Bachtrack: ★★★★ Pushing the Envelope: Manchester Collective Star in 100 Demons
Hugh Morris, 5 Mar 2018, Bachtrack
One ensemble that is negotiating the tribulations of running a successful start-up better than most is the Manchester Collective, an ensemble founded last year by Adam Szabo and Rakhi Singh. They are quickly finding their voice in a bustling Manchester scene. Taking some inspiration from the pioneering musical work of Psappha, they give a slight nod to Manchester Camerata’s eye-catching publicity whilst also expending significant energy to transform the whole audience experience, creating intimate, immersive musical experiences without comparison in Manchester.
It is testament to the Collective’s growing popularity that last night’s concert started late because more seats were needed. The theatrical tropes of the group’s programmes continued as they transformed the Stoller Hall into a collaborative space, placing audience and performers on the stage, forming an intimate space adorned with artwork, scores and a plethora of audio equipment.
In a change to the advertised order, the evening opened with Xenakis’s terrific, squirming Mikka S, a highly-charged opening number which set the tone for an evening of clean, vibrato-denied string playing. Rakhi Singh gave a well-structured performance, the later ponticello sections of the work coming across lucidly. A slightly clumsy transition gave way to Oliver Coates, playing Jonathan Harvey’s Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and tape, a piece that creates a four-part cello canon through delayed tape recordings spread across the loudspeakers.
The highlight of the first half was a new work by genre-bending music producer Vessel. The Birth of the Queen straddles the gap between acousmatic single work and an interactive mixtape, blurring an eclectic range of source materials from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to Kurtag miniatures to Bahraini male voice choir to create a vivid musical patchwork quilt. Whilst the combinations occasionally threatened to be too disparate, many moments were inspired, such as the stretched landscape sounds gorgeously spread across the four live playback speakers. In particular, the Bach prelude as an underscore to the male voice choir acted as a neat summary of the Collective’s general approach; weaving eclectic musics together under a single banner bound by a courageous and ambitious spirit.
Not everything quite came off on the night. Violin Phase by Steve Reich, a name many of the audience could hang on to in a night of unfamiliar compositions, was slightly too loud throughout, and some of the metric shifts with the tape recording were a little edgy. Industry by Michael Gordon (founder of New York new music collective Bang on a Can) had one of the clearest musical arguments of the evening, a feature marred by feedback issues with the cello’s amplification, spoiling a very successful night for the evening’s sound engineer (who probably deserved a bow himself).
The evening was constructed around the Collective’s commissioned work by Hull-based composer Daniel Elms, a composer with a burgeoning reputation both for his electroacoustic urban pictures and his contemporarily-informed explorations of the human condition. 100 Demons fits both criteria; a politically-charged response to the events of the last two years for string quartet and tape. The piece focuses on the line between reality and fabrication, and the distortion involved in going between the two, a feature picked up on greatly by the quartet (consisting of Coates, Rakhi Singh, Simmy Singh and Alistair Vennart) in the engrossing, almost monolithic work. The music is very reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, particularly the repeated rhythmic unison, the forces and even the harmonic language. However, it was a nice touch by the organisers to exhibit a large page of Elms’ ideas which explain the cellular processes, linear progressions and the rhythm’s roots in the language of Japanese folklore. Whether I could hear the politics could have been down to the tape being slightly shrouded beneath the nervous energy of a quartet deep in concentration, but there was much to admire about both the piece and the performance.
100 Demons followed Edmund Finnis’ Sister, a beautifully tranquil duet for violin and cello played by Rakhi Singh and Oliver Coates. The piece made both a gentle reference to the earlier Xenakis and brought a calmer feel before Elms’ stormy work, with the two timbres matching perfectly through the sul tasto sections. While the order of the programme could have been rejigged to better satisfy the evening’s trajectory (I would have, for instance, put the Finnis piece at the end of the first half, and the Harvey in the second half), the Collective’s aim to deliver “radical human experiences” through music was delivered with spirit and dedication. Progressive programming and classy musicianship makes for a very attractive combination.