New sounds in Setúbal

Jeremy Pound hears an instrumental first in Portugal

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While not exactly an everyday occurrence, the world premiere of a new piece is something that any music journalist – or, in fact, frequent concert-goer – can expect to experience on a fairly regular basis. You by no means have to be an ardent neophile to come across at least two or three a year.

But hearing the world premiere performance of a new musical instrument? Now that really is something out-of-the-ordinary. Most useful variations of what can be bowed, plucked, blown or hit have already been explored over the years and, by and large, composers are happy with the box of musical tools at their disposal. New appearances are rare.

No mistaking, then, the pride in the voice of Ian Ritchie, artistic director of the Setúbal Music Festival in Portugal, when he told me that, at this year’s event, a new work called The Great Sea Serpent would feature the first ever public performance of an instrument called the ‘Skoog’. Intrigued? I certainly was.

What particularly sets the Skoog aside is not so much the sound (or, rather, sounds) it makes, but the manner in which it can be played. Developed in Scotland, the instrument consists essentially of a cube, on five faces of which are large buttons. Those buttons can be pressed to make the Skoog’s basic sound, but the instrument also responds to movements such as shaking or squashing, beating or stroking, opening up a wide range of musical expression. Designed primarily for use by those with physical or mental difficulties, it’s potentially a hugely significant tool in enabling them to enjoy music at a creative and challenging level –while easy to get to grips with at first, the more one plays it, the better one gets.

The appearance of the Skoog was just one inspiring moment of an inspiring work. Taking its own inspiration from the telecommunications cable laid from the US to Portugal in the mid-19th century – an event remarked upon by the visiting Hans Christian Andersen – The Great Sea Serpent was composed and choreographed to be sung, played and danced by special-needs children from the area of Setúbal, this charming coastal town about 30 miles south of Lisbon. Around 40 minutes long, the polish and precision of its performance – not to mention the sheer exuberance – demonstrated that, given the right imagination and encouragement, the bar can be set impressively high.

That the Great Sea Serpent took pride of place in the Setúbal Music Festival was no accident. As Ritchie, who is also the artistic director of the City of London Festival, explained to me, his approach to programming this four-day event over its first three years has been to involve the community first and build up a programme from there. And so, alongside more traditional concerts, you also have the likes of the Friday morning percussion parade through the streets by local school children (see above) – no Skoogs here, just every manner of drum, from specially made instruments to skilfully adapted paint pots and water bottles, all brought together in a riot of noise.

With the town so firmly behind it, not to mention the vital (and generous) support of the Helen Hamlyn Trust, the Setúbal Music Festival is an event that looks set to grow in both scope and influence, and we will be reporting on it our October issue. For more on the Skoog, meanwhile, read here.