MUSIC / Degree shows: In Tune? 3 / Balanescu Quartet

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The Independent Culture
Microtonality, once the promised land of new music, is now just one of several destinations. But as James Wood, the artistic director of the In Tune? 3 festival, put it, all music is microtonal, and getting beyond the cracks in the keyboard is no longer an evolutionary goal. Rather, loosening the sense of major and minor opens us up to relative values, helps us feel the richness of musical speech.

Friday's St Giles Cripplegate performance was a step in the right direction. Persian folk music rubbed shoulders with the European tradition. Connections were improvisation, a concern with modes and scales, and the power of rhythm. The cellist Judith Mitchell, with electronic sound projection, explored the instrument's acoustics beyond the range of normal hearing, while Hossein 'Omoumi revealed another world of microtonal nuance on the ney, the traditional Persian reed instrument. Andrew Toovey's festival commission, Head, gave percussionist Richard Benjafield full scope for display. Yet in technique and expression he was matched by the drumming of Madjid Khaladj on the Persian tombak, or zarb.

Such parallels were sharpened by extremes. Horatio Radulescu's Das Andere mixed bowed cello notes with their high-pitched, spectral tones to make a stratosphere of faltering attacks and whispers. Equally remote, though more purposeful, was Henri Pousseur's 1968/4, Mitchell improvising on a 19-note scale in sections mixing plainchant and classical allusion. Head submerged tuning in rivers of glissandos. That is, until the point of greatest tension: a final, raging stillness, cymbal and cello wavering on the verge of audibility.

The following evening the Parisian group L'Itineraire offered raw complexity. Not that it mattered in James Dillon's solo flute Sgothan, a deviously intricate polyphony, but also a brilliant cloudscape of multiphonics and sibilant upbeats. Francois Paris's less violent Lecture d'une vague for flute and sound technician erupted into Ligetian rising scales after arabesques for bass flute and a cortege of solemn chords. Predating even Persia, Francois Bernard Mache's Kengir, for soprano and sampled percussion, tackled Sumerian texts. Francoise Kubler sang with lustre. Even so, it was hard to guess these were love songs, not dry linguistic studies.

That's the catch of microtones. As aspects of a living culture, they promote understanding. Left in the studio they wilt. It's a matter of drawing the line. At times, In Tune? 3 achieved real contact, but it remained too esoteric to attract more than the dedicated. In contrast, the Balanescu Quartet, premiering their new album at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday, set more store by medium than message.

There was common ground here: electronics, for example, and folksong, but all swept up in the restless tread of minimalism. Plenty of major chords, but not many daring new things with them. The exception was the title piece, Luminitza, with some tough viola playing from Andy Parker and a compelling harmonic span. Other numbers were backgrounds for voice- overs on the fate of Romania. The theme was sincere. But all too often the quartet, like the red banners and prop suitcase, was just another part of the stage entertainment.

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