Eclectic brilliance

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The Independent Culture

JOHN CAGE'S "Water Music" requires the performer to alternate notes on the piano with twiddling the dial of a radio, blowing whistles and pouring water from one container into another. Moving between the piano and a Mrs Overall-style tea-trolley, Joanna MacGregor painstakingly adhered to the increasingly absurd demands of the score - which scrolled across a video screen above the stage - as her initial steely sang-froid unravelled.

JOHN CAGE'S "Water Music" requires the performer to alternate notes on the piano with twiddling the dial of a radio, blowing whistles and pouring water from one container into another. Moving between the piano and a Mrs Overall-style tea-trolley, Joanna MacGregor painstakingly adhered to the increasingly absurd demands of the score - which scrolled across a video screen above the stage - as her initial steely sang-froid unravelled.

As well as a satire on the composer's hegemony over the performer, "Water Music" proved a neat musical experience in itself, and its inclusion in a continuously diverting programme didn't just show that MacGregor is a bit of a sport. This second date of a Contemporary Music Network tour was almost beyond praise. The repertoire was astoundingly rich; the juxtapositions inspiring; the intersections of sound and image sometimes stunningly apt. Everything from Dowland to Birtwistle was delivered with an impeccably democratic air.

The video projections by artist Andrew Stones took a while to get used to. At first, just watching MacGregor was enough, and the jerky morphing and wobbly registration that accompanied Thomas Adÿs's "Traced Overhead" were almost headache-inducing. For Birtwistle's "Harrison's Clocks", the continuous tracking shot of the Greenwich meridian was oddly unsettling. Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies 3, 6, and 11, played against MacGregor's own recorded parts, were themselves so unsettling that I can't recall what was on the screen at all.

In the second half, sound and images were more easily reconciled. Short pieces by Matthew Fairclough and Somei Satoh passed in a pleasing ambient blur that gave way to Cage's wake-up call when the radio hit on a kicking techno groove. MacGregor's own composition "Dance It" used a drum-machine to considerable effect. Jonathan Harvey's wonderful "Tombeau de Messaien" mixed live piano with recorded "detuned" piano, before the programme ended with the consolingly beautiful Allemande from Bach's Partita No 4 in D major.

MacGregor has already proved herself to be the most energising force in British contemporary music, and this was a performance I will remember forever. If you can get to one of the tour's remaining dates, I urge you to do so.

Tonight, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (023 8059 5151); 17 Nov, QEH, London (0171-960 4242); 18 Nov, Corn Exchange, Cambridge (01223 357851); 19 Nov, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (01484 430528)

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