American Pioneers, the latest Hebrides Ensemble programme, featured five U.S. composers in what musical director, William Conway described as "a slice" of contemporary music from that vast country. Minimalism, as one might expect, featured. Jennifer Higdon's Smash (2005) opened with what felt like a celebration of our obsession with speed. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the piece - if not a textbook example of minimalism - was certainly economic and tightly argued. The bustling counterpoint captured the cauldron of coexistence which constitutes frenetic, urban, 21st century life. Energetically delivered, this performance was a great opener, highlighting how musical dynamism relies not only on tempo but, crucially, on music's diction - articulation. I had not come across Higdon before and, on the strength of this performance, was propelled into enriching YouTube research.

More familiar minimalism was to be heard later when clarinettist, Yann Ghiro, performed Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint (1985) along with ten pre-recorded versions of himself. The piece bears instantly recognisable Reichian features: jaunty, wide-ranging riffs the spaces between whose notes are filled as each section grows; euphoric pulsing harmonies - oxygenated by the ensemble's three bass clarinets. Ghiro was extremely impressive as he effortlessly shimmied the length of four music stands. The skilful preparation and beautiful delivery of this work concealed the high level of artistry involved in successfully addressing the question: how does one performer put across a driving and varied performance, scored for multiples of the same instrument - moreover, an instrument associated more with melody than rhythm? At the risk of boring the reader I'd have to cite articulation again along with sensitively observed dynamics which, together with lovely tone, made the performance.

It would be an exaggeration to say that good programme notes make the concert but the leverage of a well chosen phrase can offer a way in to a heightened enjoyment and understanding of a piece or genre. In John Adam's own note to his Road Movies (1995) he describes how the essence of chamber music did not seem the natural target of the full orchestral - yet minimal style he had evolved up until that point. He mentions chamber music's "democratic parcelling of roles, its transparency and timbral delicacy." It featured violinist, Alexander Janiczek, and pianist Philip Moore - both on top form. The latter had his work cut out - not only due to his involvement in four of the evening's five works but also in the extremely taxing, but infectiously funky, finale of this three movement piece, 40% Swing. The movement which surprised and entranced me most was the central Meditative, whose opening piano chords, each separated from its neighbour by pauses, seemed in no hurry to get anywhere. This movement was the perfect compliment to its more impetuous neighbours - and to Higdon's Smash.

Mahler thought that "a symphony should be like the world. It should contain everything." Charles Ives seems to have been disposed to attempt this in a piano trio - specifically in the 2nd movement of his Piano Trio (1911) entitled, TSIAJ ('This scherzo is a joke'). Presto. The joyously cacophonous, polytonal mixture of American folk songs brought home to me that counterpoint is easier to follow when the each part makes no harmonic concessions to the others. The attention was grabbed and held independently by all three players in a kind of aural plate-spinning extravaganza which I found enthralling.

Most of the pieces on this programme would have drawn me to the Queen's Hall but, for personal reasons, it was George Crumb's captivating 1971 piece, Song of the Whale (Vox Balaenae) which ensured my attendance. I studied this piece 30 years ago and have never had the opportunity to experience a live performance. I say 'experience' rather than 'hear' as there is a visual element to the piece. The masked performers share a stage bathed in blue light. Each player in the trio is required to engage in extensions to conventional technique in the portrayal of the piece's colours: Fiona Paterson's ghostly singing through the flute while playing hinted just how far from the traditional chamber music sound world we might travel; William Conway's artificial harmonics on the cello beautifully depicted the song of the humpback whale; Philip Moore's delicate exploration of the inside of the piano contrasted greatly with the crashing chords. Add to this the fact that each instrument was amplified so that no nuance, no matter how small, would be lost, and you have some idea of the audio territory. It was impressive to note that musicians who, earlier in the programme, had thrived on pulsing, repetitive styles were equally at home in this largely unmetered piece and that material based on scales and modes from shores closer to civilisation's cradle were as convincingly phrased as those from the Western canon. All of which makes me wonder if the name 'Hebrides Ensemble' is a clue to this excellent ensemble's inclination towards outlying beauty.