Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

The Song of Sam
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The Independent Culture

I'm not sure that I'd like to be cooped up in the dark for long with Bob, Joe or Croak. In Samuel Beckett's radio play Words and Music two character voices – Bob (representing Music), played here by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Joe (representing Words) spoken and sung by David Sibley – exist as distinctly uncomfortable bedfellows. Into this uneasy relationship comes Croak, unnamed in the text, craggily portrayed by Clive Merrison, and an odd creature, mysterious, irascible, a bit of a bully, and easily wound up by Words and Music.

Words and Music, featuring words, music, groans, sighs and other indistinguishable sounds, as well as silence, deals with the possibility of equating, quite simply, words and music. The difficulty of creating a musical score for such a work goes back to the original BBC production in 1962, with music by Beckett's cousin John, which failed to satisfy either the Bob or the Joe of this collaboration. The score was withdrawn. Twenty years on, the producer of a series of Beckett plays for US radio suggested Morton Feldman as being up to what the author described as the "formidable and perhaps insurmountable" challenge of matching his words with music. In one of the last works of his career, Feldman produced an inventive score for seven players: flutes, strings, piano and vibraphone. The music is luminous in timbre and texture, and despite having to adhere to Beckett's strict time parameters and specific written directions, the composer makes his voice stand out in Beckett's surreal soundscape.

BCMG made a strong case for this seldom-performed work, under the clear and authoritative direction of Susanna Mälkki. The players, collectively, got right inside their role as Bob, fleshing out his character with appropriate humour, nuance and melancholy, drawing on every possible subtlety and quirk in Feldman's score.

Spinning simple, direct melody out of a barren musical landscape, Feldman captured the bleakness of Beckett's enigmatic poems in a couple of sprechstimme songs, while a real dynamic tension emerged in this performance as Bob taught Joe how to sing (this cracked, haunting hymning was absurdly touching).

In an imaginative programme devised by BCMG for Contemporary Music Network touring, French and Irish resonances merged with several backwards glances. Marc-André Dalbavie's exhilarating, spatially effective Palimpseste, a new sextet which borrows from the 16th-century Gesualdo, makes fascinating connections between texture and colour. Did I imagine the merest hint of a Feldman influence? Gerald Barry's Wiener Blut merges echoes of Strauss and Chopin in an intriguing neo-Classical remix while in Bob (no relation to Joe) Barry casts his net even further back in musical history with allusions to the song "Like as the Sun" by a contemporary of Edmund Spenser.

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