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Bristol New Music Festival, review

Other things were thought-provoking as well as amusing, like the old footage
of Marcel Duchamp explaining one of his works, while the pianist imitated
the rise and fall of his voice.

Slightly more conventional was the concert from the Bristol Ensemble, a
locally-based chamber orchestra. It included Matthew Shlomowitz’s Avant
Muzak, an entertainingly po-faced deconstruction of muzak’s banalities,
mingled with odd scraps of sounds and speech gathered from the airwaves.
Alongside it were two pieces by Tansy Davies, one inspired by visions of sea
and seafaring, the other in her more familiar mode of high-energy,
dark-toned urban edginess.

The performances of these pieces were not quite fiercely focused enough to
make them really fly, while the gentler pieces – especially Michael
Ellison’s Turkish-flavoured Duo – fared better.

Good as these were, they were put in the shade by the spectacular and utterly
joyous Sunday-afternoon concert from Ensemble MusikFabrik. In the concert’s
second half they performed a clutch of pieces by Frank
Zappa
, in a way which reminded us that the gap between Zappa the
virtuoso guitarist and Zappa the “classical” composer was not so great.
Frank Wingold’s wailing guitar solo in RDNZL would have won Zappa’s
approval, and the crazy high jinks of Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?, with
its mishmash of wild keyboard solos, kazoos, lachrymose sliding strings and
clashing giant cymbals, was a riot.

But Zappa is familiar, whereas the piece that filled the concert’s first half
was a mystery to most of us. This was the UK premiere of And On the Seventh
Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, by that strange American visionary Harry
Partch. Arrayed in front of us, across the entire width and depth of Colston
Hall, were gleaming replicas of the various instruments Harry Partch
invented.

He created them to bring back into music
the pure musical intervals which Western music has lost. They had wonderful
names, such as Spoils of War, Castor and Pollux, Diamond Marimba, Surrogate
Kithara, and they looked odd and familiar at once. There were giant zithers,
clusters of transparent globular drums, huge transparent bowls hung in rows,
harmoniums, outsize harps.

The devotion these players have shown in bringing Partch’s curious vision to
life is really beyond praise. They’ve each had to discover the playing
technique for several instruments, and then master a score that involves a
constantly changing pattern of duets, trios, quartets and (at the end) a
climactic number for all seven players.

They performed the piece with relaxed grace, as if to the manner born,
relishing the music’s extraordinary mixture of sounds and moods. Hints of
familiar things like Hawaiian guitar, church organs, and Balinese gamelan
were mingled with the strains of something thrillingly strange and
otherworldly.

Hear Ensemble MusikFabrik’s concert on Hear Now on BBC Radio 3
on March 22

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