November 01, 1996

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

Filed under: Archive,Music

Balanescu Quartet
Mountadam Vineyard

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Since the release of their 1992 recording Possessed, the Balanescu Quartet has held a variety of music enthusiasts in their thrall. For some their spirited, rhythmic playing conjured associations with folk and Romany styles. The miked-up sound appealed to the rock and jazz fusion crowd. And their witty re-drafts of composers such as David Byrne and the German proto-techno band, Kraftwerk, made fashion victims of us all.

Attending the Barossa Music Festival to perform works showcasing the eponymous Possessed, with Meryl Tankard’s ADT, the quartet led by Alexander Balanescu and co-composer Clare Connors also perform their own recital on the Monday holiday of the festival’s first weekend.

Originally, the music for ADT was to have been performed by the New Leipzig Quartet but Balanescu vetoed the idea preferring to perform his compositions himself. Instead, a link was planned for simulcast performances -the Tankard dancers in Lehmann’s Winery and the quartet in a soundproof booth in London. This prohibitively expensive notion was then followed by Plan C. Sponsors, Santos and Adam Wynn’s Mountadam company, dipped into their pockets and the quartet flew out for just four days to add their own galvanising sound to the Barossa’s splendid festival.

The ADT project at Lehmann’s is in every sense a success. Characteristically, Meryl Tankard and her collaborator Regis Lansac have recognised the quality and potential of Balanescu’s music and created a production which nicely matches the informality and spontaneity implied when wineries are suddenly turned into performance venues. There is a playful air to the solo and duet work- sketches and impromptus which give added impact to the swooping, erotic energies of the main work, the intricately aerial Possessed. Throughout, the dancers and musicians show an easy rapport and a refreshing willingness to give each other space. It has been a unique event for all concerned.

The quartet’s lunchtime performance at Mountadam begins in easy style with some prefatory remarks from Balanescu. Heavy set in his baggy dark suit ,buttoned white shirt and signature brown fedora, he looks more like a bootlegger than a bandleader- especially surrounded by roof-high stacks of Wynn’s hooch, oak barrels enticingly marked with chalk runes- PN, Cab M.,Shiraz.

The group opens with East from last year’s Luminitsa album. They begin with a lyrical bar or two from Clare Connors on violin, melancholy Romanian riffs which are suddenly undercut by David Cunncliffe’s repetitive cello lines, then followed in fugal rotation by heavy strumming notes from Balanescu and sinuous viola runs from fourth player David Hirschman. The sound is percussive and vibrant, reminiscent of some of Mahavishnu Orchestra and jazz violinists such as Jean Luc Ponty but still remaining within the parameters of the string quartet. If this sound is created from a single rib, though, it is probably the Kronos group’s blood-rush rendition of Hendrix’s Purple Haze.

The group also use overdubs- as in Still With Me . Verging on the lugubrious it has an eerie, dirgelike quality as Balanescu recites a chronology of Eastern bloc tyranny and revival. All things are left, left behind, he intones as piano trills, handclaps and ghosty voices blend in from somewhere near the sound desk. The grim recital from the death of Stalin to the blockade of Chechnya is set in contrast to the soaring optimism of the music and the reminder of that even the composer’s native Romania is in some recovery from forty years of madness.

Introducing the Kraftwerk section, Balanescu notes with irony that the German band predicted an end to acoustic instruments by 1980. The quartet prove them wrong but with plenty of voltage coursing through their woodwork nevertheless. Beginning with Robots the band gets into a mesmeric violin scrape which is then earthed by an unrelenting cello riff. Moving on to the Autobahn the quartet manage to create a torrent of sound, complete with Balanescu’s Kawasaki throttle imitation -but, as in all their work, there is a sweetness of timbre at the same time.

From Computer Love the focus shifts to Chain , a repetitious little link work, one of several written by Connors to be interspersed among the major thematic works on Luminitsa. The final item turns out to be the title composition itself. It opens with a duet between cello and violin. It is a playful tempo, like a skipping rhyme which develops an hypnotic intensity as Balanescu runs a heavy arm over the fretboard. This time a little too heavy and amidst the moulting bow strings a long curl of catgut hangs off his violin. With charming ease he announces that he has to restring and we wait while he leaves the stage to effect repairs. It provides time to reflect, admire a few more barrels and realise what singular music we are listening to.

Alexander returns, restrung, and the quartet starts up again. Luminitsa – meaning “little light of hope’ – is an amalgam of sounds with contrasts of tender melody and thrumming brooding tones. It is a paranoid rhapsody, perhaps, but as its title suggests, it reaches towards the light.

The quartet play two encores – Model, one last Kraftwerk excursion and The Right Don Giovanni , a short piece by Michael Nyman. The Balanescu Quartet have performed just over an hour and sent our ganglia rattling like pitchforks. Their concert has been affable, inventive and ringing with energy. I’m informed that a peevish review in the press that weekend suggested that the sponsors for Balanescu should demand their money back. On the contrary, they are to be commended. Their generosity enabled the warmly appreciative audience at Mountadam to hear one of the most interesting and accessible quartets in contemporary music.

The Adelaide Review, No.145, November, 1995, pp.29-30.

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