Now in its fourth year, Fringe by the Sea is an enthusiastically supported satellite of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. Located 25 scenic miles from the capital, in the beautiful seaside town of North Berwick, it offers a wide variety of cultural events with music at its core. One of four simultaneous events on the evening of Aug 11, Camerata Ritmata drew a large crowd to St. Andrew Blackadder Church with its unique take on music's interelationships.

Simon Thacker © Laurence Winram
Simon Thacker
© Laurence Winram

The quartet is the brainchild of Scotland's foremost classical guitarist, the adventurous and insatiably curious Simon Thacker. The genesis and pioneer of many recent commissions, he tirelessly trawls centuries and cultures for source material which then undergoes transcription, arrangment or re-composition. The result is an invigoroating, reinvention of the guitar's place on the concert platform. Such an ambition could never fly without a daring crew and Thacker has found resonant company in pianist Paul Harrison, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer/percussionist, Stuart Brown.

One rich seam mined to great effect is the musical heritage of the Sephardi Jews who, until their expulsion in 1492, resided in Spain. The first half opened with a dynamic arrangment of the song Descanso de me vida (My life's repose) and closed with Ovshori, a Mountain Jewish/Azerbaijani Folk Dance. Tarantalla-like in spirit, it featured dialogue between unison pitched instruments and a highly tuned timbale. Since hearing this piece, and revisiting their performance of it several times on YouTube, I find it to be one of these puzzling and addictive pieces which, while making complete sense at the moment of hearing, eludes the memory thereafter, prompting further hearing.

At the core of this half of the recital were three of the Cantigas de Santa Maria - a collection of 420 songs written in the reign of King Alfonso X El Sabio (The Wise) of Spain (1221–1284). Many of the original texts, written in Galician-Portuguese, celebrate an end to afflicitons and woes following succesful prayers for the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Written during la convivencia, when Spanish Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted in relative tranquility, these homophonic cantigas bear traces of that cross-cultural era. This seems to make them less prone to the gravitational pull of western implied harmony (and its concommitant, harmonic rhythm) affording the interpreter great expressive freedom. As the ensemble's title might suggest, rhythmic vitality was where the musicians made their mark. The ensemble writing and playing were outstanding – all the more so when you consider that players of such percussive melodic instruments cannot ease into a note. Camerata Ritmata offered three cantigas: Des oge mais quer' eu trobar (No. 1); De Santa Maria sinal qual xe quer (No. 123); Non vos e gran maravilla (No. 177). I found it fascinating, after the event, to compare other settings of these same cantigas with Thacker's and look forward to exploring this huge canon further.

The central cantiga was preceded by a guitar taqsim – an intense, improvised introduction over a drone provided by a shruti box. A celebration of coloratura guitar playing, this passage featured pitch bends more severe than many would suppose a classical guitar – or a guitarist's hand - to be capable. I thought it a lovely arranger's touch that, thanks to the unmetered nature of this introduction, the listeners appreciated the rhythmic drive when the other musicians rejoined, even although the rythmic subdivisions would normally wrong-foot a strictly western listener.

The second half, devoted entirely to Brazilian music featured works by pianist and composer, Radamés Gnattali (1906-88) and guitarist, pianist and composer, Egberto Gismonti (b. 1947). The latter, like Thacker, seems to thrive at the interface of tradtion and modernity. Of Gnattali's three pieces featured, I sensed that Baião, from his Brazilian Popular Suite most animated the audience and demonstrated the power of the lydian dominant scale to ensure a feel good factor in an up-beat composition. Four well chosen Gismonti pieces, Maracatu; Lôro; Choro; Frevo displayed that there is more to an individual than national style, and that there is more to a national style than similarity. While many might be able to guess the origin of the music, they would soon agree, after hearing these pieces, that the style is as vast as the country. I felt here that Camerata Ritmata joyously occupied that rare territory between rhythmic exactitude and freedom.

The encore, Berimbau by Baden Powell de Aquino (1937-2000) was a playful depiction of this totemic Brazilian instrument. I feel certain that many in the audience will seek out Camerata Ritmata out in other settings. If you have the chance to experience these four musicians who, in the service of musical expression, wear their virtuosity lightly, then I feel sure that you would enjoy an eveing as unique as it is diverse.