Thank God for anoraks

MUSIC:Forward Music Night BMIC, London
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People don't come to British Music Information Centre concerts in their hundreds. Just as well, since the hall itself is about the size of a modest Victorian drawing-room. It's easy to deride this sort of thing, to label it elitist, incestuous, s elf-perpetuating, and so on - the BMIC has been described in this paper as "favourite home to the anoraks of the avant-garde". But things can be heard at such tiny, "exclusive" events that are unlikely to be heard elsewhere; a couple of people in the hal l can notice something, each tell somebody else, and so word gets around.

Tuesday's "Forward Music Night" was typically bizarre: a piece for two clarinets written for a wedding, some "educational" guitar music, a polemical speech on "The Myth of Repertoire" and four of the 120-plus piano sonatas by John White.

What the guitar pieces were doing there was anybody's guess. They might well be great fun for beginners, but I don't imagine many in the audience were basic guitar students, or elementary-level guitar teachers. Michael Parsons, composer of two of these exercises, also played two of his own piano pieces - only marginally more complicated and even less endearing. He finished with an arrangement of How Long Blues by jazz pianist Jimmy Yancey, which he played with virtually no sense of blues style. Was the woodenness a deliberate pose? It's hard to work up the interest necessary to answer that.

Then Martin Cotton, formerly Senior Producer of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, laid into the idea of repertoire. For him, it all started when the Independent revealed BBC2's agonisings about "The Great Composers", prompting a flood of letters and articles in which various worthies offered lists of their personal "greats". Reading from these, Cotton rightly identified a religious undertone - everyone seems to want to build a Pantheon, and fill it with their Gods. And the subtext, to quote the Spitting Imagesong, is: "My God is better than your God".

He ended with advice: "Don't believe the critics." Well, what self-questioning critic expects to be simply believed? The purpose of criticism is to provoke thought, not to set it in stone. And as Cotton's talk showed, the articles he referred to had set him thinking - the silliest ones most of all. Could the message be that even bad criticism is better than no criticism at all?

Then, at last, came about 25 minutes of pure delight, as pianist Kathron Sturrock gave splendidly stylish performances of John White's sonatas Nos 101, 104, 90 and 109. White tells us that his sonatas are "like entries in a diary" and "reflect on my musical, geographical and gastronomical preoccupations". If that sounds vaguely Satie-ish, there's a similar quality in the music -but White's strangeness is richer. It's also - very unusually for today - gorgeously pianistic. This unique, undemonstratively original music is the kind of thing that could become genuinely popular (even "repertoire"?) one day. If it does, thank the anoraks - they noticed it first.

Stephen Johnson