Nightmusic: Abstruckt Ensemble, Vickers Bovey | Live

Cath Barton attended Nightmusic, the joint concert between the Abstruckt Ensemble and the Vickers Bovey Guitar Duo, and found the combination of guitar and percussion intriguing.


Abstruckt Ensemble
Vickers Bovey Guitar Duo

L3 Lounge, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 4th April 2018


Improved lighting helped to create an informal atmosphere in the Level 3 Lounge in St David’s Hall for the second in their spring series of contemporary music concerts, this time for an intriguing combination of guitar duo and percussion quartet.

Guitarists Julian Vickers and Dan Bovey opened with the first movement of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite. The lightness and delicacy of their playing, together with the immediately-evident strong rapport between the two of them, set the tone for an evening of superb music-making.

Julian Vickers and Dan Bovey:  Vickers Bovey Guitar Duo. Photo courtesy

Locating contemporary pieces amongst music from earlier times always helps an audience to feel comfortable and so more able to appreciate new and potentially challenging music. The courtly dance of Rameau’s Musette en Rondeau was a perfect choice in this respect. This and the following Le Rappel des Oiseaux with its imitations of birdcalls, both transcriptions of harpsichord music for guitar, were utterly charming.

These two players breathed as one, drawing the audience in and creating a calmness within which the textures of the piece which they played next, William Marsey’s gentle Chorale, could expand and take their place in the room. This piece, commissioned for the Vickers Bovey Duo by Listenpony in 2015, followed on quite naturally from the Rameau pieces written nearly 300 years before.

Three members of Abstruckt Ensemble perform Musique de Tables. Photo courtesy:

To end the first of three short sets, three of the four members of the Abstruckt Ensemble – Elsa Bradley, Emma Arden and Joe Richards – played Musique de Tables (1987) by the Belgian musician and filmmaker Thierre De Mey in mesmerising fashion. When looking up details of the composer I misread ‘musician’ as ‘magician’, which is one of these serendipitous mistakes, because it is actually a magical piece of music! Three people sit at a table and create a soundscape from it with their hands – swishing, tapping in myriad ways, clapping and – that most essential element of music – moments of quiet too. I loved the visual aspects of this performance too.

The second set opened with a new piece, a commission by Tŷ Cerdd, the organisation for the promotion of Welsh music, from Lucy McPhee for guitar duo. She is clearly a talent to watch out for in the future. It was poignant to hear her musical paean to Martin Luther King, April 4th 1968, receive its first performance on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although including rhythmic elements to represent struggle, the overall mood of this piece is contemplative and hopeful.

Back on stage – Angela Hui stepping in on this occasion for regular fourth member Ana Gasco-Gomez – the full Abstruckt Ensemble played three movements from Texas-born composer Elliot Cole’s Postludes (2014) for bowed vibraphone. The use of double-bass bows and hand-tapping by the four players on a single instrument exploited all the harmonics of the low and long Level 3 foyer space. Resonance was the primary musical impulse in this piece, making listening to it almost an out-of-body experience.

Composer and Nightmusic curator, Freya Waley-Cohen. Photo: Patrick Allen :

The quartet concluded the short second set of this concert with Freya Waley-Cohen’s Glass (2015), written for them for Listenpony, a concert series, commissioning body and record label of which Waley-Cohen is artistic director. Each performance of this piece incorporates sounds made by the audience members before the drumming starts and chosen by the players to include – as vocal sounds – within the percussive mix. I can best characterise the sounds incorporated on this occasion as those of a sick sheep! The point? Possibly to bring performers and audience closer together, to help create the immersive and interactive experience for which the organisers of NightMusic – including Waley-Cohen as curator – are striving? It certainly made for a good-humoured atmosphere even if, for me, it didn’t add significantly to the otherwise impressively muscular sound of Glass.

For the third and final set the Vickers Bovey Duo returned with another piece by Rameau, Les Cyclopes, followed by Michael Finissey’s Normal Deviates (2017), commissioned by the duo. Introducing the Finissey piece, Dan Bovey described it as a ‘space-age form of Variations.’ The composer has drawn on the vihuela and lute (precursors of the modern day guitar) Fantasias of the Renaissance composers Alonso Mudarra and Robert Dowland for his version of a set of variations. Certainly I could hear distorted echoes of Dowland, by moments. As earlier in the concert, this deliberately dislocated music was illuminated and made more accessible by being played immediately following the more familiar style of Rameau.

To conclude, the Abstruckt Ensemble took to two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas for Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet (2009), now a standard of the percussion ensemble repertoire, and a fitting way to show off this quartet’s superb ensemble playing.

Like the first concert in this NightMusic series, given by The Hermes Experiment, for me this was a wonderful introduction to a lot of music new to me as well as a chance to hear some that was more familiar played in an intimate setting. I particularly appreciated hearing so much music played softly. I thought it was a tremendous programme and it was also good that three of the composers – William Marsey, Lucy McPhee and Freya Waley-Cohen – were present to hear their music performed. I was just sorry that there was not some way in which all the performers could be brought together for an encore!

I do hope that this NightMusic series is just the beginning of this kind of programming in St David’s Hall, and will succeed in attracting more diverse audiences.


Header photo: Abstruckt Ensemble (with regular fourth member, Ana Gasco-Gomez)

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Having heard The Hermes Experiment earlier this year in the first St David’s Hall NightMusic series, and very much enjoyed their unique sound combination in a range of contemporary works, I was keen to see and hear them again on a visit to the RWCMD.

Cath Barton’s novella The Plankton Collector is due to be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She has been awarded a place on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring Scheme, to work on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of the sixteenth century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.