Stretch your ears: Joanna MacGregor

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The Independent Culture

When Nitin Sawhney's work Neural Circuits was premiered by Joanna MacGregor and the Britten Sinfonia in October last year, it sounded like a short, sharp shock. At its conclusion there was a meaningful pause, almost an audible intake of breath, before the audience began to applaud. The delay wasn't entirely due to the content of the piece, which is a nightmare-ish collage of digitised voice-samples, strings, piano and percussion, but more to the events which gave rise to it; Neural Circuits was inspired by 11 September and its aftermath.

A recording of that performance forms the opening track to Joanna MacGregor's new album on her own SoundCircus label, which is also called Neural Circuits. Heard repeatedly, Sawhney's first attempt at writing for a classical ensemble becomes more impressive with every play. What on the night sounded rather too much like a cut-up of Steve Reich and Bernard Herrmann now comes across as the work of an original, contemporary voice. The piece begins with the voice of a TV news interviewee saying, "We're not disposable," before MacGregor plays a stark, angry-sounding, introduction that is answered by the sawing strings, to eventually become a swirling, Herrmann-esque dream sequence.

The rest of the album includes a number of other pieces from the Sinfonia's tour, with Arvo Pärt's beautiful Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten programmed immediately after Neural Circuits for a much needed chill-out. Alfred Schnittke's extraordinary Concerto for Piano and Strings is the album's centrepiece, accompanied by a further Sawhney composition, Urban Prophecies, and a 1993 duo recording of a movement from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, with the late Christopher van Kampen on cello. Urban Prophecies, which was recorded at the Royal Academy of Music in March, with MacGregor joined by Aref Durvesh on tabla, plus the Play Ensemble and Ensemble Bash, is more playful-sounding than Neural Circuits. Based on a Jhaptaal, a 10-beat North Indian time-cycle, and the spoken rhythms of Kathak dance, it uses some of the same thematic inspirations as the earlier piece but unfolds in a light, pleasingly syncopated manner, perhaps reflecting Sawhney's experience as a dance composer.

The Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil shared a platform with MacGregor at this year's Bath Festival, where they debated whether or not classical music has a future. Whatever they decided, Abou-Khalil's new album, Il Suspiro (Enja), is the product of an unusually enlightened relationship with his record company: whenever he felt inspired to record, his sound engineer Waler Quintus would open up the studio and go to work. The result is a beautifully played and recorded series of solo improvisations, which one can either cock an alert ear to or enjoy as very superior background music. To complete the aesthetic effect, the CD packaging is almost a work of art in itself, and contains the text of an excellent short story.