Ensemble Plus Minus, Kings Place, London – review

The advance publicity for this Anglo-Belgian octet, a regular visitor to Kings Place, promised “alternative notions of music theatre”, “the micro-investigation of sound” and “high-concept approaches to contemporary music-making”. It is good to know that ensembles exist with the sole purpose of pushing back musical boundaries, and equally good that there is a high-profile venue in London willing to support the experimental. The problem with such promotions is that cutting-edge creativity is all too easily confused with the self-consciously perverse, the pretentious and the fourth-rate. That appeared to be the case here. Even if you don’t understand it, the avant garde should have the power to challenge and shock. Ensemble Plus Minus’s conceptual claptrap was merely boring.

Jennifer Walshe’s same person/not the same person was the pick of four pieces on the programme, if only because it contained a theatrical element. While Walshe sat expectantly centre-stage, members of the ensemble created a soft, spatial introductory chorus of mouth-organs around the hall, before joining her for a steady crescendo of electronic flutter and instrumental babble. Out of this emerged a torrent of half-whistling, half-salivating vocalism from Walshe, interspersed with the sort of guttural noises and phonetic nonsense pioneered by Heiner Goebbels in Surrogate Cities. Exactly whom she was impersonating or what was being expressed remained unclear: even the programme note was unintelligible.

James Weeks’ Looping Busker Music for violin, clarinet, amplified guitar and accordion sounded like four voices trying to speak on top of each other, leavened only by taped snatches of distant street sounds and fairground music. Joanna Bailie’s Artificial Environments Nos. 1 to 5 included electronic rumbles, dictionary-style spoken texts and uneventful chords, the aim apparently being “to contextualise music and its processes through explanation”. Newton Armstrong’s Nature Pieces sounded vaguely like a piece of retro 1970s avant garde, its electronics as shadowy and directionless as the instrumental parts.

Whether you blame the promoters or the perpetrators, someone is showing lack of judgment here. The concert was the nearest I have known to musical masturbation – great for the performer but not something that can be “enjoyed” vicariously.


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