A Boundary-Exploding Approach to Music by Manchester Collective


100 Demons – Punk rewritings in Manchester: Manchester Collective. Stoller Hall, Manchester, 3.3.2018. (CC)

Manchester Collective

Xenakis – Mikka S (1971) for solo violin
Harvey – Ricercare una Melodia (1984) for solo cello
Vessel – The Birth of the Queen
Reich – Violin Phase (1967)
Gordon – Industry (1993)
Finnis – Sister (2013)
Elms – 100 Demons (2017/18, Manchester Collective Commission)

Manchester Collective aims to rewrite the script of how we experience music; to ask what it means, to challenge us, to take us to new, fresh, vibrant and sometimes distinctly uncomfortable places. Where possible, performances are given in spaces where the audience surrounds the performers and is physically proximate. The idea of non-traditional spaces for music is not new (memories of threading my way through an underground car park for Ampika P3 and Adès’ Powder her Face immediately spring to mind) but rather part of a trend to change the way we think about music, and how we experience the performer/audience dynamic. It also lessens the ‘gap’ between us and the music, both literally and emotionally: by becoming more of a part of the event, the experience becomes more visceral. So, it was that the traditional seating of Manchester’s Stoller Hall was eschewed: instead, we were ushered first backstage then onto the stage itself, the audience behind the performers, looking out now at the empty seats of the hall. As co-director Raki Singh states, ‘our intention was to take ownership of the music … without conforming to any genre. To throw out the rule-books governing the established concert experience’. Phrases like throwing out rule-books and taking ownership result in the breaking down of boundaries that lies at the heart of Manchester Collective’s work.

This performance was given at the award-winning Stoller Hall, which is part of Chetham’s School of Music, just outside of Manchester’s Victoria Station (sadly a performance in Sheffield had to be cancelled due to the weather but Liverpool’s Invisible Wind Factory did get the show). Stoller Hall opened as recently as April 2017; it has an incredibly clean acoustic. The whole place feels modern, as if ready to bring change itself …

The first set consisted of a succession of blissfully challenging listening experiences. Starting with the uncompromising solo violin slitherings of Iannis Xenakis’ Mikka S (1971) was a statement of intent. The Manchester Collective’s Music Director, Rakhi Singh, was superb in creating an otherworldly atmosphere. The title is a pun on a word that means ‘small’ and the name of Mica Salabert, the publisher of Xenakis’ music. Its primary focus is on glissandos; a vibrato-less approach means that the sound is naturally edgy, sometimes even uncomfortable.

The use of a tape-delay system in Jonathan Harvey’s wonderful Ricercare una Melodia allows for the creation of a five-part canon. The piece describes a search (‘ricercare’) for a melody. Written in 1984, the cello version was first performed in 2003 at the University of Utah. Here, Oliver Coates was the fabulous cellist. Harvey’s soundscape seemed to burst with melancholy in Coates’ fabulously expressive performance.

The Birth of the Queen is a piece by ‘underground electronic artist’ Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough). A taste of the immediacy of Vessel’s music can be sampled in the trailer of Park Chan-Wook’s award-winning film The Handmaiden’s Tale (here), but perhaps it needs to be experienced in the flesh. Collage is a vital part of his work, and Vessel references a huge variety of musics, from Kurtág (Microludes) to Bach (Well-Tempered Clavier), from Feldman to Graham Lambkin, from Lili Boulanger (Psalm 94) to Ligeti (Contimuum), from Biber (Harmonia Artificiosa) to the Men’s Choir from the Dar Jnah in Muharraq. A heady mix, and one that one moment might imply ritual, another a Renaissance piece played on a Cageian prepared piano. The inclusion of traditional musics into the piece only underlined its universal nature (including this, the remarkable Bhazoo Khen).

Prior to the Manchester Collective commission, 100 Demons, three short pieces served to open the envelope further. First, Steve Reich’s mechanistic Violin Phase (Rakhi Singh with pre-recorded tape). The sheer concentration to play a ten-note phrase in this manner, as the music moves out of phase, is remarkable and this was a simply mesmeric performance. American composer Michael Gordon’s Industry of 1993 is for solo cello and electronics. The composer writes that he ‘was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound.’ Gordon is certainly right about the distortion: it linked directly to the Xenakis in terms of challenges to the listener. Again, concentration from the performer is the key, this time in sustaining a crescendo not just of sound to noise but in intensity also. Edmund Finnis’ Sister for violin and cello (Singh and Coates) was inspired by Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and by the reflection of light and water. It is gorgeously delicate, petering out into silence before revivifying itself; perhaps the effect is of one four-and-a-half minute question mark.

Composer Daniel Elms’ blog tracks the creation of 100 Demons (Part 1; Part 2: there is a promised third part). Alas, Elms could not be present for this performance (he was snowed in elsewhere in the country). The piece asks ‘how would our acceptance of society change if our culture — our safe space — turned on us?’. No easy question, and certainly there are no easy answers. The influences are Japanese: folklore and myth (hence the 100 demons of the title) but also Kodo (a Japanese group that unforgettably explores the sound of Japanese drums). The piece is scored for string quartet, effectively doubled by the pre-recorded element. The result is one live, present string quartet and one ‘ghost’ one. The background story is of the night parade of 100 demons who kill anyone in their path who is not magically protected by a specific chant, and the idea of tsukumogami, artefacts that have in-dwelling spirits. The piece is born of, in the composer’s words, ‘the ugly unveilings of 2016-2018, which revealed plutocracies where democracies once — allegedly — stood. The composition is a manifestation of my frustrations and feelings of disempowerment in the face of governance that, at the cost of the many, distorts and obscures in the name of personal, political and financial gain’ (from the composer’s website).

The whispered chant that is on the tape was recorded by members of Manchester Collective at LSO St Luke’s which gave the composer a ‘catalogue of recorded phonemes’, that manifested on occasion as a decidedly creepy background chattering. The live quartet is asked to produce phonemes during the course of the piece, underlining the dialogue between ‘real’ and ‘ghost’ sounds. Repeated fragments nod to minimalism (the composer himself in a BBC Radio 3 interview on In Tune on January 18, 2018 himself refers to his post-minimalist leanings). His music is skillfully produced, highly atmospheric and emotionally powerful, and all credit here to the members of Manchester Collective for bringing that power across viscerally, particularly when the recorded and live components engage in active, conversation-like dialogue, as if questioning what is real and what is imaginary. A nice touch was that sketches for the piece were displayed throughout the concert on an easel and available for public inspection after the event.

Born in Hull, Elms studied with Joseph Horowitz at the Royal College of Music and has been mentored by Kenneth Hesketh, Peter Stark and Carlos Bonell. He clearly likes arresting titles for his works (Hawaiian Bobtail Squid, Coffin and Shoe Glass Newspaper are amongst his other works). To get a feeling for his output, perhaps head over to Elms’ Soundcloud account.

So why ‘punk rewritings’? The ‘rewritings’ covers the way Manchester Collective offers an opportunity to re-evaluate our attitudes to how music can or should be experienced; the Collective themselves refer to their intent to create an environment in which their audiences feel as connected to the music as the players do. ‘Call this a punk attitude’ says the website. One could equally call their approach boundary-exploding. The world needs more of this attitude, and it is difficult to imagine a more stimulating exploration and testing of boundaries than this 100 Demons event. An astonishing evening.

Colin Clarke

For more about the Manchester Collective click here.

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