Ensemble L’imaginaire (above): Keiko Murakami (flute), Adam Starkie (clarinet), Philippe Koerper (soprano saxophone), Maxime Springer (piano), Adaq Khan (sound engineer)
St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 16th October, 2016
the light gleams an instant (1996)
dying words II (2013)
The Sunday afternoon concert series from St John’s has been a welcome development on the London calendar – not least when it means the appearance of such as Ensemble L’Imaginaire, the Strasbourg-based group currently touring this programme of music by Richard Barrett.
Swansea-born and now Belgrade-based, Barrett (b1959) has long had a cult following in the UK with just the occasional high-profile premiere (notably by the BBC) serving to reacquaint listeners of his importance. An ambitious and questing conceptualist, numerous pieces have been planned as components of larger and evening-length projects – making this afternoon’s selection of works from the past quarter-century a viable ‘composition’ in itself; not least in its focussing on those scientific and arcane issues that have long been central to his activities.
This sequence began with the light gleams an instant – part of the larger work Tract, whose interplay of filigree activity in the right hand with headlong motion in the left gives rise to an exacting and meaningful virtuosity that Maxime Springer took audibly in his stride. Between these instrumental pieces came electronic ‘interludes’ themselves related to larger projects – the first being Zungenentwurzeln (‘‘the uprooting of tongues’’), with its inspiration in Paul Celan and visceral anatomical sound-imagery. Next was fold, originating as a piece for oboe and here transformed for soprano saxophone that underlined antecedents in Roscoe Mitchell (and a reminder that Barrett has enjoyed a productive association with Evan Parker) besides setting a tough assignment for the performer which Philippe Koerper acquitted with panache.
This was followed by Katasterismoi (‘‘transformations into stars’’), embodying astronomical reflections past and present through a tactile process of developing variation. Its sound source was the biwa, making for a tangible link into Dying Words II – whose flautist also intones an ancient Japanese text on the impermanence of things in the natural world and in which Keiko Murakami’s performing from memory was an unarguable fete. The last electronic item was epiphyte, its analogy to intruding while not parasitic plant growth represented by a dextrous texture unfolding in stealthy terms. Finally, interference alludes both to electromagnetic and quantum theories via a circuitous solo for contrabass clarinet informed by bass drum strokes and apocalyptic fragments from Lucretius as Adam Stirkie coordinated with evident aplomb.
The fact that this programme was presented as a continuous sequence lasting for just under an hour should evince no qualms, but it was a pity that the sequence could not have been heard without interruption so as to underline its highly integrated nature as both the composer and performers intended. All four of the performers – not forgetting sound engineer Adaq Khan, who throughout secured an impressive sense of musical space and definition in the reverberant acoustic of St John’s – duly took the stage at the close for renewed and enthusiastic applause.
The audience of barely more than two-dozen punters was regrettable given the stature of this composer. Not that Barrett will be tempted to succumb to the blandishments of much present-day music, but his combative and provocative work deserves much wider acknowledgement.
Ensemble L’imaginaire ends its UK tour of Richard Barrett at Canterbury University on Wednesday 19th October at 1.10pm. Further information can be found at the Ensemble l’imaginaire website