Number 9: Review: Paradise Lost - The White Hotel, Salford

Aaron Loughrey, 23 Jun 2019, Number 9


The Manchester Collective brought their recent UK tour to a close at the White Hotel in Salford and also brought to a close their 2018/19 series - Omens – The Five Faces of Manchester Collective.

Face Five featured a brand new centrepiece called Paradise Lost which is a creative collaboration between the music director for the collective, Rakhi Singh, and the electronic musician Vessel.

The White Hotel concert saw two other performances added which were also available in a few of the tour venues. The evening started with Daniel Elms’ new suite Islandia which was a moving collection of five varied pieces. Elms introduced the work and was happy to discuss the music later on with anyone who approached him. The pieces were performed with various small groupings of musicians including the full ensemble of string quartet, trumpet, piano, electric guitar, analogue synthesizer and tuned and untuned percussion. These instruments were perfect for the blend of traditional minimalist technique, elements of experimental jazz and electronic which created a beautifully atmospheric collection of pieces. The pulsing minimalist sound was quite frequent but the melodic lines that could sometimes appear on any instrument really leaped out and touched you. There was a lot of craft in the making of this piece, with The Old Declarn containing elements of Appalachian folk song that composer Elms had found in the home of Imogen Holst, where he composed this composition, and Soft Machines being based on a William Borroughs novel. These compositional details were not presented to the audience but it was clearly an engaging and entertaining suite that deserves a revisit. The blend of electronic and acoustic instruments worked really well and emphasised the importance of sonority over melody in 20th century music. Minimalism aims to be very economical with its material – we don’t quite get full melodies and chords may not change for quite a while, hence the hammering of notes to stop the chord fading away before its time. While this was here, Elms added a modern and personal element through the clearly emotive melodic fragments that brought this music out of the absolute and abstract to a place of meaning and feeling.

The second piece of the night was Paradise Lost. This was framed with two baroque solo pieces. Rakhi Singh played a poignantly beautiful and fiendishly difficult Bach Chaccone from his Partita in D minor number 2. A chaconne is a slow, stately dance that is based on a repeated bass line. It is thought that this composition was a tombeau in memory of Bach’s recently deceased wife, it certainly had a melancholy and sadness to it which did not lift from the minor mode. Singh performed this piece with that balance of perfect accuracy and a deeply personal emotive quality that is firmly synonymous with Singh. She is surely one of the best violinists in the country at this time. The piece was well suited for the evening, it is abstract at times and was written with a near perfect structural exploration.

This was followed by Kate Conway on viola da gamba playing a composition by baroque composer Marin Marais. This showcased this unusual instrument very well. The gamba is a seven string baroque instrument that is in some ways a cross between a guitar and a cello. It is capable of beautiful lyrical music with interesting harmonic possibilities. Conway dazzled us with this piece of music which again was at times quite abstract as the melody was spun out and meandered around. Quartal and quintal harmonies gave it an organum like quality which I think placed it well in this evening of 21st century music.

There was an obvious intention in the performance of these pieces as the following Paradise Lost was composed with some baroque ideas and ornamentation and sought to place this modern composition in the time of Paradise Lost author, John Milton. This new piece explored the ideas of the devil and Adam and Eve on their expulsion from the garden of Eden through three vocalists, Singh on violin, Conway on gamba and Vessel on electronics manipulating the live sound and adding pre-recorded elements. The text was not taken from Milton’s book, but was written by Declan Pleydell who also sung as part of the ensemble. The lyrics were abstract in style and were more concerned with lyrical imagery than a narrative. The three singers - with the devil played by Alice Zawadzki, Eve was played by Huw Thomas and Adam by Pleydell. We were invited to read the texts on our phones if we so wished. Unfortunately on doing so, issues with diction – possibly because of reverb – were discovered. Ends of words were lost – “with a quartz fever made to dive” might have been “made to die”. I think that you could get away with this, nevertheless, in a performance like this as it was certainly a very abstract piece with some contextualisation. In that regard, it was not a winning piece for me and I wondered if it would ever be performed again.

There were strong elements of atonality and the early and late 20th century abstract with contrasting contextualising elements such as recorded harpsichord progressions and baroque ornamentation and of course a sung text which tried to make the abstract less absolute. This combination of programme and abstract been done before of course – take Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse for instance – and while Vessel is not strictly an atonal composer, the elements of electronic manipulation, the string and vocal writing did not aim to keep us in much of a tonal centre. Yet there was not much to hold the audience beyond exploration of sonority. The characters were slightly acted out, the lyrics unclear and not very accessible. There were clichés and overall this piece ran out of steam. I didn’t get the exploration of the paradoxical philosophical ideas around the ‘happy fall’, I didn’t get any sense of emotive connection to characters or story and while it may well be the case that there was an intentional avoidance of emotion through the stylistic elements and sound world created, if that is so – there wasn’t much else left but a thoroughly expressionist piece of music that would have equally worked without lyrics or theme. This may be a piece that needs deeper exploration to find the depth or genious and maybe in some future I will see this performed again and be moved by it. That was not the case this evening.

The final piece of the evening was a live electronic piece by William Doyle. Doyle played various samples and added some live guitar and vocal work into the electronic mix. This was instantly engaging and was a full transcendental meditation that meandered and changed constantly. This landscaping of sound was an interesting mix of post-war electronic music with 21st century sound imagery. Personally, I felt it meandered too much and after an hour of this meditation instead of wandering in an and out of focus I felt the need to wander to a different part of the venue. I waited until the end of the performance which was well received.

The audience was a young arty type that thoroughly engaged with the music. It was clear that while not everything was enjoyed by the audience completely, it was certainly appreciated and sparked conversation and thought. There was a great deal of creativity in tonight’s concert, and questions around contemporary music and context were presented. It is great to see that we have venues that support the experimental and allow new ideas to be crafted.

Tonight was not my most enjoyable Manchester Collective experience, but that may be entirely a personal opinion. It made me think, I engaged and am certainly thankful that I can hear this new music.