Flirting with extremes, ensemblebash at Kings Place

The percussion quartet ensemblebash celebrate their twenty years of musical success with a series of three concerts at Kings Place, London. ‘Minimum Maximum’ – the first concert in the series – programmed significant works from the ensemble’s extensive repertoire from the past two decades that offers ‘rhythmic muscularity and technical dexterity’.  The performance opened with the quartet spatially seperate, their arrangement of traditional Siwe bell music being heard around the hall as they slowly came together in front of the stage performing patterns that gradually increased in complexity.  The music took a sudden turn to a faster tempo and one was struck by not only the super-human rhythmic precision of the individual percussionists but the shared rhythmic feel of the group; amazing to hear such variety from the bells. Stephen Hiscock, a member of ensemblebash, described the second piece in their programme as  ‘carrier bag music’; works that could be performed by percussion instruments that could be ‘carried on a bus’. Howard Skempton’s (b. 1947) ‘Shiftwork’ was just that, with everything the quartet needing for the work fitting on one trap tray. Subtle sonorities came from maracas and the ramekins filled with baking beads. The work grew in complexity and featured passages that contrasted different pairings of instruments such as the small bells, and maracas. One’s ears grew to appreciate the quieter sounds of this work and how virtuosic the players were at creating not only a range of dynamics but a range of varied attacks.


David Bedford’s (1937 – 2011) ‘Bash Piece’ is a beautiful and sensitive work for steel drums. Christopher Brannick, a percussionist in ensemblebash, gave us an insight into the work of Bedford – who had sadly died near the end of last year.  Lush harmonies, moving in often unexpected directions, were played with delicacy on the two steel drums shared by the four players. The change to a livelier rhythmic feel was managed really well and one could see and hear the rythmic vitality not only in the playing but in the sheer enjoyment of the players. The spoken introductions by the players were funny and interesting and a welcome change to programme notes and hearing of Bedford’s influence on Christopher Brannick’s early musical experiences and his career was very moving and made the performance even more compelling. ‘January V’ by Max Roach (1924 – 2007) which placed the marimbas and vibraphones at the core of the work displayed the finesse ensemblebash can produce in works such as this; real flair and precision in the performance. The energy in the playing was created as much from the technical prowess of the playing as it was from the sheer enjoyment the group were having performing.

David Bedford – Photograph by George Wilson Alamy

Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet’ was seeped in the usual ostinati layering and unexpected harmonic twists and terms; a soundworld reminiscent of Desert Music’. Joby Burgess was particularly prominent here and the listener was willed to engage with the incessant rhythmic drive. The suddently slower passage in the final half of the work was perhaps unexpected but the group made this material as convincing as the rest of the work, leading to an exciting and sudden close. It was Graham Fitkin’s (b. 1963) ‘Hook’ that literally had one’s feet tapping; first performed by the group in 1992, it was clearly something they relished performing. ‘Apple Blossom’ demanded sensitive listening – a work by Peter Garland (b. 1952) that had the quartet sharing one marimba. The minute sounds, dynamic range from quiet to unbelievably quiet, made this a meditative performance. ‘The Gene Pool’ was a brilliant conclusion to a wonderful programme – Stewart Copeland’s (b. 1952) work made use of rock drum riffs coupled with incredibly fast and virtuosic playing on the marimba by Christopher Brannick. A performance that deserved the huge cheers at the end as it was compelling and engaging throughout.  An evening of music that displayed the wealth of the ensemble’s repertoire and the incredible skills of the musicians by  a group well worth hearing again.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman