Music: Contemporary: A sound strategy

A Man in a Room, Gambling Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It could be argued that music and sculpture are closely related: that whereas a sculptor is concerned with the manipulation of matter in three- dimensional space, a musician is concerned with the manipulation of energy (sound) in space . Perhaps some sense of this common ground lay behind the idea for a collaboration between the sculptor Juan Munoz and the composer Gavin Bryars. In the end, though, A Man in a Room, Gambling - sections of which received their British premiere on Thursday - is a sharp and curiously moving evocation of the differences between them.

The 10 pieces which make up the work were originally conceived as a series of late-night radio programmes, to be heard in much the same way that we hear the Shipping Forecast. Each programme had Munoz instructing the listener on a particular method for cheating at cards - how to deal from the bottom of the pack, how to dispose of palmed cards, and so forth - his sober delivery contrasting with Bryars' score, by turns lyrical and urgent.

At times, that contrast was amusing - a stark dramatic pause gives way to bathos as Munoz calmly announces: "You must hold the card only with your thumb and middle-finger". More often, though, the listener is unsettled by the sheer impossibility of visualising what is being described, an impossibility which the music compounds. This was especially true on Thursday, when the balance meant that Munoz's commentary, spoken from a table at the back of the auditorium, was sometimes inaudible. That may have been deliberate; verbal clarity isn't essential here, and Munoz's accented English contributes to the work's unique atmosphere.

You are left with an uneasy sense that the object of the piece is placed just beyond your reach; and the melancholy aspect always present in Bryars' music becomes here almost consolatory. It's an obscure work, which is not to say that it's difficult or unappealing; like Bryars' Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet or The Sinking of the Titanic, it is highly attractive.

The two other pieces in the concert, The South Downs, for cello and piano, and Les Fiancailles, for the full ensemble, are more in the mainstream of Bryars' work: funereally slow, built around an almost romantic harmonic language which is undercut by some uneasy clashes of tonality and its minimalist, repetitive nature. Like A Man in a Room, this music repays inattention, working best when the listener allows it to seep in. You don't come out humming the tunes, but you find, especially in the case of The South Downs, that this odd, inward-facing sound-world stays with you.

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