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Radu Malfatti performance at Silver Mist, Ventnor, 6 May.

A review of a work of music always risks clumsiness because, pace the energetic and ingenious work of musicologists, music will always resist attempts at being pinned down in words, as Walter Pater knew. When the music in question is a work of minimalism involving long periods of pregnant silence and a solo instrument playing occasional long, quiet chords but with the absence of anything approaching conventional tunes or rhythms, then the reviewer is on very thin ice indeed. Minimalism in any work of art tends to resist analysis, and what seem like a thousand Punch cartoons and their heirs have made hay with the absurdities of verbose and convoluted explication of the 'meaning' of works of stripped down abstraction.

So, with my excuses made and defensive retaliation already established, it is with pleasure that I describe my appreciation of Friday evening's performance in a house concert in Ventnor, generously hosted by John and Annette Armstrong.

Austrian composer and performer Radu Malfatti was making a return visit to the Island, having performed to considerable acclaim last year at The Depozitory in Ryde. Fittingly, the day after Ventnor's cultural and community spirit were celebrated, here he was performing his own distinctive work in that town's particular and distinctive atmosphere.

You Tube searches for Radu Malfatti's work largely feature him on his trombone, but, appropriately in an intimate setting, his instrument was the bass harmonica, with the occasional use of a piccolo harmonica also. Both instruments are rarely seen or heard and here was a powerful advertisement for them to be better known. This was no celebration of virtuoso playing, though. Absent were the elaborate showmanship and exhibition of versatility which so often characterise a solo musician's public performance. On the contrary, here was a performance of deliberate restraint. In place of complexity, variety and showy technical sophistication, here was a musical performance which dealt in simplicity and calm, in silence punctuated by single, lovely, dreamlike sounds. Starved of notes in the conventional sense, we found ourselves concentrating, listening harder, savouring the sound when it came, like the starving man who savours every baked bean from his last can. As poetry (or at least the poetry I like) encourages us to be attentive to the weight and richness of every word, so this music led us to be attentive to every sound. And on hearing, the sounds proved, for all their superficial simplicity, to be rich, complex and mysterious.

But soon we realised that, as well as the sounds, the silence is of course part of the music, too. Just as dark matter constitutes the vast percentage of the universe, unknown and mysterious but a lot more than mere absence, so silence here came to have a significance and substance of its own. And this realisation came from dispensing with our usual assumptions, and our habitual equation of silence with simply the waiting time between significant sounds. And the more that one reflects on this (and here we did indeed have time and space for such reflection) so other artistic and scientific analogies spring to mind: the painter's discovery of the importance of white space on a canvas or paper, the architect's realisation that the bulk of a building is not timber, stone, glass and wood, but actually space. And at a sub atomic level the space between protons and electrons and particles is perhaps the greatest mystery of all matter.

Many religions and indeed secular pursuits of wisdom have valued silence and absence. Tibetan monasteries, trappist communities, Quaker meeting halls and yoga studios, amongst many others, routinely engage in periods of constructive silence. But a concert is a different and more challenging environment, with the inevitable pressure to entertain or engage. In a performance like this, much depends on an audience's readiness to accept the unusual and challenging. Such audiences perhaps tend to be self selecting unless they have come with no notion of what is in store, but performers must routinely brace themselves for the possible snorts of indignation or impatience. Here though, in a living room beside the sea, with the evening light fading, a calm and acceptance settled in a powerful and even moving way.

Malfatti has said in an interview that 'For me, the true avant-garde (not the fossil being carried around in more or less stinky bags) is the critical analysis or issue-taking with our cultural surroundings. We are surrounded by noises and sensory overstimulation, wherever we go, sit, shit, sleep... Out of sheer need, I'm interested in a world of thoughts, actions, music and so forth, which reflects the cultural situation and is reflective. What's needed today is not faster, higher, stronger, louder - I want to know all about "the lull in the storm".

Of course, most listeners have sight and other senses, too, and in such contemplative situations the tendency is for the senses to pour in distractions. So we look at the performers, the room decoration and the surrounding paintings, struggling not to be distracted and diverted. And when there is silence, every movement the performers make, such as raising an instrument or turning a page (or digital equivalent) stokes anticipation and gives clues to the imminence of sounds. So a simple experience is found to be more complex, more multifariously influenced than we would normally recognise. Indeed, even movements in the audience, birds outside or rumblings of tummies come to be part of the experience.

John Armstrong, our host, took a collaborative role with the musician, being tasked with the deceptively tricky business of interjecting whispered words into some of the many silences between the notes. So 'White', or 'Black' (and the occasional word I could not catch, just knew it was there but out of reach), gave us the odd fragment of a concept on which to attach some ideas and 'interpretations, but as far as clues went that was it. With 'Black on Black', memories of The Fast Show's Johnny the Painter risked making this reviewer snigger, but the (almost) absolute focus and attentiveness in the audience, which had been already established, quelled any tendency to be irreverent.

So: an evening of adventure, interest and real beauty. Am I suffering from a bout of 'the Emperor's New Clothes'? Well, if any imagined imperial garments are indeed clouding my judgement, they are now fairly old ones. In the visual arts Ben Nicholson in the 1930s, Mark Rothko in the 1950s and Lucio Fontana in the 1960s were challenging our notions of content and in music, John Cage's much referenced 4'33" is now 63 years old. But the test of any work is, to my mind, not its originality (an important but to my mind madly overrated quality) but its truth and its power to move. By these criteria, Radu Malfatti and John Armstrong gave us an experience of memorable richness.

John Trotman, May 8th 2016.