First there was one bell. It wasn't the tone of a church bell nor a small tinkling sound - and it didn't come from the usual chords of the musical stave. It came from somewhere behind me, compelling and mysterious.
After a while another bell joined it. Then I saw the musicians, entering the theatre from different points but creating working together to create a soundscape in which they and the audience existed together. It was as though we entered another form of space, a place in which sound was chief among the senses.
At last the four musicians stood together on the stage, playing their bells - Ghanaian instruments in music which came, I think, from the Siwe people. By this time I was in the place that they had created. And this was just the beginning of the concert by ensemblebash at Nottingham's Lakeside arts centre.
I first encountered ensemblebash a couple of years ago, at Ignite, an exceptional free festival in Covent Garden's Royal Opera House. They were performing for free, sometimes joined by pianist Joanna MacGregor. If I'd been asked in advance, I wouldn't have thought a percussion quartet would be much to my taste. But it was free and gave me chance for a sit-down so I settled down with an audience which ranged from small children to regular opera-goers and prepared to give ensemblebash a courteous hearing. I was soon entranced and excited - and so, I think, was everyone else who had crowded in to listen. This was performance with wit, intensity and magic - like nothing I had heard before. So when I saw that ensemblebash were finally visiting the East Midlands I had to be there.
I knew some of the music from ensemblebash's recent album, A Doll's House. But listening to a CD on fairly unsophisticated equipment is quite different from hearing pieces by David Bedford and Howard Skempton in a theatre - not to mention the added dimension of seeing them performed. With percussion the visual element is a particularly important extra dimension, whether it comes from watching four players hovering over a single marimba, the blowing of a conch shell or the way music can be made from a donkey's jaw-bone. The absurd and hilarious dinner-party of Stephen Montague's Chew Chow Chatterbox, in which the musicians use voice, chopsticks, bowls, wine glasses and bottles, couldn't work half as well in a recording as on stage since the players enact the roles of host and dinner guests.
I loved the varied programme which ranged from Peter Garland's delicate variations in a single chord in Apple Blossom to an arrangement of free-form jazz evolved from Max Roach's improvisation with other drummers. As I lived in the world of sound, I found my emotions shifting from moment to moment in response to the music. At times it even seemed that I could see the sound hovering like a cloud above the players as they made the air vibrate.
The evening ended with an exuberant performance of John Cage's Third Construction, using a range of found (but carefully-tuned) instruments. And I bought two more ensemblebash CDs. The CDs may not match up to the wonders of performance but they have introduced me to still more percussion music and have already been a source of considerable pleasure and well worth the money I spent. The CDs will have to suffice until ensemblebash return to the East Midlands. I hope they come back soon.