Crossover without the cheese

BORDER crossings have become fashionable in music. At the cheap end of the market are those populist crossover gimmicks which are distinctly questionable, whether they feature Sting singing John Dowland lute songs or Anne Sofie von Otter singing Elvis Costello.

In a more serious vein, the classical music revolution of the early 20th century could hardly have gone the way it did without the likes of Bla Bartk assimilating peasant dances from Hungary into his composition; without Messiaen colouring his unique musical style with Hindu modes and rhythms, or without the later attempts of Asian musicians, such as Chinese composer Tan Dun, transplanting the exotic quirks of their native music into Western idioms. In today's multicultural society, multicultural music is inevitable.

In recent years, Edinburgh's foremost musical institution - the music department of its eminent university - has actively encouraged the broadest possible activity in that area. The impetus has come from one of its music professors, Nigel Osborne, a composer whose international projects have taken him - and many of his students - into such war-torn areas as Bosnia, engaging in cross-cultural initiatives that are as politically energised as they are artistically productive.

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Tonight at Edinburgh's Stockbridge Parish Church, some of the fruits of the roving professor's influence will be on show in a concert, introduced by Osborne, that marks the launch of an enterprising new CD called Frontiers and Bridges, featuring the Edinburgh Quartet and guest artists performing music by three of his former students.

"It's more about 'interculturalism' than 'multiculturalism'," says Scots guitarist and composer Julian Wagstaff. He is the instigator of this collaborative new recording, and the most recent of the featured composers to leave Osborne's tutelage.

In other words, this is music that espouses integration and not pluralism. And it's not just about the geographical aspects of cross-culture. Wagstaff's own music - both the CD and tonight's performance feature his Piano Quintet - reflects a background in rock and popular music theatre.

He and his two fellow composers - Hong Kong-born Kim-Ho Ip and Thai-born Anothai Nitibhon - are fussy about the terminology. "We were all part of the Intercultural Orchestra which Nigel Osborne founded within the university," Wagstaff explains. As well as reflecting Osborne's own interest in ethnic musical styles, the orchestra's inception was almost inevitable given the rich diversity of backgrounds within the university music faculty's student population.

"It was wonderful to work alongside a large number of fellow graduate composers from all backgrounds - Asia, Europe, China, Canada, the United States and Britain," says Wagstaff. His own opera, John Paul Jones, was a significant hit in a recent Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and was the work that won him a place at Edinburgh University.

Indeed, the frontiers represented on this newly released disc are, for him, more of genre than geography or spirituality. His Piano Quintet is a strange and ambiguous work. Performed on record as it will be tonight - by Alina Kolonitskaya and the Edinburgh Quartet - it is hard to decide whether it is driven by irony or intentional navet.

My own response to it is that it wrestles openly with the frontiers of history and tradition - listen to the rigorously dissonant fugue with which it ends, or the pastiche introduction of the opening movement. Wagstaff, however, says it's an allusion to his rock background. Either way, its three movements are a conventional classical model, the polarising effect of its triadic harmonies colouring its significant mass with a strangely rudimentary attraction.

Both Anothai Nitibhon's Dukkha for string quartet and double bass, and Kim-Ho Ip's In Contact... offer a more exotic taste of cross-culturalism. It is truly unfortunate that Kim-Ho's work is not part of tonight's recital - Beethoven's Op18, No1 quartet is there instead - as it is a stunningly original work that draws together the Oriental elusiveness of the traditional yang-chin (played by Kim-Ho himself) with subtly-tempered brushstrokes on the string ensemble and flute (played by Matthew Studdert-Kennedy).

Mesmerising at every level, its darting finesse and filigree detail are reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy, its musical style a remarkable example of stylistic integration. Nothing is artificially grafted, nor are the essential individual instrumental properties compromised. James Lowe - another bright young Edinburgh graduate and, until recently, associate conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra - directs a beautifully sensitive performance.

Nitibhon's Dukkha evokes a more intense, though no less fascinating sound world, the addition of double bass (from Paul Speirs) adding a mystic density to its effusions of multiple colours and shifting effect. This is string quintet music freed from Western convention, with a freshness of spirit and style that is compelling.

This speculative disc is highly significant in placing the focus on a cluster of compositional activity that until now has remained fairly low-key. As with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where Gordon McPherson's influence as head of composition has recently given rise to a rich seam of compositional talent, it would appear that something similar has been happening over in Edinburgh under Nigel Osborne's influence.

And now that we know it's there, we should keep a close watch and encourage it, as exciting cross-currents are stirring.

• Frontiers and Bridges is released today on Circular Records and will be launched at a concert by the Edinburgh Quartet tonight at Stockbridge Parish Church, Edinburgh. For more details, see www.frontiersandbridges.com