Somewhere between a concert and a scientific experiment, tonight’s Tales from Babel at the Royal Academy of Music was a fascinating study into the way we process text and language. Having been given a response handset when we entered the room, the first half of the concert was a rendition of a work by Christopher Fox which gave the concert it’s name; Tales from Babel. Telling the stories of six everyday characters, we are taken through several short scenes in which the characters interact in a musical dialogue. It is set around a party in honour of the new gazebo which has been erected in the garden of our hosts, Roger and Frances and we slowly begin to immerse ourselves in the lives of the characters through the manner of their speech and their relationships with others. However, half way through the set, we are subjected to a listening test – the audience are asked to listen to several sung sentences against varying backgrounds noises and work out what the final word in each sentence is. Some are predictable and some are randomly generated sets of words and phrases and the background noises are also of varying difficulty! Once the test is complete, we return to the cocktail party and resume the lives of our six characters.

At the beginning of the second half, there is a short speech about the science behind tonight’s programme and the results – apparently as an audience we were quite average! We are then treated to a series of madrigals – some of which are the complete versions of the works referenced in the first half and some of which are an intriguing take on the madrigal, with modern text being set to existing motets and madrigals. This worked in varying degrees – it was somewhat ironic that the text was somewhat unclear, having spent the first half of the evening listening so avidly to the words.

The final large work in the programme was another extended work by Christopher Fox, which was a minimalist take on the lives of our six characters, based on an experiment devised to test American Airforce Pilots and air traffic controllers. The basic formula of Name go to Colour Number is slowly manipulated and transformed into an array of ever more bizarre configurations. We once again delve into the lives of our characters, almost witnessing a fight due to a misheard comment and finding that Matthew, our narrator, is not quite what he seems.

The concert ended with a lovely rendition of Josquin Des Prez’s Consideres mes incessantes/Fortunata, which was a beautifully blended and simple end to an interesting and challenging evening.