MUSIC / Touring: Scale models: Stephen Johnson on microtonality

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The Independent Culture
The title 'Fine Tuning', plus the Ensemble of the Centre for Microtonal Music and a semi-polemical programme essay by James Wood, suggested the Contemporary Music Network's latest Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was going to be a soap-box. In the event, it offered five contrasted pieces which just happened to use scales other than standard equal temperament.

Kevin Volans's White Man Sleeps was performed as originally scored for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion. Volans dresses African inflections in 18th-century musical costume - a bizarre idea, but hearing and seeing the results performed with po- faced accuracy was weirder, like looking at a tribal dance mask in a glass case. Giacinto Scelsi's Yliam for 10 female voices sounded in some ways like a vocal ensemble product of the Sixties avant-garde without the self-consciousness. Briefly, another world was evoked - a dark, troubled but alluring place. The women of the New London Chamber Choir sang it very persuasively for conductor James Wood; and they showed their fine form again in Xenakis's Nuits, joined by the men this time.

That there was a similar wild diffuseness in Jonathan Harvey's Valley of Aosta shouldn't have come as a surprise. Here was a composer praising Turner's famous painting for its absence of 'objects' and its 'explosion of energy and diffracted light'. But Turner's Valley of Aosta still strikes one with the force of a single, powerful idea; Harvey's flings ideas in all kinds of directions. Some are striking, some aren't. It was James Wood who, in his own Phainomena, showed that freeing music from familiar structures can allow the listener to experience different, possibly deeper layers of meaning. You didn't have to read a word of his note to be carried along by the tide of invention. Not all the visible musical activity was audible, but the sound was captivating right through to its beautifully judged ending.