Classical: London Sinfonietta/Salonen, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Sound without vision
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The first tranche of the Related Rocks programme ended on Sunday with less of a "cross-art" bang than a limp thud. It was an immensely ambitious programme, played to a full house, but it failed not only to deliver; it missed the opportunities to answer the questions it raised. How do we listen? How do we see? What happens when the two are combined? What gives in to what?

The programme began with Related Rocks by Magnus Lindberg, a work written five years ago but not initially conceived for dance. The distinguished Belgian choreographer, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, has used Lindberg's music in the past. But it was Akram Khan, her not-ungifted pupil, now choreographer-in-residence at the Royal Festival Hall, who was let loose on Lindberg's 15-minute score. This is Khan's second ensemble piece, and in it, three men (including Khan) and two women, dressed in black tunics and long pants, disported themselves in front of the musicians. The gestures were more redolent of de Keersmaeker than Kathak, the school of Indian classical dance in which Khan began.

Lindberg's score is high voltage, being richly layered for two percussionists, two pianos, two synthesisers and two electronic channels of sound. To an extent, Khan reflected this by using different numbers of dancers, in sections delineated by a change of lighting (simply but effectively designed by Aideen Malone). Khan often uses his dancers in unison, underlining the strands of music with intelligence. He clearly has an ear; what's more problematic is how the audience hears. The show wasn't credited as a first British performance, but Lindberg's work is hardly "known". And there's no getting away from it: visuals distract. Why couldn't we have had one performance with and another without? As it was, neither composer, choreographer, dancers, musicians or audience were well served.

Varèse's so rarely heard Déserts was similarly ill-served. There were no dancers but, with the accompaniment of Bill Viola's "video art", Varèse's pioneering 1954 piece, the first to combine orchestra and tape (albeit in separate sections), was played to visuals of staggering inanity that one could only pray for a technical collapse. Viola divides his visuals into the live and the taped, the live sections – played by London's top brass – featuring blurred and vibrating deserts of sand and sea; the taped sections, a man in slow-motion, eating his breakfast and dropping his tea.

The best visuals of the evening were four topless grand pianos for Stravinsky's Les Noces (performed in Russian). But for all conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's gesticulating, the piece failed to ignite. The full width of the stage was used, yet nothing was acoustically focused. And when some more visuals (the words) might have come in handy, the screen was blank.