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I only live here part 2

Posted: August 30th, 2010, by Stan Tontas

Edinburgh’s slowest Festivals reviewer gets around to typing up his notes…

Although Edinburgh had more “Free!” events than in previous years, in most cases you were getting what you paid for and the standards were pretty low. Better to decide based on the quality of the beer than the banter. (A notable exception must be the Not-the-Perrier Award winner.)

One of the better free shows was News At Kate, at the Voodoo Rooms. Topical material from a performer who comes across as geniune and front-free, taking perceived-as-tricky topics like feminism and managing to make them funny. She engages with audience members without putting them down for cheap laughs and it’s impossible not to like her. Warm & funny stuff about her encounters with Peter Stringfellow and Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth.

I love unashamedly highbrow culture when it’s as open and exploratory as this. A near-capacity Usher Hall in rapt attention to 4 virtuosos, not just for straightforward crowd-pleasing chamber pieces but challenging works. The 3 scheduled pieces, by Steve Reich, George Crumb and Aleksandra Vrebalov were varied and made (discreet) use of delays and electronics.

The first piece comprised a tower of Babel of stringed instrumentation, starting with (I think) a one-stringed Tibetan thing and moving to and through melodies & rhythms that evoked klezmer, Raz Mesinai-esque Middle East and Japan.

The second piece, unmistakbly by Reich, was the least interesting. Pleasant string lines, with snatches of voice (which turn out to be Holocaust survivors, making me uneasy with the disjunction). It felt like the soundtrack to a Shinkansen documentary, lacking intensity and seeming too familiar. (Even as an evocation of train travel I liked it less than Henry Thomas’s hobo ballads.)

After the interval came the most avant garde piece, Black Mass, featuring bowed gongs and wine glasses. Austere passages of intense concentration on single sounds and their resonances, the possiblities of sound from the instruments. It’s not dis-similar to Improv in its approach. Rather disconnected on the face of it, has moments of beauty and is presented theatrically: dangling violins are silhouetted against the far wall of the Hall.

Edinburgh’s applause for Black Mass earned us an encore of Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to Aronofsky’s The Fountain, an absolute stormer. It uses melodic string lines with an underlay of electric guitar and drums to life you up and dash you down. The crowd went wild, in a refined, concert hall, way.

Stan Tontas

Stan lives in Glasgow.

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