Number 9: 100 Demons - The White Hotel, Salford

Aaron Loughrey, 7 Dec 2018, Number 9


The Manchester Collective performed a night of contemporary compositions for strings and electronics at The White Hotel in Salford. The first piece of the night, Mikka S, was performed by Rakhi Singh. This piece of experimental music was composed by a student of Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis was a mathematician and architect who used mathematical theory and architectural devices in the composition of his music. This was evident in this piece, with long, pulsed notes, often double-stopped and wave-like slides up and down the strings. This is a clear example of the infatuation in the second half of the 20th century with everything related to music that isn’t melody. There is barely a gap between notes in the entire piece. Singh performed this with complete mastery and conviction. Xenakis strove to create a physical atmosphere in his pieces, in this case the sonorous quality of the violin is very important. This music cannot really be recorded in such a way that you feel the effects of the violin as you would in real life. The audience in The White Hotel, were only ever a few metres away from Singh and you could definitely feel the physicality of the sound. Singh made this piece – and indeed everything she performed that evening –sound easy.

The second piece of the evening started in the echo of the last note of the first – Ricercare una melodia by Jonathan Harvey was performed by Joe Zeitlin on cello. This piece is a clear example of musique concrete that incorporates a pre-recorded backing track. Although this is described as a piece for cello and electronics, the pre-recorded element is also cello with very slight manipulations, but for the most part the entire performance sounds like natural strings. The middle section had long, pulsing notes similar to the Xenakis piece. Again, a spatial world of sound is created. Zeitlin clearly relished performing this piece and was a perfect match to Singh’s opening performance in that virtuosity and command of the music was clear.

Much of 20th century music is very challenging to any performer – it is difficult to play, often stretching the technical boundaries of the instrument, and it is also difficult to interpret. Musicians are trained to perform everything with expression and this becomes a challenge to the 20th century performer. In order to perform well, you must know the pieces with such perfection that you do not need to worry about counting or placing a finger in the right place. When this happens, the piece becomes part of your memory and you have energies available to think about expression and crafting art as you perform. Both Singh and Zeitlin gave us this in these opening pieces and really set the tone for the whole evening. They clearly enjoyed performing this music and were engaged with it. It wasn’t enough for them to simply play the right things and make the right sounds, they communicated the music and told us what the music was trying to say.

The final piece of the first half was a truly electronic live performance by Vessel. Some in the audience had travelled specifically to see this performance. Vessel – Sebastian Gainsborough – manipulated and mixed a series of samples adding beats. There was a strong element of ethnic music in the samples used. I began to wonder what virtue there was in hearing this performance live – he could have recorded it and it would have sounded the same. Early electronic music in this style, using tape, was also a live performed music. The technology of that time did not allow for much live manipulation of the music and really it isn’t until we reach the 21st century that we can have complete live manipulation of pre-recorded sounds and samples. I asked the guy beside me, who had heard this performance a few months back in the Stoller Hall, and he said that it was definitely different each time. A lot can go wrong in a live performance like this, and again Vessel was another musician there that made it seem easy. The performance had some narrative elements that allowed you to journey along with the construction of the piece.

After the break, Singh once again wowed us with her performance of Reich’s Violin Phase. This is an incredibly difficult piece of music using Reich’s infamous phasing technique in which a recorded musical phrase is looped and then performed live at the same time. Each time the loop is repeated, the performer must shift it slightly so that it is out of sync with the recording. Eventually this shifting catches up with itself and comes back in to sync. It is mesmerising and full of psycho-acoustic effects, making you hear things that might not really be there. New material is created by the different phases. Singh mastered this performance and was clearly very aware of the music she was creating as she shifted and was able to give coherence to her performance.

This was followed by Industry by Michael Gordon. Gordon states that he had a vision of a big steel cello in the sky which becomes a hugely distorted sound and that this became the inspiration for this piece. It was another piece for amplified cello and electronics. The cello did not perform along to a pre-recorded track, but the live sound was manipulated. This created an astonishing piece. The sound was fantastically projected around the venue literally adding dimension and space. The audience was in the middle of a group of speakers and the sound was bouncing around us. Again this was really hypnotic and had a physical impact on the listener. The live cello was also manipulated by Adam Szabo. The score gives clear instructions – distortion starts to sneak in, distortion on full and so on. Zeitlin gave a terrific performance of this piece with fantastic drive and energy. Like Singh, he was very aware of the effects of the music – the distortion didn’t just happen because somebody turned a knob. He was fully engaged with the complete sound product, aware of his own effects on the distortion.

Sister, by Edmund Finnis, was a delightful duet between Singh and Zeitling which really conveyed what might be a deeply emotional love between siblings. It was expressive and touching and while it certainly fitted in to the cannon of later 20th century style with fragmented melodies, dissonance and looping, it was distinctly un-20th century with regards to the emotive content. Both string instruments sighed, sung, danced and wept as the piece went on. The playing was delicate and from the heart, a real delight.

The final piece of the night, 100 Demons, saw Singh and Zeitling joined by two other string players – Simmy Singh, sister of Rakhi, on violin and Ali Vennart on viola. 100 Demons is a new work by Daniel Elms commissioned by the Manchester Collective. It is scored for string quartet and tape. There is a distinct Reichian flavour to this piece, with pulsing repeated harmonies that seem to go nowhere. I suppose it is hard to compose in the minimalist style without sounding like Reich, but Elms added elements to the composition that really enhanced what we heard. While this music is truly hypnotic and mesmerising, it was interesting to watch the performers interact on stage, they were often grinning and we could see them counting bar numbers to each other, counting down the repeated bars before a change. At times, the musicians vocalised sounds as per the score. This was reminiscent of a Maori Haka, although not quite shouted out. The experience for the musicians was very different for the audience – the piece seemed to paralyse you and pin you down almost in a trance. The performers were full of energy and activity. A middle section broke the minimalist repetition and gave a beautiful overlapping, long note section. This added a very different energy to the piece and was a welcome contrast. This worked really well with the minimalism, minimalist music can be limited in that it often sounds the same. Reich was obsessed with sustaining notes – while this can be achieved smoothly on string instruments, woodwind, brass and the organ, it is not easy to achieve on other instruments – the piano sound decays and fades so the note has to be struck again to keep the sound going. Reich then took this idea – repeated notes – and made all instruments play by constantly repeating the same note. This requires a lot of energy – particularly as you need to apply the same force and tension and precision to make sure that the notes truly are the same. The quartet here were really well synchronised and as with all of the performance of the night, lifted the piece out of the page and smacked us right in the face with it. In a good way.

This was a wonderful night full of treats both from the programme itself and from the quality of the musicians and of the technical facilities. It was one of those performances that means more and more to you after the event. Already today I have revisited a few of the pieces and want to hear them live again.

A word about the venue – The White Hotel is a club night venue (deep trance event on tomorrow, a post-punk night is on the night after) which is really an old work building that has been converted in to a venue that is suitable for entertainment. There is nothing glossy or fancy about it – exposed bricks, huge shuttered doors. The audience were mostly in their mid 20s and clearly an alternative crowd. It made a perfect venue for this concert, which had been performed in the Stoller Hall a few months ago. The only question from the audience was – did you choose scary music because this is a scary place? While this raised a few laughs, nothing could have been further from the truth. Manchester Collective makes this type of music its own and we were all brought into its home and made most welcome.