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Maria Perevedentseva , August 3rd, 2015 11:07

Maria Perevedentseva reports from the Barbican in London

Photo courtesy of Mark Allan/the Barbican

Visually, the gig is immediately impressive. White screens with hi-glo projections adorn three of four walls, bathing the Soundlab UK Moog synthesiser in a reverent haze. It is a beautiful beast to behold, and the organisers have spared no effort in milking this physical aspect, adding extra synths, PAs, and rails of patch cords, which are redundant during the performance itself. Here, the Moog is as much an art installation, a cabinet of curiosities, as it is a musical instrument.

The organisers have done well to let very few cats out of the bag regarding what to expect from the evening, and a sort of unknowing expectation is palpable as the lights go down and the three performers take to the stage. Finlay Shakespeare, the Moog technician, is responsible for the first washes of sound emanating from the loudspeaker - a kind of breathing sound, which gives voice to surely the most pressing question: How far will a preconceived notion of piano music have to be extended here? When the piano does come in, it is difficult to imagine anything more idiosyncratic. Given how prominently strings have featured in Levi's work to date, hearing her mastery of this medium is refreshing, and deserves high praise.

The harmonic content is plaintive and innocent, at times bordering (very well executed) kitsch. There is a spaciousness to the writing, achieved by endless open intervals, and the fact that virtually no phrase is resolved in any traditional sense. On a macro level, however, the cycle has an undeniably cohesive and balanced structure, with the first half setting up myriad layers of tension, and the second melting into pure and unabashed lyricism. However, from the very beginning of the performance, a kind of parallelism, an ambivalence, between the piano and the Moog is felt. The glorious contrapuntal passage about halfway through the cycle owes much of its impact due to the fact that it is, in this work, such a rare moment of conjuncture between the instruments. This could be seen as a shame, a short-coming, but a separation like this yields other pleasing effects, such as the unsettling sense of non-diegesis when the Moog scuffles and flutters alone.

It would take a pretty ingenious little pyramid to describe the interplay of roles (and the weight of their influence) in this performance, and it seems a little unfair to subtitle the event "Eliza McCarthy performs Mica Levi". Eliza's pianism has flair, poise, and power – but, in this particular context, to what does it amount? Ultimately, it is Fin and the Moog which control the timbre, and not, as per tradition, the subtle gradations of the attack of Eliza's fingers on the keys.

As Levi said in her brief introduction to the evening, this performance, this whole experiment is very much a first encounter. The pairing of piano and the Moog poses multifarious problems, and a true synthesis of both was never achieved here. If, as she said, the goal of the experiment was to get to know – to master – this pairing, then this evening's performance should be seen to have got as far as a warm handshake, pregnant with the possibility of a long and fruitful relationship.