Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside
May 18 2022
Review: William Ruff
If you’ve ever wondered where the cutting edge of contemporary classical music is at the moment, I can at least tell you that on Wednesday evening it could be found in Lakeside’s Djanogly Theatre and kept very sharp by the Manchester Collective. If a sharp cutting edge doesn’t sound compatible with a cosy comfort zone, you’d be right. Here nothing was safe or predictable; all preconceptions about the nature of music were challenged. Here classical musicians were freed from the tyranny of the printed score and allowed to live dangerously: no two performances could ever be the same.
Their programme is called Neon, shaped around Hannah Peel’s work of the same name and evoking a city at night in all its guises: full of the busyness of people seeking pleasure – but also reflective of the loneliness of the individual amongst the crowds. The sense of wonder and mystery was created with some lovely instrumental combinations with the addition of field recordings from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. This is a highly atmospheric piece, hauntingly and evocatively inhabiting a space between electronic and contemporary classical music.
Their programme opened with The Age of Spiritual Machines by Daniel Elms and Alexander Whitley, a work for cello, violin, electronics and two dancers which manages to create beauty at the same time as it challenges the senses. It explores the philosophy of transhumanism (I confess, a new one on me…), human bodies fusing with machines. When the two dancers are first seen they seem conjoined, only later separating. Tentative, jerky mechanical movement shifts from anxiety to fluency as they embrace and dance. It all looks and feels very strange, so it’s not surprising that the sound world in which they move is strange too. In the audience Q&A which followed, the creators explained how the hidden frequencies of electronic devices were embedded in the score. No, I don’t understand either…but I’ve never heard anything like it before.
The structure of the evening was as unconventional as everything else about it: 15 minutes for the opening piece followed by 20 minutes of Q&A, where it became clear that some things just can’t be expressed in words. Then after an interval came the rest of the programme, starting with Hannah Peel’s Neon and continuing with Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy, in which the composer instructs the musicians to ‘create ticker tape music’, sound which manages to be both constant and variable at the same time – as well as unpredictable.
Quanta by Lyra Pramuk is dominated by the ticking of a clock, all the musicians together obeying its rhythms until the clock disappears (for the audience) to be replaced by separate earpiece clocks for the players, all ticking at different speeds. It was a pretty graphic demonstration that time seems to pass at different speeds in different contexts. And there could never be a carbon copy of what the audience heard on Wednesday.
Finally came Double Sextet by Steve Reich in which the six musicians (violin, cello, clarinet, flute, piano and vibraphone) played with a recording of themselves. It must be fiendishly difficult to play, as the rhythms are constantly changing and no one is allowed to cruise on auto-pilot. The players also have to be careful not to succumb to the music’s hypnotic power. The whole piece is like some gigantic earworm, pounding away in one’s skull long after the music stops. Darkness, heavy rain and Reich’s relentless rhythms didn’t make for a comfortable drive home but you don’t expect comfort from art which so challenges the senses and turns certainties upside down.
Manchester Collective: Neon Programme
The Age of Spiritual Machines: Daniel Elms/Alexander Whitley
Neon: Hannah Peel
Joy Boy: Julius Eastman
Quanta: Lyra Pramuk
Double Sextet: Steve Reich