How strange. I was engrossed throughout the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Mauricio Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose last night, and I have no idea how to describe it. Each of the eight pieces in this remarkable cycle for “salon band” is titled after a point on the compass – and each is, essentially, an evocation of that point. Or perhaps I mean “direction”, or “place”. Maybe just “word”. Kagel has the habit, at once fascinating and infuriating, of continually switching his vantage points: “North-West” looks up and across from Kagel’s native Argentina to the Andes, while “South-East” looks towards the Caribbean, from Cuba. These are only two of the more focused offerings: “South-West” is a journey south-west from Mexico to New Zealand, for instance, and Kagel toys in his programme notes with calling “West” “Weast or Ewast”. There is only one “North-East”, though, he tells us: “the legendary ‘Nordeste’ of Brazil”.

Mauricio Kagel © Katrin Schander
Mauricio Kagel
© Katrin Schander

Do these pieces sound like their titles? For me, some do, and some don’t. But how does music ever communicate a sense of place? It struck me, while searching desperately among the sounds of “South” for something southern, that mostly we rely on cliché. Pentatonicism, flutes and gongs evoke the East; tremolando strings and wind machines the North. Any evocation of such concepts set on avoiding predictability, then, is bound to produce a range of sounds too personal to work for everyone. “East” for Kagel, apparently, is a train journey through Russia, accompanied by local musicians. It sounds a bit like a tango to me. “South” may have something to do with the South Mediterranean, but it also contains panpipes. This is in contrast to “North-West”, which evokes the sound of panpipes using a plastic descant recorder played by the clarinettist.

The “salon band” consists of string quartet, double bass, clarinet, piano, harmonium and percussion – and what a ludicrous display of percussion it is, from the softly hit cushions of “South-West” to the log thwacked with an axe at the end of “West” (a comment on the West’s depletion of the rainforests? Maybe. Sure). You might think that a diverse array of indigenous percussion instruments would be the most logical way to convey a particular location. Kagel, though, uses a diverse array of invented or obscure percussion instruments to convey... something. I don’t know what it means to pour a jug of water onto a metal sheet, or indeed to turn on a fan and have it blow against a few little strips of plastic. Crazy percussion is the logical way to make this piece make sense, and yet Kagel uses his crazy percussion in perhaps the most illogical way imaginable.

The music varies. One minute it’s screaming, loud, chaotic; the next it’s soft and gentle. The next, there isn’t any, and you’re just staring transfixed at the performers as they stare about themselves. Sometimes it’s sincere, as in the outright beautiful, folk-song-based “North-West” or the deliciously subtle tribute to the rhythms of Brazil that is “North-East”. Sometimes it seems almost scornful, as in the silly Gershwinian strains of “West”, which later slips in to full-on shopping-mall vibraphone mode. Mostly, it’s never predictable. It swings between moods, ideas, structures at a rare of knots. What does it sound like? Anything. Nothing. It’s up to you.

Because that’s how music works, isn’t it? You are presented with a range of sounds and you interpret them, as you see fit. Listening is a journey, but an invented journey of course, inside your head. There are no universals in interpretation, are there? There are certainly no universals in direction. It depends where you are.

All of this made for the most provocative, brilliant, intelligent evening of music I can recall experiencing, and I can’t speak highly enough of the London Sinfonietta’s marvellous performance, conducted with all the necessary humour and passion, and then some, by an ebullient Thierry Fischer. Percussionist David Hockings stole the show, of course, but everything else was superbly done too, including the solos galore for violinist Alexandra Wood and clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. This was a long evening, but I didn’t want it to end. I left with that feeling that always follows something so wonderful – a true universal, for once – of joy, tinged with sadness it was over.