MUSIC / Beauty in the Beast: Jan Smaczny on Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Beast is back. Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre has returned to the Midlands Arts Centre with another 'Rumours' series.

The format is rather different from last year's straightforward season of concerts - now each event is spread over two days and the first pair of concerts gave us total immersion. Now, if your feelings on hearing this are akin to those of a lobster plucked from the ocean bottom and flung into a pot of boiling water, worry not. Programme planning has lightened up considerably - no sign of the kind of 40-minute blockbuster that made the first concert in the last series seem so unrelenting. The pieces were short, light and communicative - one might almost call them lollipops of the electroacoustic repertoire.

Gone also are the moving lights. The lack of a visual element is an old complaint about electroacoustic concerts. But however subtle and sensitive a lighting engineer might be, his image of what a piece is about is bound to conflict with the composer's at some stage. This time Beast's loudspeakers stood in serried ranks in front of a blow-up of a computer-generated publicity poster. With this undistracting background, a work as acoustically lively and, yes, as humorous as Alistair MacDonald's Kilim, positively thrived. Similarly, the composite piece PulseRates, written by a number of Beast personnel for the 'Sounds like Birmingham' series, made its impact with little difficulty: foot-tappingly rhythmic, it was a clear winner.

True, there was a certain amount of the demented parakeet syndrome flapping through some of these pieces. At times Tim Hunt's Jete seemed to be aiming to turn the auditorium into an aviary. Seductive as his acreage of birdsong was, it tended to threaten rather than enhance the validity of the enjoyably abstract gestures heard earlier in the work.

In a way that is part of the problem: abstract sound and concrete image - in a world used to vox- pop television and background music - can reduce a composition in this medium to banality if mixed too obviously. The works of a more abstract cut, such as Mike Vaughan's Crosstalk and Natasha Barrett's Jinn, came off as more satisfying wholes than those that skirted the edge of programme.

Beast seems to have discovered something of the art of bringing this kind of music to audiences. There is a certain folie de grandeur in pretending that this is a normal kind of concert, but nearly every other sort of presentation that doesn't mix the medium with other performers or pieces tends to look pretentious. Works like PulseRates may represent the bottom end of the market, but they offer an audience unfamiliar with electroacoustic music concrete points of reference and thus a way into a medium that has not really had a broad impact over its 40-year history.

Beast is attempting new strategies in later concerts: on 5 December, audience members can compose - and listen to - their own works, and Beast will present electroacoustic music from local schools.

The next Beast concerts are on 4 and 5 December (Booking: 021-440 3883)