SYDNEY MORNING HERALD    February 9, 2002


So to speak
Where words and music meet on neutral ground.

Hide and Seek

Combining words and music becomes immeasurably more challenging when dialogue is involved. Composer Michael Mantler has been experimenting with the possibilities for more than 25 years and his solution has become highly sophisticated in its simplicity.

Having previously dealt with texts by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, among others, Mantler here turns to Paul Auster's Hide and Seek, a dialogue between a man (sung by Robert Wyatt) and a woman (Susi Hyldgaard). The text is a series of dream-like exchanges highlighting non-communication, isolation, inertia and the protagonists' aching need for each other. It is also about what is left unsaid, and the short instrumental interludes that break up the equally short dialogues - 17 pieces fly by in 40 minutes - are titled Unsaid (1), Unsaid (2) and so on.

Mantler's keen ear takes the natural intonation of a spoken line and magnifies the melodic contours so that words and music meet in the middle. Neither plays slave to the other, yet the music is still mellifluous. It is noteworthy that when the first piece is reprised at the work's conclusion as spoken word, it actually sounds more mannered than when sung. That may partly be a comment on the nature of the text and the performances, but it is also the highest compliment to Mantler's composing.

I have been enthralled by Wyatt's singing since he founded the Soft Machine in 1967, progressing through the astoundingly original Matching Mole, his solo albums, including the Rock Bottom masterpiece and associations with Elvis Costello, Carla Bley and Mantler. The boy-next-door quality of his voice suits this context perfectly, as does his accuracy of pitch across unlikely intervals and the affecting vulnerability of his upper register.

Hyldgaard is a sensuous foil who can slide between boredom and anguish without forcing a sense of acting on the "reality" of the piece. Mantler's score tugs at the edges of the text with horns, strings, guitar and piano. Other than a dramatic use of electronic drums on the unsettling What Can We Do?, the percussion is limited to jostling marimba and vibraphone. Leaping out from it all periodically is the other string to Hyldgaard's bow: her accordion. Remarkable.

- John Shand