CutCommon: Rakhi Singh and Seb Gainsborough on Collaboration and Musical Freedom

Myles Oakey, 13 Jun 2019, CutCommon


Shadowing five onstage performers, a flickering analogue film gestures a bleeding heart, which rests atop a woman’s bare chest. Layered electronic textures surge with mechanical and primal intensity and rhythmic noise. As the woman explores the touch of her external organ, the viola sings in its dark voice, floating above the static. Fragmented lines of the quartet combine with a synthesised ambience to assemble a wall of sound. It moves you to grip your own heart. An accelerando pairs with fluttering visual patterns, blood red in colour, pushing to a limit that descends into a techno beat.

This is just a moment of a 30-minute soundworld that shifts through conflicting states of emotional distress, entwined with love, and bordering on disturbing obsession, as portrayed through filmmaker Pedro Maia’s distinctive visual style. Co-created by electronica composer Seb Gainsborough (aka Vessel), and violinist Rakhi Singh, Written in Firewas the first artistic exploration for a collaborative sound and voice.

The two musicians first met at Tate Liverpool during a contemporary classical project. In the five years that followed, they discussed how to find a middle ground together – culminating with Written in Fire.

“We were awarded an artist residency in Aldebrugh, Suffolk, in former home of composer Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears,” Seb says of their creative period at the Britten-Pears foundation and its Snape Maltings cultural centre.

“We were down there writing Written in Fire on and off for a couple of years, then we actually premiered it at the Aldeburgh festival in 2018.”

Inspired by a work that gave context to the beginning of their partnership – Leoš Janáček’s Intimate Letters– Seb and Rakhi’s Written in Fire is an expansion and intensification of the mood felt in Janáček’s quartet through revisiting the disturbing nature of the composer’s excessive number of letters to and fixation with a younger woman, Kamila.

The relationship between Seb and Rakhi has shattered their preconceptions of each other, leaving them with an immense respect for the other’s craft and musicality.

“Seb has introduced me to lots of different types of music and sound and expression and feeling – as I have for him, too. It’s a great thing to have your preconceptions blown apart; to ask yourself, ‘What is expression? What is music?’,” Rakhi says.

While their musical histories occupy disparate tonal and technical worlds, the two share an intellectual curiosity and eagerness for unpredictability that places them in creative harmony.

Written in Fire actualised the pair’s vision for creating new sonic palettes at the intersection of various musical, artistic, and literary influences. In creating new and interesting combinations, these artforms are often threaded together emotionally, rather than strictly musically. The effect is an aesthetic that lands in the complete unknown.

“I always love sharp left turns,” Seb explains. “I love collage and bricolage — how placing two seemingly different or contrasting elements together can repel people, disgust people, or attract people. It’s not aesthetically logical on paper. It tends to produce a very different range of emotions.”

The composers’ latest collaboration Paradise Lost, commissioned by the Manchester Collective, is a contemporary interpretation of John Milton’s late-17th Century text of the same name. In a large-scale work for amplified baroque instruments, three non-classical voices, and live electronics, the narrative explores themes of human fallibility and relationships between Milton’s characters: Adam, Eve, and Satan.

The new text, adapted by collaborator Declan Pleydell, is a modern interpretation of Milton’s portrayal of relationships between man and woman. The new text reimagines these characters with attention to contemporary understandings of ownership and marriage. Twelve scenes connect an amalgamation of baroque concerto structures, recitatives in the form of pop songs, and instrumental interludes of strings or electronica.

“A baroque instrument, like the viola da gamba, has a very distinctive quality – it feels quite raw in some ways. I wanted to bring that sound into a modern context,” Rakhi says.

“When you amplify baroque instruments you get a different sound from them: different colours, gestures, and energies.”

Says Seb: “A lot of the conversations Rakhi and I have around electronic music are about dancing and physicality.”

“Rakhi is a very physical performer. The attraction of electronic music is the ability to be physical with the sound in a way that isn’t possible, acoustically.”

Seb is a humble character, whose notable work as an electronic composer on his record Queen of Golden Dogsreflects the intellectual and artistic shape of Written in Fire.

“I don’t have classical rules drilled into me,” Seb says.

“I’m not a classical musician, so I don’t try to write in that tradition. But I love classical music. For me, it is the most amazing abstract poetry.

“When I first heard Intimate Letters, I heard music that went absolutely everywhere: the tempo changes, the feeling changes, the story changes. It was like being given a key to a whole universe. I don’t write classical music, but I use those elements.”

In the pair’s collaborative process, Seb sketches the initial composition, and brings those ideas to Rakhi, who, as Seb describes, “brings them to life”.

Now refining their second large-scale work Paradise Lost, the process has come about with more familiarity and flow. While the two conceptualised a collaboration for several years, the translation of that vision and voice has taken time to develop.

“The first time we sat down to write, I think I got really grumpy,” Seb laughs.

“Rakhi would sit down at the piano and play these wonderful inversions. I realised, watching her, that 20 years of playing an instrument at a highly professional level, and learning all the theory, could theoretically make you a better composer,” he continues in jest.

Rakhi is an exceptional violinist who has collaborated with leading ensembles across the United Kingdom, and is now music director of Manchester Collective.

“I’ve always wanted to delve into composition. I did a little bit of arranging; tiny, tiny, bits of composing. It’s really the partnership with Seb that’s given me the confidence, actually, to delve into it.”

Seb and Rakhi have created an opportunity to access a collaborative wealth of knowledge and ways of expression beyond their individual reach. The soundworlds found in Written in Fireand Paradise Lost emerge as a shared ethos for musical openness, freedom, and expression towards new sounds and new music.