Sean Shibe and Manchester Collective. Lakeside, Nottingham. May 9 2023. 4****. William Ruff


Manchester Collective and Sean Shibe

Lakeside, Nottingham

May 9 2023


Review: William Ruff


Sean Shibe and Manchester Collective lead an exhilarating safari into the unknown

Since there’s no such thing as a typical or predictable Manchester Collective concert, you have to be prepared to leave all expectations at the door as you enter.  You also have to be prepared to float free of all sense of time.  When it all ended, I wasn’t sure which hour, day or week I had landed in.

This invitation to musical adventure came with the prospect of hearing the guitarist Sean Shibe, an extraordinary artist whose work in just about every conceivable genre has earned him rave reviews and top prizes around the world.  This more-or-less minimalist programme didn’t allow his full brilliance to shine (I kept fantasising to the end that he might play some Bach…) but his rapid switching between electric and acoustic instruments, his ease with conjuring up weird and wonderful sounds and ability to mix the gently mesmeric with  explosive violence involved a very different (but equally exhilarating) virtuosity.

The concert took its title Rosewood from a piece by David Fennessy for guitar and string quartet, all the instruments acting as one, almost as if the strings are an additional resonance chamber for the guitar.  Most of the piece is ethereal and serene, as if pulsating with different qualities of light.  Just think of the sounds you would expect in a Japanese Zen garden and you won’t go far wrong.  Here is a piece in which silence, the space between sections, is as eloquent as the sounds themselves.  Violence does erupt occasionally, however, if only to highlight the tranquil simplicity which surrounds it.

John Cage’s Six Melodies were played in two groups of three.  This was music stripped to its barest, most exquisite essentials.  It was another piece which demonstrated the power of silence as well as sound.  Extreme in economy, deeply atmospheric, this is music whose effect is generated from thin textures, short phrases and both electric guitar and solo violin moving within a very limited range of notes.

Kelly Moran’s Living Again is a new work rooted in the sad death of her ‘first love’, a cellist who passed away in 2022, leaving a wife and young child.  In three sections suggesting the family and their loss, this is gentle, touching music – sad certainly but also serene and hopeful. 

To end the concert’s first half came Killer by David Lang.  The audience was warned that this would be ‘quite noisy’, so when the stabbing, crunchy guitar lines exploded from the stage it wasn’t such a shock to the system as it could have been.  At times the string sounds seem almost vocal as the guitar strides out over a savage sonic landscape.  The addition of a bass drum does, however, come as a rib-vibrating surprise – but it is the rhythmic precision of it all that really catches the breath.

In the second half came Julius Eastman’s Buddha, described as being at the other end of minimalism from John Cage, full of massive , sustained blocks of sound.  The musicians themselves have to choose a path through the music as Eastman left only tantalising clues about performance in the shape of an egg into which he placed a small selection of notes.  It isn’t even clear which way up the egg is supposed to be read.  Anyway, it’s all very mysterious and strangely compelling. 

As well as Simon Parkin’s jaw-droppingly inventive set of variations on the traditional La Folia tune (involving singing, cello-rubbing, shimmering strings, every modern technique you could ever think of…) the second half also included Emily Hall’s Potential Space, a piece which its composer says is an invitation for the listener to be ‘playful in your mind as you listen…Nothing is set, it is a collaboration between you and me.’  It starts with a surprise: violins plucked and the guitar bowed.  The game seems to be with time, as if the musicians control its passing, the violin bow across the guitar strings seeming to slow it down.  The effect is hypnotic, gentle, meditative.

Manchester Collective boldly continues to push at the boundaries of contemporary classical music, its commissions an important part of that vital adventure which confronts audiences with the shock of the new.  Every concert is like a safari into the unknown – an experience sometimes disorientating, although never less than revitalising.

Manchester Collective and Sean Shibe

Sean Shibe, electric guitar, classical guitar

Rakhi Singh, Music Director, violin

Lily Whitehurst, violin

Ruth Gibson, viola

Reinoud Ford, cello

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