Classical music review: Sound Affairs Purcell Room, London: Learning to listen with eyes wide open

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Sound Affairs

Purcell Room, London

Dance and opera are deemed special cases, but in classical music generally, anything visual is deemed an intrusion. Some even prefer to listen with eyes closed, but I'm not aware of any research that says watching gets in the way of listening. As the concert-hall becomes more marginalised, some have attempted to augment the concert experience with a visual element. Often the visual is merely an optional extra, but with its programme, Raw Goods, Charlie Barber's attempts to efface the dividing line.

Two of the pieces were solo dances by Andy Howitt; in the first, Loud Speaker, Howitt emerged in a glittering smock, one leg laid bare as if for some masonic ritual. Instead, we got something between performance poetry, ballet, and gymnastics. Howitt ranted about the difference between in and out; he jogged back and forth and posed like a bodybuilder. All the while, Peter Slattery's electro-acoustic music played, the sound of machinery clanking or cars driving occasionally emerging from the pleasant burble. The feeling that this was essentially a narcissistic display for Howitt was confirmed in Charlie Barber's Nude Moves.

The trouble with watching someone dance naked is that one pays more attention to the body's nooks, crannies and protuberances than to the movement. I don't think it was prudishness that caused me to find more visual stimulation in the musicians, David Appleton at the piano and Tim Wright on marimba. Barber's note suggested he had found his inspiration in medieval music, but the dislocated piano rhythms and gorgeously bowed marimba sounded personal and modern enough, although, unlike the other pieces here, it went on too long.

Elsewhere, the visual proved more conducive to attention. John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano required no "extra" visual element: simply watching Appleton, kneeling precariously, pecking at the tiny keys, was show enough. As Cage no doubt accepted, the clicking of the keys was as loud as the nursery rhyme notes they produced, and it was over long before the novelty wore off.

For David Lang's Anvil Chorus, Wright, his percussion kit done up like the radiator grille of a 1960s gas guzzler, emerged in mechanic's overalls to produce a suitably exhilarating display of junkyard din while behind him a jerky film of cars coming and going unfurled, in negative.

The new work in the programme, Orlando Gough's Staring into the Abyss, was jaunty Brit minimalism for piano and percussion. Like Michael Nyman with the funk put back in, it bounced, sauntered and staggered along while Howitt (dressed like somebody's minder), hovered menacingly over the piano or jumped to remove imaginary specks of dust whenever Wright turned a page of his music. It produced an agreeably ironic tension. Did the visual element "add" anything, here or elsewhere? Perhaps not, and the music itself was selected for immediate impact, but that's not to say you can't make a show of it. If Howitt can be persuaded to preen less, has the wit (a commodity rare in new music circles) to pull it off.

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