: RHYTHM STICKS; SOUTH BANK CENTRE, LONDON

I SPENT two evenings in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week at the South Bank's latest Rhythm Sticks "festival of drumming and percussion from around the globe".

At Thursday night's Park Lane Group double bill, featuring Ensemble Bash and Django Bates, there was a stand-out solo recital by one of the most exciting of PLG's recent young artists, the Portuguese percussionist, Pedro Carneiro, which concluded with Iannis Xenakis's Rebonds, a challenging piece of avant-garde drama. Carneiro's finely played programme focused first on the side drum, in Eugene Novotney's "A Minute of News", then on the marimba, with three works. Though the predominance of a tuned instrument suggested that melody and counterpoint offer more potential than sheer rhythmic elan, coupled to timbral economy, none of this trio of marimba compositions - two of them, at least, by experienced composers, Keiko Abe and Joseph Schwantner - make as interesting use of this instrument's rich resources as Novotney's piece does of its more limited ones.

And only the Xenakis - deploying a wider range of instruments, but still confined to drums and woodblocks - demonstrates the consistently fascinating attention both to sounds themselves and their assembly into compelling musical structures that a performer of Carneiro's calibre really deserves.

Ensemble Bash also gave us some vibrant African music - including two quite riveting pieces by Paulinus Bozie - and Stephen Montague's Chew Chow chatterbox, a witty and entertaining dinner-party spoof.

Known as the Safri Duo, the Danish percussionists Martin Friis and Uffe Savery also left no doubt on Saturday as to their musical skills. A fairly astonishing performance of Steve Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood on woodblocks and large log drums managed only a fraction less of the split-second timing and vibrancy that you'd get from a crack ensemble (this piece was written for five players, not two). Andy Pape's "CaDance 42" has a genuinely minimalist edge and rigour to it, and Friis and Savery's own opener, "Reactions", had some lively cross-rhythms to get things off to a promising start.

Otherwise, to see both them and us through a long evening, the Safris relied more on the sheer razzmatazz of distorted amplification, distracting lighting and a whole Danish bacon factory's worth of hammy antics than on either their own musicianship or the substance of the compositions they select.

Keith Potter

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