wed 06/12/2023

The Hermes Experiment, Purcell Room review - familiar objects, unfamiliar sounds | reviews, news & interviews

The Hermes Experiment, Purcell Room review - familiar objects, unfamiliar sounds

The Hermes Experiment, Purcell Room review - familiar objects, unfamiliar sounds

Scenes from modern life explored by high-class experimental ensemble

The Hermes Experiment, led by soprano Héloïse Werner© Raphaël Neal

The Hermes Experiment are the cool kids of the contemporary music school, who have brought a "build-your-own-repertoire" approach to generating music for their unique combination of soprano, clarinet, harp and double bass. As their name would suggest, they are firmly in the experimental tradition, using improvisation, extended techniques and graphic scores.

They attracted the appropriate level of beards and cardigans to their Purcell Room recital, starting at the undeniably hip time of 10pm. The concert was called "Familiar Objects"and there were domestic items, from clothes airer, to ironing board, to cornflake packets adorning the stage. The music comprised pieces celebrating everyday aspects of modern life, from chatting by direct message, to doing the washing up, to eating a piece of fruit.

The first item, Timothy Cape’s Favourite Bits, perhaps my favourite of the lot, was a deconstruction of a musical performance in the way trendy restaurants offer deconstructed desserts. The players entered, bowed, shuffled their stands and chairs, warmed up their instruments, in a carefully co-ordinated – and slightly unnerving – ballet that had everything except actual music. This gradually emerged, fleeting fragments, a note here, a chord there, building to a chaotic climax, before a return to the pantomime of post-performance. I really enjoyed it.The Hermes ExperimentAs I did the final piece, Kerry Andrew’s Fruit Songs. Originally scored for voice and guitar, they were here heard in an arrangement by harpist Anne Denholm. These songs are edgy, eclectic and characterful, and performed with panache. The group’s leader, soprano Héloïse Werner, who has a magnetic stage presence, negotiated the rhythmic intensity of the second song and the languid nocturnal spaciousness of number four with equal relish. And, as throughout, the ensemble operated as a unit, supremely responsive to each other, reacting and interacting with almost superhuman awareness.

Elsewhere there were somewhat diminishing returns. I longed for the chance to hear Werner’s soprano in full lyrical flight, as it often is on the group’s superb recent album Song. Instead here she mostly provided interjections, exclamations, speech or other vocalisations – always with wit and faultless taste – but denying us the full scope of her voice. The group were joined on stage by poet Ali Lewis for a couple of recited items – I enjoyed his words, but he confirmed my view, formed over time, that poets are not usually the best speakers of their own words. There was nothing wrong with his delivery, but I would have loved to hear an actor work some magic with the words, which sat nicely on a backing of improvised musical shards.

There was another highlight when the group ditched their instruments for Andy Ingamells’ Tea Towel, in which they were instructed to whistle the melodies they could see on tea towels, which they had been told not to wash (these were strung across the stage on a temporary clothes line.) The improvised whistling was very beautiful, especially as a change of timbre, and it didn’t outstay its welcome. This was not the case with some of the other pieces, which were both overextended and slightly laboured in reaching for comedy.

But the crowning visual (and aural) image of the night was the four players, all gathered round the harp, Anne Denholm bowing some strings while bassist Mariane Schofield stroked them to alter their pitch, clarinettist Oliver Pashley played on the body of the harp and Héloïse Werner sat, singing into the soundhole at the back of the instrument. It summed up the group: a superorganism, working together to produce sounds both peculiar and fragile, out of kilter with the world perhaps, but perfectly in tune with each other.


Throughout the ensemble operated as a unit, reacting and interacting with almost superhuman awareness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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