Spellbinding performance of abstract music

Only in the world of music could you get away with describing something more than 60 years old as "new".

After all, this is a world where something written 100 years ago is unblushingly described as "modern"?and a composer who has been dead for more than 50 years is often labelled "contemporary".

So nobody should have been surprised that this programme of new music featured only one living composer (and he hits 70 next year) or that of the four works performed, only one was written within the last quarter-century while two of the others date back to the 1950s and 1960s.

That was a time when, while the pop world was getting down and dirty with the masses, the classical world was raising itself high above the mainstream, celebrating the complex and rejoicing in inaccessibility.

It is good to know that, through the long passage of time, Morton Feldman (1926-1987), Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and the extraordinarily long-lived Elliott Carter (1908-2012) have lost none of their old ability to disconnect with an audience.

For his part, Salvatore Sciarrino can rest easy knowing his reputation for writing music which is largely inaudible remains intact.

  • REVIEW / CONCERT

  • ACROSS THE ATLANTIC

    New Music Ensemble/Chen Zhangyi

    Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra Hall

    Last Friday

Both Sciarrino's elegantly titled Il Silenzio Degli Oracoli (of 1989) for wind quintet and Feldman's Structures for string quartet (written in 1951) offer tiny fragments of sound encased within acres of silence (more like white noise with Sciarrino) and neither work shows any inclination to treat instruments conventionally.

Amir Sharipov was asked to do just about everything with his horn other than play it - he blew air into it, screeched high-pitched wailings through it and occasionally popped the mouthpiece with the palm of his hand - while string players Jirajet Jesadachet, Huang Yu-Ting, Hsiao Chia-chien and Chen PinJyun scraped, squeaked and rasped away without demur.

Jang Zion was faced with the most horrendous technical challenges of them all in Xenakis' fussy Anaktoria of 1969.

Here he was forced to do things with his clarinet no sane clarinettist should ever do. He did them all brilliantly, often with the delicious support of Wang Runan's glissando-fixated five- string double-bass.

But while the music may have appealed only to those with the most desiccated of intellects, the performance itself was spellbinding.

None of the monumental musical, mental and mechanical demands fazed the players for a moment and while both the Xenakis and Elliott Carter's Double Trio (one of the 103-year-old composer's final utterances) needed the clear, firm hand of Chen Zhangyi to hold the players in line, all credit must go to the phenomenal feats performed by the 15 players of the New Music Ensemble.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Spellbinding performance of abstract music'. Print Edition | Subscribe