Raíz del Aire: Contemporary music from Spain

Grup Instrumental de València and Isabel La Juive

King's Place, 3 March 2010 4.5 stars

Valencia Spain's leading contemporary music ensemble Grup Instrumental de València visited King's Place last night as part of the Out Hear series for an absolutely wonderful evening of new and recent Spanish and British composition.

The performance formed part of Integra, an EU-funded project led by Birmingham Conservatoire which seeks to promote live electronic music and the development of technology for that end through cross promotion of five new music ensembles and six research centres. As it happened, the technological aspect was less to the fore last evening than it may be in other Integra affiliated projects; the abiding quality was rather one of generally musical Spanish-British collaboration and communication.

Francisco Guerrero's Concierto de Cámara opened the evening. The work is a sparky and playful skitter for six instrumentalists that evokes flamenco in the same ironic but deeply-felt way that Kagel evoked Lounge Music in the Windrose pieces. Clattering on the wood boards of string instruments and a fiery sense of rhythm and dynamic draws Flamenco out from the background, and this is married to an inventive instrumental language and a fine ear for effect (heard particularly in the buzzing flute part). The performance conveyed a charged sense of play that is rare in contemporary composition, calling to mind Elena Mendoza's capricious work at some moments, and a more fun Richard Barrett at others.

The following Para tres colores del arco iris, written by José Antonio Orts for 'sound sculptures, performer and small ensemble of instrumentalists', was more obscure. Given in near darkness, the work consisted of quiet, efflorescent instrumental passages dominated by vibes, and interludes in which the 'performer' wandered to the audience with small handheld electronic devices, emitting white noise and a series of colours which changed according to position and use, thereby changing the sound too. The piece was interestingly constructed, reminding me of the strange theatre of George Crumb at its best, but it meandered somewhat in the latter stages, and the performance itself could have done with more focus and preparation; stage directions and lighting effects seemed misaligned on more than one occasion. The ever reliable Tansy Davies provided the third piece of the evening. Her 2006 Integra commission Grind Show picked up the slack of the previous with its tight conception inspired by a Goya piece where she superimposes two scenes/musics over each other in a shadowing, discursive effect. The performance oscillated between the night music and the humorous and nervy dances on the surface, playing foreground and background off in a compelling exchange. The piece is tightly conceived and very well executed, and it was performed here with sharpness and intelligence.

The highlight of the evening came next. Mauricio Sotelo, like Guerroro, works in a sort of sidelong way to the great flamenco tradition, in some ways operating fundamentally within its walls, in others existing totally without it. In Sotelo's case, the engagement with flamenco is more 'fundamental' than it is for Guerroro, in fact serving as a sort of bedrock upon which the composer seeks to, in his own words, 'create a new musical instrument'. The means he uses to do this, amazingly, are the insights and poetics of spectral music. So what we have here, then, is a spectral flamenco.

The piece itself, entitled Raíz del Aire, easily lives up to that tantalising description. Five instrumentalists play music that moves from the speculative and fantasmatic brushing of bass drums and careful blowing of high flute and clarinet partials, to driving, bold inflammations of flamenco aesthetics. The two interfuse and alight throughout. Overriding the more focused, rhythmically defined sections was the glorious cantaora flamenco Isabel La Juive. Juive sang with overwhelming feeling, totally attuned to the shifting surface of music around her, marshalling a traditional poetry that was totally invigorated by the glissades and fragmentation around her - Juive's sense of pitch and rhythm was the match for anything Sotelo threw at her, with spectral detail in her own singing come to the fore in this new context. Juive brought, too, a refreshing looseness to the performance, frequently improvising stamp patterns, clapping along inventively, letting emotion erupt out of her whenever the music (which she was intent upon) suggested it. The task of uniting tradition and modernity, recognition and innovation, has been the downfall of many a composer, but Sotelo, Juive, and the musicians (who were almost as adoptive and creative as the singer) managed here in a way I have rarely experienced before.

Closing out an astonishing evening of music was Matalón's Las siete vidas de un gato, a free musical counterpoint to Un Chien Andalou, which was played in accompaniment and for the music to accompany. The work whirled along a little uninvolvingly at first, but from the point of the juxtaposition of caustic tango with the wonderful moment of breast fondling in the film, the two danced in odd and tantalising motion around each other, settling into a shape shifting and mordant dual commentary that served the ironic and almost impenetrable form and accents of each very well.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Grup Instrumental de València

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