The lights were already down as I fumbled my way into a back pew of the Union Chapel last night. Thirty seconds later, the performance began. I’d bought a ticket after seeing that Kit Downes would playing the chapel’s pipe organ in company with Tre Voci, a trio of cellists, and the Southbank Gamelan Players. It sounded like an intriguing combination but I didn’t have time to get any clearer idea of what they’d be doing, and I rushed to find a seat without picking up the A4 sheet giving details of the programme. So I was in a position to let the music come as a complete surprise, which is sometimes the best way.
As I’d hoped, the combination turned out to be a happy one, at its best when there was no real attempt to “blend” the ingredients. Juxtaposition was the most rewarding method. So, in the course of an unbroken hour-long open half, the gamelan ensemble played pieces of their music, the cello group played theirs, Downes played a solo piece, and they came together at various junctures.
It proved to be a rich experience. One piece for the cellos (Alexander, Torun Stavseng and Gregor Riddell) found them bowing phrases entirely in harmonics, skittering in three directions at once: very exhilarating. The four members of the gamelan group — Robert Campion, Helen Loth, Cathy Eastburn and Jonathan Roberts — produced the anticipated meditative sounds from their metallophones and gongs, gently striking and occasionally bowing the bars of their xylophone-like instruments. Downes played a piece I recognised, since it came from his new solo organ album, Obsidian. But it was when they came together that the music was at its most convincing, the players fitting the diverse layers of sound together with great sensitivity as they improvised (so I later learnt) on pieces by John Cage, Tre Voci’s Colin Alexander, and Beni Giles, a young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music’s masters course in composition.
If I found the second half, devoted to the world premiere of a new composition by Bryn Harrison titled “To Shadow”, less compelling, it may have been because the ensemble played together almost all the time in this through-composed hour-long piece. The contrasts of the first half were lost, and with them went the dramatic shifts of timbre and texture. But the evening ended in a moment of great beauty, with Laura Moody — invisible in the gallery above and behind the audience — tapping the body of her cello to provide percussive accompaniment as she intoned Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs”, her treatment of the short song pitched somewhere between those of Cathy Berberian and Joey Ramone.
But I left with my head still in the first half, when the music had held not just greater contrast but, perhaps paradoxically, something of the seductive qualities of Terry Riley’s all-night keyboard concerts and La Monte Young’s Dream House. In this, the surroundings certainly helped. The instrumentation suited the chapel’s acoustic, with lighting that enhanced the meditative atmosphere — particularly when a semi-abstract mandala pattern was projected on to the rose window above the organ chamber. And on the way out I bought Tre Voci’s EP of transcriptions for three cellos of medieval choral works by Ockeghem, Dunstable and Byrd, which turned out to be a perfect souvenir.
* Kit Downes’s Obsidian, recorded on organs at the Union Chapel and in two small churches in Suffolk, is released on the ECM label. To hear recordings of Tre Voci, go to http://trevocicelloensemble.com/media/ And here’s a larger grouping of the Southbank Gamelan Players at David Byrne’s Meltdown a couple of years ago: https://youtu.be/99B-CrJYG9I