In the basement at Invisible Wind Factory, MANCHESTER COLLECTIVE are playing Henryk Górecki’s String Quartet No. 2, and the audience is spellbound. I’ve never been to a performance like this: we’re sitting in a circle around the four musicians, and we are so close that we can follow the silent communication of their eyes as they challenge and respond to each other. The show is called The Edge Of Fantasy, and the quartet are fearless in propelling us across that edge.
From the hypnotic, repeating E note of the cello that underpins the opening movement, through the jagged rhythms that come into play, with interludes of hymn-like chordal progression, Górecki’s quartet seems to hint at new potentials in the human experience, born out of the vast mechanisation of the 20th Century. We feel the anxiety of something at stake, some vital essence that might be lost, and yet there is exhilaration in the sheer scale of the forces set in motion.
“I loved it.” ADAM SZABO is the Managing Director of Manchester Collective. He talks me through the show from the inside: “The experience feels really raw, it feels really stripped back. People are super close to the musicians, which does make a difference. It’s kind of a visceral intimacy, which you don’t get in a big concert hall. Most of the work we do is about finding different ways that our audience can listen to music, and different ways of listening to music, and different ways of seeing music.”
The group will return to Invisible Wind Factory in March, echoing the idea that they have hit upon a deep connection with the former wind turbine manufactuary. The venue’s low-ceilinged Substation is exactly the kind of setting where Manchester Collective feel at home, having previously played in a restored cotton mill in Manchester, a former steel mill in Sheffield, and a renovated post office in Hull. “These are cool spaces,” Szabo says. “It feels like you are discovering an authentic part of the city as well. Invisible Wind Factory feels really kind of Liverpool, to me.”
“I suppose part of what we do is about finding the authenticity in the music, and allowing the audience to feel like they can make authentic reactions to the music. Everything that we put out –everything, from the venues, to the players, to what we wear, to the way that we try and communicate with our audience – has to come from a place of authenticity.”
The experience of classical music in locations of urban regeneration creates a powerful sense of time and space unwinding, recycling, and reforming in new figurations. Cellist Nicholas Trygstad performed at January’s event on an instrument that was made over 200 years ago, making it even older than the historic building. This is another aspect of the appeal, for Szabo, in taking classical performance into new spaces. “Most of the time you only see these instruments in what is basically a museum environment, a humidity-controlled, well-lit concert hall environment. They need to be really well looked after, these instruments, because they’re incredibly precious and fragile.” No beer was spilled on the cello at the January event, I am happy to report.
The collective are hoping to build on the success of The Edge Of Fantasy for their new show in March, with Szabo pointing out they’re aiming to break through to a different crowd with this eye-catching offering. “Liverpool is our big project for 2018. If we get to the end of the year, and nothing else has changed, but we’ve built up an amazing grassroots audience here, and we have a group of people who we can be in dialogue with about the shows, and discussing how they felt, and talking to them about programming in the future, then it will be a job well done this year. That’s the mission.”
The new show is a multifaceted beast that features a triple billing of guest stars, with underground electronic artist VESSEL opening up proceedings with a collection of live music from his forthcoming LP. “Vessel is this really incredible electronic musician,” Szabo explains, visibly excited to bring this collaboration to Liverpool. “His music, more and more, comes from a place where he’s inspired by classical art and music, and he uses elements of classical harmony and classical instrumentation. He also builds a lot of his own instruments.”
“The set that he’s doing for us combines music for the new album, mixed with various samples and inspirations that he’s used, and that we have played, so it’s a real melting pot.”
Fresh from touring with Radiohead – having worked on the orchestral arrangements for their 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool – world-renowned cellist OLIVER COATES will be joining Manchester Collective’s Music Director RAKHI SINGH for the middle portion of the show – a special set of music for solo violin and cello, with an added swamp of electronics, including Steve Reich’s celebrated piece Violin Phase. Szabo describes Coates as “a really incredible cellist, right at the cutting-edge of new music and the classical world, electronic, and contemporary music. Their set will be all about finding out how these instruments can work together.”
“The culmination of that half of the show is this piece, Industry, by Michael Gordon,” Szabo continues, “which finishes with this huge sound, just from one cello, but using this very particular distortion pedal from the 80s. It’ll be good fun.”
The performance at Invisible Wind Factory will be the world premiere of the titular 100 Demons composition, which forms the main body of the show. A work for electronics and string quartet, 100 Demons has been specially commissioned by Daniel Elms, an award-winning, contemporary composer from Hull.
“It’s a really political piece about fear and manipulation of the media, and fake news,” Szabo says of 100 Demons. The content chimes with Elms’ previous work too, which has been praised for addressing disparate social, economic, and political relationships between people and cities. “The setup is that there are speakers placed around the hall, and the live musicians are there as well, and it’s impossible to tell throughout the piece what sound is coming from where, what sound is electronic, and what sound is live, being performed now, in the space. It’s a political piece that was born out of the time it was written in: the Trump era, Brexit, and the whole fractious political situation. I think it’ll be a really exciting work.”
“We’ve built up a wonderful crowd of young people, in both Liverpool and Manchester,” enthuses Szabo when he steps back to look at what Manchester Collective have achieved over the past two years. “It’s not only an edgy thing, we also have a bunch of hardcore classical music dudes who come along for the repertoire, and are like, ‘Oh my god, nobody ever plays this piece!’”
And does Szabo see any conflict in the collective putting down roots in Liverpool? “We see Liverpool very much as our sister city. The stuff that is going on here, like the grassroots music and culture world, is incredible. There’s so much that Manchester can learn from the scene that is going on here. People want to hear that it’s the real deal, and I love that about this city. People are sceptical and questioning: they don’t just take what they hear on the news and be like, ‘Oh yeh, that’s definitely right, let’s do that.’ People want to know that they’re onto a good thing, and that these guys are for real, and that the music is really what we say it is. And as the word is starting to get out now – I hope we can build this into something special.”
Audience experience is key to the collective’s approach, which is evident if you’ve ever attended one of their performances. “Our mission statement is ‘Radical human experiences through live music,’ and everything has to come back to that,” Szabo explains. “It’s about not using the music and live performance as kind of a lukewarm anaesthetic that just blocks out the shit that’s going on in your life. It’s not a spa holiday for us. We want people to come and be moved and changed, and to have a visceral experience. There’s a lot of good stuff on Netflix that you could be watching, to switch off to for a few hours – but there is this incredible power in music, where you go and have a shared experience with the performers and the audience, and you come away feeling like you’re a different person than when you came.”
With that sign-off ringing in your ears, you can’t really afford to miss Manchester Collective’s next showing. You’ll never know who you might have been by the end of the music.
100 Demons, featuring music from Vessel and a guest appearance from Oliver Coates, takes place at Invisible Wind Factory on 2nd March.