Charles Ross at Cafe Oto

Sunday 1 September 2019

You really need to see it as well as hear it; not just the visual element, but to appreciate the music as a theatrical experience. Until now, my exposure to Charles Ross’ music has been limited to two pieces heard on the radio, the orchestral work His Master’s Voice and the strange ensemble piece The Ventriloquist. The former piece was conducted by Ilan Volkov; the latter programmed by him as part of his Tectonics festival. Reviewers at the Glasgow performance of The Ventriloquist seem to have all expressed varying degrees of bafflement, particularly given that Ross performed his part in a small, waterlogged sandpit mounted on stage. Every biographical sketch mentions that he is British but has lived in a hut in a remote corner of Iceland for years. He studied music with Frank Denyer, which becomes obvious.

At Oto on Tuesday night, Ross was joined by Volkov, Yoni Silver, flautist Maayan Franco and Crystabel Riley on percussion. The second half was an improvisation by the quintet. Before that came two compositions by Ross, one a premiere and the other getting its first hearing in the UK. The trio in the nameless town had Ross with viola, Franco, and Silver on bass clarinet, not playing, but swaying silently. Their tread became audible, a steady rhythm that gained accompaniment from their instruments. The soft stamping recurred later, staggered into a slow folk dance. Ross choreographs sound and movement, each playing its part. As with folk music, the sounds can be rough and at times may even be roughly handled, but are always made with a clear-minded certainty, a sense of necessity. As with Denyer’s music, continuity follows what appears to be an emotional, dramatic logic in preference to conventional musical form. The immediate distinction between the two composers is Ross’ taste for blunt, restricted gestures, limited in range and variation. Here, sound is used as a means of inculcating a particular frame of mind, a subjective shading by which the music may be understood.

The premiere, titled newlyblind, was composed for Yoni Silver and required him to simultaneously play various combinations of piano, clarinet, prepared violin and guitar and percussion. As a virtuouso showcase, technical fireworks were not at the forefront. Even in the opening, played solo, Silver was required to repeat a dense, one-handed chord on the keyboard in an irregular stutter. Held clarinet tones and vocal cries added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The prepared string instruments produced muted percussive sounds – quiet, complex, ambiguous. At one point Silver held a stone in his left hand, grinding it against another, while his right plucked and struck at the violin resting on the edge of the piano. The violin’s curved back rocked unsteadily, threatening to fall as the rocks scraped and hissed.