The Southbank Centre is riddled with cubby-holes, and it was in a particularly tucked-away corner – the “Spirit Level” bar – that a small audience of dedicated sound-lovers heard this exciting concert of morsels and miniatures. Perched in this top-floor bar, our picturesque backdrop to the stage was a dusk view of Westminster. Delightful but devilishly distracting!

Beginning the evening was some music by Morton Feldman written to accompany a 1960s film about Jackson Pollock. This commission was originally turned down by John Cage, and his influence on Morton Feldman was obvious in the work’s pauses and mini-gestures, that seem to operate in a vacuum, devoid of direct relation to each other but contributing to the impression of the whole – just like the Jackson Pollock pictures the video showed. Intimate this most certainly was, but the drawn-out silences and very quiet music were punctuated by strains of Beatles covers emanating from a loud restaurant 6 floors down. Whilst John Cage’s theory of “Indeterminacy” would abash me for pitting “art against life”, Strawberry Fields Forever was too bizarre a juxtaposition to allow me to take the film and music seriously.

An intense performance from Oliver Coates followed. This solo cello piece, written specifically for the concert, was short but profound. When introducing the piece Coates said he felt that each note had importance, its own independent gravitas, and the gripping nature of the performance didn’t contradict. In particular, the final flourishes, pitching high, aggressive scratch tones against resonant, low open strings, simply sounded great.

Jonathan Green's piece for cello and electronics demonstrated an entirely different approach, and demanded a very different kind of virtuosity from the performer. The performer bowed only one note throughout, but the electronic element of the sound was controlled by finely-graded movements in bowing position. The hardware adaptation to the bow allowed it to act as a tape-head; playing back previously recorded cello music. This is an interesting and intuitive adaptation to the instrument, technically well realised – but I was desperate for the live cello sound to burst into song and really interact with its own accompaniment, and vice versa. In the end this piece was much more a study examining an idea than a functioning piece of music in itself.

Following the interval (which was used by most of the audience as a chance to delight in the balcony views and enjoy revellers’ sing-along versions of Yellow Submarine – Beatles covers were still emanating, inexplicably loudly, from the restaurant below), we heard some music for tape. Peter Warren’s Chair Chune is a piece created from the off-cuts of a recording session which ended in a chair falling over. Using just this fragment of sound material, Warren created a beat-ridden, explosive piece accompanied by a pretty and sometimes comic video showing the antics of some colourful chairs. The video cleverly allowed the piece to hurdle performance issues inherent in tape music, namely the “when to clap” problem. I was delighted that this piece went down particularly well with the audience; music for tape is such an underdog in popularity terms that it was encouraging to see.

By this point in the concert I was worried that all these tasty morsels wouldn’t leave me satisfied – without a programme, so not knowing what was coming next, I thought it might be a concert without direction and I wanted a chunkier main course of a piece! Luckily, after some exciting improvisation, a Suite by Howard Skempton from his ballet Delicate provided this. With an enticing and exciting instrumentation of percussion (bongos, glockenspiel and timpani) and two cellos, this suite made me intrigued to see the full-scale ballet. The six movements felt at times like character-pieces, and oozed charm – not something I associate with other works I’ve heard by this illustrious composer. The tightly-synched, elegant performance made for a gripping finale to this concert.

Perhaps a little fragmented but chock-full of interesting pieces, this recital didn’t deflate my high regard for this gem of a concert series.

Harmonic Series - Oliver Coates (Cello), at Royal Festival Hall, FoyerOliver Coates' March installment of the Harmonic Series series of concerts at the Southbank Centre. Review by Arthur Keegan-Bole.3