By Sam Pryce
Crypt on the Green, London
The Hermes Experiment – a young, fresh-faced contemporary quartet comprising harp, clarinet, double bass and soprano voice – do not shy away from experimentation. They have previously collaborated with photographers and theatre companies, commissioned new works from over 30 composers and improvised live in their performances. In this concert, entitled ‘Lexicon’, the quartet brought us a selection of vibrant new works by young composers and poets, all linked by their consideration of the relationship between music and language.
Which is a curious one. Both mediums can stand alone, but, when combined, they intensify, accentuate and even explain each other. The three-part song cycle We Phoenician Sailors (with poems by Octavia Bright set to music by Freya Waley-Cohen) sought to ‘move away from traditional declarations of love’ in favour of a more sensory and visceral mode of expression. Bright’s poems, read at first unaccompanied by the poet herself, appeared cryptic and elliptical. However, once complemented by Waley-Cohen’s unusual and passionate music, their emotional intensity bubbled to the surface.
In a collaboration called ‘Familiar Objects’ (after Magritte), Ali Lewis centred his poems around the mundane, everyday objects that he encountered in the three parts of his working morning – getting ready in his bathroom, having his morning cup of tea and getting on his bus to work. By exploring these ‘things’, he was able to consider more complex themes such as love, memory and consciousness. With ethereal, semi-improvised music performed by The Hermes Experiment, Lewis’s poems considered each object in an original and darkly comic way.
The composers were just as experimental with the language they used. In ‘Still Night’, Jia Chai deconstructed a centuries-old Chinese poem into its phonological components. Similarly, Andrew Thomas integrated Japanese utai chant into his contemporary vocal work, ‘Flowers, Aren’t They?’ The evening ended with a thrilling piece by the great American composer and performance artist Meredith Monk, arranged exquisitely for the ensemble by their harpist Anne Denholm.
Demonstrating boundless versatility and dexterity, ‘Lexicon’ was as much a showcase of new creative talent as it was of this gifted and exciting quartet.