FatCat Records Transcendentalists @ The Barbican, London 18.05.12

This swanky showcase is about as far from a sticky-carpeted pub gig as possible. A sold-out crowd sits expectantly in comfy seats, expensive drinks in hand, "shoosh"ing anyone who breathes. They are here to check out three artists who, it is claimed, explore "the new musical zone where post-classical, electronica, ambient and song meet".

May 18th, 2012 at The Barbican, London / By Ben Wood
FatCat Records Transcendentalists @ The Barbican, London 18.05.12 As you'd expect, the acoustics are a dream, and it's certainly nice to be able to hear every note that's played. However, to this critic's ears, the first and final acts are a touch too polite and emotionally one-note to inspire.

Pianist Dustin O'Halloran opens the concert, accompanied by a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). He plays gentle, rippling romantic figures, while the strings interject mournfully. The occasional sampled segment adds texture, but this is fairly subdued stuff. You can imagine it working well on a film soundtrack, but on its own, it doesn't always hold the attention. There are moments when the strings soar and raise the emotional temperature, but by and large the group seems to be taking classical instrumentation and making fairly unambitious ambience with it.

The closing segment sees the same format, with pianist Johann Johansson accompanied by the same string quartet. If anything, this set is slightly more torpid than the first, leaving one wishing for more instrumentation such as horns, or a human voice. One finally arrives, distorted by what sounds like a vocoder, in a short but sweet closing piece. Combined with insufficient air conditioning, this music works like a lullaby. Wake me up when it's over...

Luckily, by then, the second act has saved the day. Pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann performs as Hauschka (pictured), and he teams up with supertalented múm drummer Samuli Kosminen for a joyous and multifaceted set. Bertelmann specialises in treated piano: every piece sees him place different objects under the strings, to effectively turn it into a keyboard instrument of considerable variety. This may sound dryly avant-garde, but in practice it's a hoot.

Kosminen's percussion wizardry gives the music wings, enabling the duo to create all manner of styles and textures. This is pretty uncategorisable stuff, powered by the sheer love of creating new sounds. They're clearly having fun, and the audience - who, admittedly, have responded well to all the acts - go crazy for them.

At various points, the duo sound like trip-hop baroque, featuring a malfunctioning harpsichord; hesitant waltz music; and carnival music. But Bertelmann is also fond of a dance, and other tunes engage with more modern styles. One intro sounds like early Underworld; 'Radar', while musically subtle, is shot full of rave euphoria; and another is a full-on dubbed-out skanking reggae.

Kosminen's genius drumming provides an endless number of shifts in tempo and texture, while being as funky as hell. The pair end with the jokey ‘Ping Pong’, which sees table tennis balls placed under the strings, bouncing up when the strings are hit.

While two-thirds of this concert was pretty somnolent fare, Hauschka was an absolute joy. Full of fun, wearing his musical chops lightly, he reminded the other acts that musical sophistication should aid the creation of enjoyable music, not hinder it.