There’s a moment in the playing of the Biber when the texture is disrupted by a collective foot stamping. A frisson goes round the room as expectations are shifted. There’s just shy of one hundred people packed into the performance space at Islington Mill, encircling the musicians and the unworldly sight of the harpsichord amidst the exposed pipework and hanging cables. It’s not an audience you can pre-judge; many of them will be concert regulars at chamber gigs at the RNCM, others will have been to other nights in this space, perhaps some doom rock or improvised white noise experiment. I suspect very few of them will have heard Biber’s Battalia live before; it’s very rarely done, and recordings are few and far between. Everything about this experience feels new and fresh.
It’s possible we take for granted that within easy reach of anywhere in the north west there are at least eight large orchestral groups of international standard. Coming from Sydney, Australia, where there is just one symphony orchestra and one opera orchestra, Adam Szabo feels this strongly. It’s apparent that in our local area, as Adam tells me, "there’s an incredible density of that kind of cultural practice. For wherever reason there doesn't seem to be the same breadth of top-tier, live chamber music." Those reasons could be mixed: string quartets tend to gravitate to the bigger cities and no one can operate in a full-time string sextet, where there’s a small subset of what might be thought of as "great works" alongside a large group of amazing works that rarely get performed outside the festival circuit and the academic concert programmes.
Adam Szabo is the artistic director of the Manchester Collective, a chamber group that gathers up all these thoughts and issues and aims to tackle them by creating a well-considered and effectively prepared season of performances. "Our MD Rakhi Singh comes from a background in classical chamber music, first violin in the Barbirolli Quartet, and is used to preparing programmes with the artistic rigour that quartet are famous for. If Transfigured Night was programmed at an arts festival, for example, it might get one or maybe two rehearsals. We had a session in early January, followed up with sectional rehearsals and a full week of calls to put the project together."
There’s definitely something else going on, however. At Islington Mill, the interspersed Purcell and Cage is the sort of idea I can imagine William Glock doing in the 1960s, the use of lighting changes to chart the performance might not be revolutionary nowadays, but brought into this space and presented in this way it feels unrepeatable. At the interval we’re encouraged to move to a different place in the room for a different acoustical experience. Things like this shouldn’t feel radical but they are statements. They are statements of intent. They are ways of treating the audience experience as more various than the concert-goer is traditionally allowed. "It’s not so much the traditional arts cry of reaching new audiences. The aim of the programme is to wake people up to the possibilities of the art form, whether or not they’re a Halle veteran or a student of heavy metal. And we’ve had both of those in our audiences. It’s important that what we offer is different, moves them, that it changes the way people feel."
"The venue choices have to do with the character of Manchester, which is more alternative, which has an underground aesthetic. It’s not the same as the Bridgewater Hall; here you step into a space where you may not expect to hear classical music. It’s a different way of seeing, different ways of listening. Preconceptions are removed." While making that happen in the usual halls is going to be well-nigh impossible, "we can help make it easier. When people walk in to an old Victorian cotton mill, you’re already expecting something different. And Islington Mill has supported an outrageous number of independent artists, it feels like a good thing to do, and it grows Manchester’s indie cultural scene. And that's not to say that in the future we won’t play bigger venues, but for now a special part of the performance is the intimacy, the physical proximity to the audience."
"What we’re doing, sitting in the round, the audience is less than one metre away in every direction. It’s a really physical activity, you see that when you’re up close, flashes that happen between players, the smirk if something goes wrong, the feet shuffle when something goes especially well. It’s what makes live music. For us Islington Mill is the best of both worlds, we'd never had that opportunity anywhere else. It’s an incredibly potent physical set up, an optimal set up for us. For the audience, wherever they are in the room, they’re engaging with player’s faces."
Adam has a considered attitude to his responses, a coherent line of thought that carries him through. When I start by saying I’d like the interview to be led by what he wants to explore, he tells me it would be helpful to have a provocation, as if otherwise he's worried that he won’t be able to get going or might end up on some random digression. When he finishes his response to the initial question he reflects "that was a very long answer to a very simple question." His thoughts fall very naturally into fully formed paragraphs and he has a habit of summing up the point he's made in an additional sentence or two. These feel like the issues that have been thought through deeply for some time, and spoken through with others. There is also a careful focus in the way Adam speaks. We’re a bit jammed in to the corner of The Art of Tea and so there isn’t a lot of scope for wild gesticulation or bold body language, but it doesn’t feel like Adam is one for the grand physical gesture. Instead his passion comes out through intense flashes, usually towards the end of a phrase that reveals something behind the story of how the Manchester Collective came about, and the type of work they do; that exposes a little of why Adam is driven to do this.
We talk a bit about the approach to playing Purcell in a twenty-first century way, after a century of re-discovery, the authentic music movement and the era of experimentation. Adam is clear that the Manchester Collective performance was informed by all of that but wasn’t enslaved to it; they couldn’t be. They play on steel strings, as one example. More than that, though, they are forced into a position by the music itself. As you scrape through layers of editorialising and tradition, you discover that "inherent in that repertoire is the spirit of improvisation and spontaneity that’s not really thought about in many contemporary performances." In their performance of the Purcell, Adam reveals to me that there were two passages of complete improvisation. "It’s true to the spirit of those composers."
At Islington Mill the Purcell wasn’t played alongside John Cage, as I think I expected, but interspersed movements of the Cage paired with a piece of the Purcell Fairy Queen incidental music. "There’s a lot of similarities, with aspects of the Cage that resonate with the Purcell." Adam offers me the extended metaphor of a visitor to a new city who just sees a host of huge buildings until a guide can point out specific details or stories behind certain buildings. And this isn’t always a one-way historical process, as Adam reflects with pleasure on the metal fan who heard reflections of his music in the Biber. "We don’t think our audience should always expect music to be pretty. We want people to have a good time, but that’s not the whole point, we want them to hear our music and have a reaction. The music can change something in you."
Adam’s work beyond the Manchester Collective finds him working with a wide range of other organisations; "I’ve worked a lot with Welsh National Opera. There’s a dramatic element to music performance." This feeds back to the way the Manchester Collective works, and especially how it programmes, with a conscious collaborative element. The next concert is with actor Mitch Riley, who Adam describes as an incredibly powerful, vibrant presence. He hasn’t been brought in simply to perform the new commission, but as a Lecoq trained performer he brings a strong sense of physical theatre to the group. "He casts a long shadow." The new commission has been written specifically for Mitch Riley by Huw Belling on a text from Anthony Burgess’ Inside Mr Enderby, worked out by Pierce Wilcox. And this isn’t simply a collaboration by association. "We worked very closely with the estate and foundation and stayed true to the spirit of the original novel. So we have a series of character studies of Mr Enderby; poet, tragic and desperate figure." Adam fishes around for a similar reference; "It’s Alan Partridge, pompous, ultimately deluded, but comic." This is paired with Janacek’s second quartet "which is also a literary work. Janacek starts from a place of introspection, so there’s a rhetorical epistolary aspect from letters between Janacek and his muse. And this relationship basically drove Janacek mad. In concert, Mitch performs selections from the original letters. In Sheffield, we’re doing something a bit different; a question and answer session with the artists. We’ve capped the tickets at thirty, for a two-way discussion, and the people there are then involved in creating the experience."
Another thing Adam is clearly very proud of in his understated way is the live stream of the Islington Mill gig (which can be found on the Facebook page), which was caught by over sixteen thousand views to some extent. There were some minor technical issues and they are still to get to grips with the metrics and feedback, but it was obviously a hugely important part of the project, and in time those recordings will be matched up to the HD audio and made available. It’s a piece with their approach to accessibility which also finds them working in schools. "We’re taught how to listen, how to see, when we’re young. It’s formative for people. So in our first year we wanted to do some grassroots educational work. This year we will be conducting some composition work in junior schools with Sam Glazer and then building that work into broader performances at the schools. It's not about creating more musicians, it's about appreciation; in twenty years they’ll be the audience. It’s something I’m very proud of; we’re a small organisation, we have to be careful with our budget, but we’ve made it a part of our practice from day dot."
There are exciting plans for the years ahead for Adam and the Manchester Collective. The idea of a major new commission each year is one thing, but some of the plans yet to be announced will have a real buzz about them, I suspect. "There’s this sacred fourth wall that we’d like to remove." It's not iconoclastic, but more about finding a more direct line from the music to the listener and enabling them to hear it anew, which comes through the spirit of the craft. Adam compares the orchestral players experience to that of the chamber player as being like the novel to the sonnet. In the orchestra "you’re part of a huge machine" which the chamber player by contrast is like "a part in a mechanical watch. Terrifying and thrilling, each note is meaningful."
The second Manchester Collective programme tours 23-26 March.
conversation with Adam Szabo took place at The Art of Tea, Didsbury on Sunday 19 February 2017 from 3:00pm //
@Mr_Szabo // http://adamszabo.info
@Mr_Szabo // http://adamszabo.info