Manchester Collective: ‘I suppose people think it’s radical, but we’re not trying to be’

In just five years, Manchester Collective have forged a reputation as one of the most exciting contemporary classical ensembles around. Led by violinist and director Rakhi Singh and cellist and chief executive Adam Szabo, they have taken classical music out of the concert hall into factories and warehouses, bringing cutting edge new work and established masterpieces to a whole new audience.

Manchester Collective. Picture: Victor Frankowski
Manchester Collective. Picture: Victor Frankowski

Their forthcoming series of concerts in Leeds might take place in the comparatively conventional space of the Howard Assembly Room, but it’s nonetheless ground-breaking, embracing electronica, music from South Africa, Mali and the Ivory Coast, and field recordings made in Tokyo’s busiest railway station.

Explaining the Collective’s founding principles, Singh says: “Obviously we were a newly formed group, so even though Adam and I were working in the profession this was a new thing, so we had a blank canvas and we decided to just have a very simple ethos and make everything fit into that. Basically it’s to play music that we loved and to play it where we liked and to try and communicate it with as many people as possible.”

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“It’s sort of a funny thing,” adds Szabo. “We’d both done a lot of playing and yet we were finding that out of the whole breadth of music that is available for performance, often we were only getting to play a very small band of that. One of the first discussions that we had that I remember was Rakhi and I going, ‘Oh my God, we can do that piece and that piece’. These are all treasures that it’s maybe a little more unusual to perform.”

For Singh, who had performed with the likes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, even being able to choose what to wear and how they would lay out the stage was unusual. “I suppose people think it’s radical, but we’re not trying to be radical,” she says. “It’s liberating.”

Footage of the Collective performing Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in 2017 shows that even from the off, their ideas were fully formed. “The DNA of the shows that we’re doing now at the Southbank (in London) or The White Hotel (in Salford) and around the country is there in that first show,” notes Szabo. “It’s in the round, it’s in an alternative space, there’s a bunch of people rammed into a weird basement, the programming is a lot about juxtapositions, there’s Heinrich Biber, John Cage, Schoenberg and yet the whole thing feels like a scene, and a scene that is quite open and accessible rather than being an exclusive thing that is maybe for some people but not for other people.”

New music has also been a key focus – the 2021/22 programme includes pieces by Hannah Peel, Lyra Pramuk, Abel Selaocoe and Vessel. Singh says: “We never set out to be a contemporary music group, but why would you not engage in art that’s around you now and relevant to right now? So the fact that we can take what feels relevant from the past and add it to what is happening now feels more vital somehow.

“I went to a concert at the Festival Hall a few weeks ago and I suddenly thought, ‘What if the model was switched around so all the music was contemporary and the slot where you have your contemporary piece, that was a canonic piece or that was the old piece and everything else was from now?’ It would be interesting if institutions tried that for a year and it would probably open people’s ears and hearts and being quite a lot.”

Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo of Manchester Collective.

“I was having this conversation with my dad yesterday,” says Szabo, who studied and performed in his native Australia before coming to England to do a Masters degree at the Royal Northern College of Music. “I think quite often our work is more focused on what the people onstage are doing rather than necessarily what the composers have originally done. That’s not to say that the scores aren’t incredibly important but actually the liveness of it and the fact that it’s something new that is happening in the room is I think something that we probably think about more than what masterwork can we recreate in this concert. New music is obviously a great part of that because we have the chance to work with wonderful musical colleagues who can actually be in the room with you during the rehearsal period, that you can have a relationship with that’s obviously impossible to have with a dead composer.”

Manchester Collective’s Heavy Metal concert on December 5 will be a fusion of industrial and classical music, and includes the world premiere of Serenity 2.0 by Ben Nobuto and Squint by Sebastian Gainsborough alongside works by Bryce Dessner of The National, Dobrinka Tabakova and Michael Gordon. Szabo says: “When I was listening through the programme it feels like the basic unit of this show is the string quartet or string playing musicians, and then all five of the composers that we’re working with are dressing up or augmenting the sound that we expect to hear from string players in different ways.

“We were quite interested in putting together a show that felt heavy and there were really big, intense sounds, whether that’s Michael Gordon’s screaming guitar pedal in Industry or Bryce Dessner’s manic hardcore sequence in his piece or indeed Seb, who we’ve worked with before, he comes from a background of quite heavy, percussion-driven electronica. I think in a way he’s moving away from that but with the palate of electronic textures that he brings to his pieces, we can do things that would be impossible without that kind of collaborator.”

Singh adds: “I suppose with this programme, like with all of the programmes, there’s a particular flavour but then you get all the nuances around that, so it certainly isn’t just going to be an hour of loud music thrown at you, there is a lot of light and shade and there are really some quite meditative moments as well. But I guess the element of having a percussionist in the room means we can enter a different space and we’ll push ourselves in terms of the heaviness and potential aggression from the string quartet sometimes, but then on the other side, you will also see the softness of percussion as well, so you will hopefully see new elements in both instrumentations.”

Manchester Collective perform Heavy Metal at Howard Assembly Room on Sunday December 5. The season continues with The Oracle on April 8, 2022, and Neon on May 19.