MUSIC / Wild muse: Nicholas Williams on the work of Geoffrey Poole

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The Independent Culture
Geoffrey Poole's music has taken Gothic abbeys, the zodiac and the seasons as its inspiration. Yet, as Sunday's ICA portrait-concert (with Poole himself conducting the Gemini ensemble) showed, the matrix of his work remains stubbornly classical: music as dialectic, true to itself.

Poole's way lies in finding common cause in the unfamiliar. The pieces themselves contain the taste of many things, but with a wholesome unity of purpose. The result can be over-exuberant, or patchy. Never in doubt, however, is Poole's commitment to exploiting the potential of his material, and his purely musical sense of what goes.

Two-Way Talking (1991), the main work of the evening, was a case in point. Seventies theatricality - synchronised ensemble chanting and the like - could be praised or loathed to taste. But the work's foundation, the linking of various world 'musics' over a shimmering, cool jazz background, was done with a skill and originality that reinforced the point; though music's inner meaning is referential, some intangible oneness must link our feeling for ethnic styles, hence the unity of the piece.

Music for the romantics was something to be merged with myth, psychology and narrative. For us, culture itself, or cultures, have become the life-giving infusion. Linking The Rite of Spring with Kwasi Asare's virtuosic talking drums with Hungarian folksong, Two-Way Talking showed how, through the looking-glass of personality, such cultural mergers might be achieved. Subdivisions of the ensemble mimicked the ethnic instruments: harp, the 21-stringed West African kora; strummed violin and flute, the gypsy band. Though too long at 45 minutes, the piece was at times breathtaking in its synthesis; and all done quite untouristico.

The force behind Slow Music (1982) was the sacrificial tones of the ancient Greek aulos; also, in its woodwind chants and piano refrains, the kind of apres Boulez discontinuities of musical language fed back, through Poole's technique, to the poetic image. Unwinding through cor anglais, horn and bassoon counterpoints, this was the most concise of the three works, and perhaps the most telling. Poole's work must have blossomed from this kind of concentration: microtonal, multiphonic but, like his later compositions, making a handsome noise from modest resources.

Sunday's commission was Septembral, with a title nicely punning on sept timbres, and with a basis of Indian alap and raga. It seemed smoother, yet less distinguished, than the wild music heard earlier in the programme - or should that be musics? Listen out for a promised Radio 3 broadcast to decide.