Edinburgh Festival: Optical Identity

Theatre Cryptic and the T'ang Quartet

Edinburgh Lyceum Theatre, 31 August 2007 2 stars

Optical Identity

Dubbed as an enhanced musical experience for audiences, Optical Identity combined contemporary music and graphic lighting with the aim of creating a visual presentation of music. The Singaporean T'ang Quartet performed multi cultural contemporary music including works by the veteran composer Kevin Volans, a live electronic work from Rolf Wallin, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's piece based on an Islamic sixteenth-century secret language.

Certain aspects of the performance were remarkable, including an excellent interpretation of Kevin Volans' White Man Sleeps. However, the T'ang Quartet displayed a disappointing standard of improvisation particularly during the live electronic works. The lighting also fell rather short of its aims: it did not create a multi-sensory experience (as promised) but rather did a good job of featuring as an accompaniment to the music.

Opening the concert was Volans' White Man Sleeps (1986). Minimalist by ear, it is a piece rooted in Nyunga (African) panpipe music calling on complex rhythmic interlocking techniques and constantly changing melodic material. Fervently executing the thirteen-beat pattern in the first dance, the T'ang Quartet gave a good performance which was secure, bold and rhythmically tight.

Features of col legno, pizzicato and sul ponticello in the second dance were new additions to this music (the piece was re-composed for the Kronos Quartet from its original setting for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion) and added an extra edge to the performance. However, the most exciting moment appeared during the middle of the second dance: barely audible, the rhythmic sound appeared from nothing, creating a tense but exciting build-up. Only occasionally did the arpeggiated sequences in the final movement give some intonation problems.

Combined with this performance was some interesting lighting choreography. Partly based on ideas of synaesthesia (whereby people with the condition see colours when listening to music), director Cathie Boyd aimed to produce a multi-sensory performance for this European première. However, the lights that featured displayed a simple combination design, varying occasionally during changes in musical interest (for example, dimming during quiet passages, displaying one single beam across the stage, and dissolving into one colour at the end of a dance). They were simple and effective methods to accompany the music, but they certainly did not constitute a visual presentation of the music.

Equally baffling were some of the other stage effects. The addition of dry ice in the second movement and the quartet performing with their backs to the audience was perplexing. The latter certainly did not aid projection of sound. With Theatre Cryptic holding such good concepts, perhaps Boyd could have produced a more sophisticated music and art experience.

Doubling up as stagehands, the T'ang Quartet moved props whilst the electronic introduction of the second piece started (the cellist had a rather inventive sling by which it attached to the cello, leaving Leslie Tan's hands free to help). Rolf Wallin's piece Phonotope I was constructed of two main elements: pre-composed electronic sounds and live transformation of the quartet music. With no score, the musicians improvised (within clearly defined rules) as a computer adapted their sounds with a short delay.

Each of the five parts of the piece focused on a symbolic Chinese element of wood, metal, water, fire and earth. It was unfortunate that it was almost impossible to distinguish between these elements by the live music produced. The improvisation that the T'ang Quartet (now amplified) offered was basic, inexpressive and had little textural variation. Relying mainly on so-called 'contemporary techniques' such as use of the natural harmonic series, glissandi and col legno, the resulting electronic sequences (but not the pre-composed elements) similarly lacked depth.

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's work Mugam Sayagi was based on the Azeri musical tradition Mugami - a secret language used in the sixteenth century to disguise human emotions that were discouraged in Islam. Against a video backdrop of the T'ang Quartet performing this piece, the work toyed with the idea of projection and reality. The concept worked well. However, it was unfortunate that the video did not match up with the real-life performance.

There were some lovely features in this music including a mini cadenza by violinist Ng Yu-Ying and a melody using both bowed and pizzicato techniques simultaneously. A sitar drone strategically placed halfway through the fast dance section created a solid tonal centre whilst also enhancing the other Middle Eastern influences: second violinist Ang Chek-Meng and violist Lionel Tan doubled up as tam-tam, triangle and drum players, aiding the spirited dance. The piece ended as it began, with a cello quasi-ostinato figure joined by the viola in a beautiful duet at a separate corner of the stage.

Joby Talbot's piece Manual Overdrive was one of the most effective in the programme. The piece was focused on a process of thickening textures. Using a live loop system, a computer stored phrases from the T'ang Quartet which were then woven back into the performance. With the fundamental tonality remaining constant, the musicians were able to interact with these looped sounds to create some simulating and exciting results.

Two impressive moments stand out. A rhythmic lock between the viola and cello at the beginning of the piece gave a steady phrase while the two violins played an antiphonal virtuosic melody on top. Later, this melody became their accompaniment and the T'ang ensemble gave a musical performance interacting with the exciting feedback.

Visual choreography towards the end enhanced the performance as the three upper instruments (standing in a line) held a different rhythm pattern against the cello (seated). Credit must go to digital artist and performer, Jasch who carefully controlled the textures of this piece creating a vibrant display of sound.

By Mary Robb