MUSIC REVIEW / A night for worshipping ancestors: Raymond Monelle travels with Tan Dun and the Scottish Early Music Consort at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
Why should anyone be interested in early music? It used to be part of the taste for the exotic. Medieval music was queer and different and, if camped up a little, suggested scenes of pageantry and chivalry. Then we were told this was politically incorrect; performances were supposed to be faithful to the conceptions of long ago, warts and all.

Warwick Edwards, director of the Scottish Early Music Consort, restored the idea of the exotic in a big way. Along with dance tunes of the 14th century we had a trio of Chinese musicians, playing their own music - some of it from the sixth century, and so very early indeed - as well as joining in with the Western items.

The purpose, Edwards suggested, was to hint at a 'common ancestry' for the two styles. The effect was just an evening of chinoiserie, Eastern and Western, with a series of expert performances in which the two cultures seemed perfectly at home together, each as exotic as the other.

The centrepiece was a new composition, Lament: Autumn Wind by Tan Dun, a Chinese composer now well established in the West and particularly in the United States, where he has settled. The presence of Chinese instruments in the accompanying group guaranteed a ripple of pentatonic sonority, but the prolonged, open texture, in which small incidents marked off the seconds and minutes, recalled a composure like George Crumb. The ancient poem was broken up into separate sounds and sung by the mezzo Fiona Milne in a mixture of rich tone squeeks, and bird calls; the players hissed through their teeth to represent the wind, or gestured soundlessly over their instruments.

The composer conducted, his movements continuing through the frequent long rests, which were notated with dynamics - tonal swells and accents - to which no sound corresponded, so he was often performing a silent ballet. This extraordinary piece was a tour de force for the Scottish Early Music Consort.

Tan Dun added an evocative ghostly ocarina background to the Carolingian 'Lament of the Swan', and the Chinese musicians played throughout the concert, swaying in time to the medieval dances. The Westerners were not involved, however, in pure Chinese items.

The Sheng, a small bundle of reed pipes with the wheezy suck-blow of a mouth organ, was virtuosically played by Liu Qu-Chao, and Wu Man played unforgettably on the p'i-p'a - a plucked instrument like a large mandolin - mixing effects of glissando, twisted microtones, harmonics and percussive sound with passages of tender melody. Her studied posture and graceful gestures completed the whole performance's impression of perfect accomplishment.

On the Western side, the skirl of Jennifer Hill's recorder and the scrape of Lorna McLaren's rebec and Majorie Rycroft's viella combined with Edwards' medieval harp to give an engagingly antique sound. Pageantry and chivalry, indeed.

Another performance tonight at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow, 8pm (box office 041-332 5057)