This Monday, the percussion quartet ensemblebash played the first of three concerts which they are scheduled to play this year at Kings Place in celebration of their twentieth anniversary. Over their twenty years, ensemblebash have come to be known as one of the most inventive and talented percussion groups worldwide. And they have just about earned the right to whatever typography they want.
 
The group began the concert by pacing around the room, playing their own arrangement of what the programme described as Siwe Bell Music. Played entirely on variously-tuned agogô bells – conjoined, originally-African cowbells – their arrangement moved from a slow, austere opening in which a melody gradually appeared from among the different pitches, into an exciting, rapid, polyphonic section which set the pace for the vibrant and dynamic performance ahead.

ensemblebash
ensemblebash

A majority of the pieces performed were group-specific commissions or, like Siwe Bell Music, their own arrangements. Howard Skempton's Shiftwork was written for the group, apparently with a very specific brief: it is a 'plastic bag piece', which means that all the instruments it requires can fit inside a plastic bag. A useful feature for touring musicians, I am sure, though perhaps less so when other pieces played in the concert required two marimbas, two vibraphones, and a set of tubular bells. But at any rate, the piece was a beautiful, soft study in rhythm and timbre, for sleighbells played with thimbles and ramekins filled with baking beads.

Just as beautiful was David Bedford's Bash Peace for two steel pans (shared between all four players). This fascinating composition featured dense, intricate harmonies which were given an intense and edgy glow through the instrumentation. Bedford died last year, and it was excellent to have this opportunity to hear some of his music live.

The one new arrangement played on Monday was of jazz drummer Max Roach's January V, a luscious, gently melodic piece performed sensitively by the group. It was followed by Steve Reich's Mallet Quartet, which also had a soft melodic quality, surprisingly for Reich. It's perhaps slightly odd that this – what must be one of Reich's most lyrical pieces – should be given as blunt a title as Mallet Quartet. The performance was energetic and exciting, but perhaps lacked the personal edge of the group's renditions of their 'own' pieces.

The second half contained three longer pieces: Graham Fitkin's Hook, Peter Garland's Apple Blossom, and Stewart Copeland's The Gene Pool. Fitkin's explosive piece sounded a little like a particularly violent take on Steve Reich, filled with richly jazz cadences and a beat approaching the intensity of house music. Apparently the ensemble performed this in their very first concert back in 1992, but it has aged well.

Group member Christopher Brannick introduced Apple Blossom as a piece in which 'nothing happens, but it happens very beautifully'. All four players gathered around a single marimba and played soft, delicate oscillating patterns with amazing control and precision.

The final piece, The Gene Pool, was a theatrical and exciting end to the concert. Written by Stewart Copeland, who is also the drummer from The Police, it has a clear rock edge, especially in the complex kit part played by Joby Burgess. A glowing glockenspiel part cut across the texture. This amazing composition allowed ensemblebash to end with a bang, proving that they are not just innovators in the field of text formatting: they are virtuosic musical innovators as well. I can't wait for the next anniversary they get to celebrate.

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