The Sea and Its Shore, Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

No one could suggest that London is without new music events but it could be argued that a focus such as the long-gone Almeida Festival of Contemporary Music, no longer exists. Of course, various festivals - Spitalfields, City of London Festival and the BBC's mini-festivals - provide focal points but none nowadays has the informality and buzz where shoulder-rubbing and hanging out at the bar are as important as the events themselves.

No one could suggest that London is without new music events but it could be argued that a focus such as the long-gone Almeida Festival of Contemporary Music, no longer exists. Of course, various festivals - Spitalfields, City of London Festival and the BBC's mini-festivals - provide focal points but none nowadays has the informality and buzz where shoulder-rubbing and hanging out at the bar are as important as the events themselves.

As in previous years, a certain rump of a new-music festival under the aegis of the Almeida, is taking place - with pride of place given to music-theatre. This year, works by senior composers Birtwistle and Nyman are featured rather than offerings by the more risky candidates.

But last Friday, it was the turn of John Woolrich, long associated as concert director of the rump, to turn in his own work, an Almeida commission in celebration of his 50th birthday. The Sea and its Shore is a song-cycle inspired by a short story by American poet Elizabeth Bishop about a beach comber's trawl for scraps of writing. Woolrich has "found" texts by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Robert Schumann, Mallarmé, William Cowper, Raymond Roussel, Paul Eluard, Emily Bronte, Robert Walser and Gérard de Nerval to set to music. Too many, perhaps, especially as the words, mainly sung by Hungarian mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi, were often inaudible. She was seated alone at a simple wooden desk at the front of the stage, with the seven-strong instrumental ensemble veiled behind a black scrim.

Little could enliven this deeply grey work. Even technically there were obvious problems: writing for two cellos in unison, straining away at the top of their instruments proved hazardous. Charles Edwards directed the Almeida Ensemble, played percussion, and also activated the pre-recorded sounds of kids and the sea-shore. Too much material; too little effect.

Much could have been learned from the first half which presented work by Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett, both past-masters at gaining the maximum from the minimum. Feldman's Bass Clarinet and Percussion dates from 1981. David Batchelor's Found Monochromes (a series of still photographs) were projected onto a back screen, beginning before any sound was heard and ending before the sound was finished. These forlorn images - empty white squares and rectangles attached to various urban surfaces - added another dimension of bleakness to an already minimalist texture so typical of Feldman's work.

The masterpiece of the evening was a short television film. Eh Joe was written for television by Samuel Beckett and first televised in 1966. It's a mesmerising study of facial expression (Jack MacGowran) reacting to the steady, accusatory voice of a woman (Sîan Phillips) heard in his head, stirring up memories of conscience and past life. Stunning stuff.

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