Number 9: Black Angels - The Stoller Hall, Manchester

Aaron Loughrey, 1 Mar 2019, Number 9

Manchester Collective recently celebrated two years of existence and what a two years they have been! Their first programme, February 2017, was performed in Liverpool and Manchester. Their current programme will be performed in Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle as well as Manchester and Salford.

Director Adam Szabo expressed his pleasure to have this evening’s performance in the Stoller Hall after a few performances already in non-traditional performance spaces. I think it is fantastic that they perform in a wide variety of places – the last concert I heard them play was in The White Hotel in Salford which isn’t a hotel but a night club which looks like a mechanic’s garage with a few big speakers and a DJ booth! The use of such performance spaces for 20th and 21st century art music is not completely incongruent and while a primary intention may be to widen access to an audience that might not typically go to a venue like the Stoller Hall, there is also a transformation of the music.

Nevertheless, the Stoller Hall is also a rare transformative venue. The opening note of Schubert’s 'Death And The Maiden' string quartet leapt into your ears like a palpable shudder. Schubert composed this piece shortly after learning that he had a terminal illness. He was 27 at the time, and would die four years later. While the theme of death is present in almost every movement of this quartet, and it is unescapably sombre, this performance was full of an energy that was almost suffocating in its intensity. The musicians, with the exception of the cellist, chose to stand for this performance. This is against convention as the cellist cannot stand to play, and when all are seated, eye contact and communication is much easier between the musicians. Communication was certainly not a problem for the musicians here, and standing up allowed them to perform with much more physicality. Moments of tenderness were expressed meaningfully and we were taken on a wonderful emotional journey exploring these dark themes. Manchester Collective creative director, Rakhi Singh has firmly established herself as one of a kind violinist but she was matched in her virtuosity by Eva Thorarinsdottir on second violin, Ruth Gibson on viola and Nick Trygstad on Cello. The ensemble played with clear vision and direction.

Manchester Collective takes great pleasure in the fact that many of its audience members are not typical concert goers or musically literate but ultimately it is a collective of musicians that perform music that both challenges and stimulates them and aims to share that challenge with an audience. To that aim, the second piece of the concert, 'Black Angels' by George Crumb, saw some members of the audience taken from the auditorium and placed on stage where seating was arranged in a semi-circle around the performers. Proximity to the performers is not something new for the Manchester collective audience, and it makes for a great experience for those who want to sit close, they can see the process of music making as well as hear the music intimately. This was certainly a great idea for 'Black Angels', which has so many unusual performance elements.

Indeed, the score itself was on display in the foyer of Stoller Hall before the concert and during the break, this had an impressive impact and many of the public leafed through it, observing the notes and notations that make this such an unusual piece with indications like Quasi Tibetan Prayer Stones and gossamer-waving. While there are some traditional elements to the score, there are many alternative techniques and indications applied. It is a beautiful piece of artwork in its own right. Adam Szabo spoke to audience members as they looked through the score, providing insights and answering questions.

'Black Angels: Thirteen Images From The Dark Land' is an impressive piece of music to both hear and perform. It is unconventional, violins are sometimes performed with thimbles on the fingers, or held upside down. Wine glasses filled with water are to be played with a violin bow. Gongs are also played with a bow and maracas appear from time to time. It is, at times, beyond atonal - the idea of pitch is completely unfixed. It paints the picture of a hellish place – the opening number is titled 'Night Of The Electric Insects' and indeed they are inescapable. The Stoller Hall, again with its fantastic acoustic, allowed the sounds to swarm out into the audience as if there were a natural surround sound.

Decisions had to be made about the use of microphone for this piece. Crumb indicates that, ideally, the instruments should be electric with a built-in pick-up. Otherwise, he accepts a microphone being inserted into the instruments. This was how the Manchester Collective performed it – with inserted microphones. This allowed some amplification which meant that some of the extremely quiet moments can be heard, but the main reason was to be able to apply distortion. Crumb didn’t want the instruments to sound like a violin or cello, but this was not so much the case for this performance where distortion was minimal. I think that this decision did not interfere with the overall effect. The microphones also picked up the vocal parts – the musicians at different times count numbers aloud in German, French or Japanese. Crumb did not want the vocal element to be microphoned, but it was necessary here in order to be heard and I think it added to the performance.

Crumb makes clear that his composition was created in tempore belli – in time of war. This was in 1970, during the Vietnam war and the horrors of the battlefield – perhaps more psychological than physical – were fully conveyed by the musicians. The 'Pavana Lachrymae', played on upside down instruments, was a moment of magic that indeed produced a tear. This section had a clear reference to the Schubert piece we had heard earlier ('Death and the Maiden') and had a tonal harmonisation which provided a deeply felt contrast to the other sounds we heard.

The performance was a spectacle to watch and hear – indeed a moment when some of the musicians very slowly stood up was spine-tinglingly creepy. The combination of four fantastic musicians, two impressively scored quartets and the amazing acoustic of the Stoller Hall made for a concert that was otherworldly.

Having seen a few concerts by the Manchester Collective over its two years, I increasingly think that attending these concerts is participating in a moment of musical history – you will not hear music of such perfection and of such intense connection anywhere else in the world. I feel, now that I cannot miss any of their future events. Indeed, I am really considering changing plans in order to go back to hear this concert again on Saturday night in the White Hotel, Salford.

Unusually for the Stoller Hall, the bar was open after the performance and instead of being politely rushed out of the building, we were able to sit and chat about the concert afterwards. The musicians themselves and other members of the collective were there too and chatted freely with members of the audience. It was really informative to hear the musicians talk about the music and answer questions. The Manchester Collective considers every detail to be important when putting on a performance – from subtle changes of lighting to making an audience feel welcome. This really makes their concert nights a complete experience that is very worthwhile.