First Night: Music, but not as we know it

Original Harry Partch Instruments Newband Barbican, London
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the sub-plots of twentieth-century creative music has been an increasing interest in microtones, exploration of pitches that lie between the cracks of the conventional tempered scales of Western art music. This has expressed itself in many ways: birdsong, the wavering pitches of blues and folk field recordings, percussion scores, electronic noise and now stores full of "world music" CDs and sound samples.

One of the most solitary - but canny - explorers was the American Harry Partch (1901-74), whose spirit filled the Barbican Centre last night through the medium of his extraordinarily beautiful-sounding instruments, played by the dedicated and skilled musicians of Newband.

The concert began with five of the 34 verses of Partch's And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1963-65), a UK premiere, like all the pieces on the programme. We heard a quartet and four duos, permutations of instruments such as Partch's sublime Cloud Chamber Bowls, the dazzling Diamond Marimba, the almost inaudible Mazda Marimba (made of sawn-off lightbulbs) and the wheezy Chromelodeon (adapted from an old pedalled reed organ). Despite the unfamiliar tunings there is a straightforwardness to Partch's piecesthat make them easy to grasp.

The concert closed with the outstanding Castor and Pollux, dance score.

Partch's music might be described as "world music from a different planet", but it also comes from a different time as well. There is an anachronistic pleasure in hearing an "old new" piece - clearly from the middle part of this century.

We were treated to two quite different pieces by Newband's artistic director, Dean Drummond. Drummond's own instruments (Zoomoozophones and Juststrokerods) and (almost) regular flute and `cello, his Before the Last Laugh and Dance of the Seven Veils were closer to conventional contemporary serious music - the sort of thing you might hear any year at the Huddersfield Festival, where Newband appear on Sunday. Go and see them.