SCARPIA / Tone poems: Surprising depth and complexity in the didjeridu

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The Independent Culture
FROM some childhood book, I absorbed the notion that the 'didgeridoo' (as it was then spelt) could play only in a monotone; that it was therefore monotonous; and that nothing further needed to be said, beyond ritual approbation for Australia's 'unique stone-age culture'.

But last Sunday the South Bank's crossover season, 'Corroboree', finished with two stunning didjeridu players, in collaboration with jazz / blues / pop musicians of British stock. The recent Queen Elizabeth Hall visit of the Mongolian overtone singers turned out to be good preparation: for the first time, I realised how much of the didjeridu player's art consists in a delicate tracery of overtone sounds.

The fact that the instruments were miked must have helped make this clear. The didjeridu (which they all referred to as the 'didj') is very electronics- friendly. Its rich, deep, reassuring drone carries within it a spectrum of tones and pulses to be isolated and amplified.

In the first half, the Sydney musician Michael Atherton improvised a big range of pitched and non-pitched sounds and echoes with a synthesiser, painting birdcalls, flute-calls, winds, waves, frogs and crickets around the playing of Alan Dargin. Country and blues, guitar and mouth organ, were in there too. The didjeridu, once the great physical demands of the circular breathing have been mastered, can divide its continuous tone into driving dance rhythms. Alan Dargin, in his impressive solos, showed its powers of mimicry too: not just wild animals but cars, trucks and spoken words. He played pitches immediately below and above the drone, and one about a tenth up.

Richard Walley, collaborating after the interval with the jazz quartet Human Chain, was light and joky, but there was a contrast between his manner and what he actually said: 'Like to tell you a story about a warrior: well, in the end a couple of kids cut his head off, pickled it and sent it to Europe.' There followed a heart- stopping solo: the didjeridu roared, barked and wailed in evocation of the voices of the dead whose bones are preserved in European museums. I don't think it was an accident that this piece, with its admission of experience that still remains censored, was the most artistically memorable of the night.

Human Chain also shone in some of the collaborations, with wild looping phrases; genuine collective improvisation, and their leader Django Bates wonderfully inventive on keyboards. The main thing to be said about 'Corroboree' is not what was kitsch or what was not, but that it happened, that some of it was excellent, and that indigenous Australian art can and should develop in any direction it likes.

From the stresses of a predominantly communal art to the stresses of the isolated European. Robert Saxton's Viola Concerto, at the Proms on Friday, had a vocabulary angrier than its content, a threatening dissonant shadow not quite supported by predictable thematic patterning. The first movement was particularly good, with Strauss-like ripples and echoes, jazzily fast runs and Paul Silverthorne's viola scrambling to dizzy heights. Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia were shapely; at their best in Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, which took off like an arrow.

If Bartok is difficult for other composers to digest, it must be because in certain works he reached perfection. The Third Piano Concerto is a musical peak and Stephen Hough at Tuesday's Prom let us know it. With Claus Peter Flor and the Philharmonia, he judged the acoustic brilliantly, settling into the strong sunlight of the first theme with profound inner calm, everything laid out just so, always tender, inquiring, rapturous. There are many exceptional pianists, but Hough still stands out.