Tuesday, 10 November 2009, review by Alan Cooper

A recurrent theme of this year’s SOUND FESTIVAL has been the exploration of contemporary compositions fusing western music with the styles and traditions of cultures from around the world. If I may borrow and alter the first part of a famous quotation from Sir Thomas Beecham: “The English may not know anything at all about music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes”. This will tell you exactly my necessary approach to most of the music in a concert which sought to weave together Western sounds and styles with the classical traditions of India (and Japan) on which my expertise is zero. So I am sure that like many others in the audience, my tactic was just to listen, learn and enjoy “the noise that the music made”.

There were several distinct threads of talent taking part in last night’s concert. The first was guitar virtuoso Simon Thacker. He was joined by Indian musicians Dr Jyotana Srikanth a celebrated exponent of the Carnatic Violin along with tabla player, Sarvar Sabri. The four members of the Edinburgh Quartet provided a small “string orchestra” and believe it or not, a chorus for one of the pieces. Mario Caribé (a noted explorer of multiple musical styles including jazz) was a stunning bass player and on percussion, including xylophone, vibraphone and the exotic water-phone, was Iain Sandilands.

With the work that opened the concert I was on more familiar ground. American composer Terry Riley’s Francesco en Paraiso from Cantos Desiertos (1996) brought together the leader of the Edinburgh Quartet, Tristan Gurney with Simon Thacker. The distinct Latin and jazz flavours of this piece along with the particular instrumental forces it used somehow led me to think of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
The second item was pure Indian music featuring the intricate and exotic sounds of the Carnatic Violin and the tabla with its splendid “boink” bass notes. I’m sure there must be a proper word for this but I do not know what it is.

The first “fusion” piece was by Nigel Osborne, the Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. Specially commissioned for this concert series and entitled The Birth of Naciketa for guitar Concertante, it spotlighted not just Simon Thacker but most of the other players as well in an astonishing variety of combinations. When any instrument or group was highlighted, the others, particularly the strings, but the percussion too, would provide a wash of background colour. Like the other big fusion piece in the programme there were clear jazz influences in this music. It included the exotic water-phone, like something from the weird orchestra in the first Star Wars movie; then suddenly, a gentle waft of voices was added to the mix, provided by members of the Edinburgh quartet. I do not pretend to understand the various references to Indian music in this piece but I did “absolutely love the noise it made”.

The Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brower’s guitar arrangement of Japanese composer Minoru Miki’s A Young Sprout, brilliantly played by Simon Thacker seemed to have only an echo of the Japanese original. Leo Brower’s influence came through powerfully but no less enjoyable for that. The other fusion of Japanese and Western music was more overtly Eastern. This was the Edinburgh Quartet’s performance of The Harvest of the Sea Salt and Butterfly Dance by the Scottish composer Sir John McEwen. He was a pupil of both Ebenezer Prout and Tobias Matthay. I wonder if he knew “What Matthay meant”. Strangely enough, although the opening piece by Terry Riley the founder of the minimalist school contained no minimalism, McEwen who died when Riley was just thirteen had already moved quite a way in the minimalist direction with these two pieces.

The undoubted highlight of this concert however was the final piece, Nada-Ananda, Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Ensemble by the Indian born composer now living in Boston USA, Shirish Korde. His exciting new work, commissioned by Simon Thacker is well named Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Ensemble, for although Thacker’s guitar has a starring role, the other performers are by no means left in the shadows. Tabla along with jazzy xylophone and vibes have starring roles along with the guitar in the second movement while in the glorious finale, Korde provides stand up type jazz solos for all the performers before everyone joins in a thrilling ending.