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Manchester Collective’s Paradise Lost at CLF Arts Cafe

Manchester Collective – Paradise Lost (CLF Arts Cafe. 18 June 2019. Review by AJ Dehany)

Manchester Collective’s Paradise Lost reimagines Milton’s great long poem as a soundclash between the Baroque and the contemporary, with rich and beautiful electronically-treated orchestral sound, live violin and viola da gamba, and operatic vocals. It’s a volcanic work, darkly bright, intense and uncompromising but compelling and accessible, even enriching. With vocalist Alice Zawadzki as Satan, it smashes together baroque ornamentations and spartan contemporary atmospheres with an eerie folk sense. Partly sound art, it’s like a weirdo space-rock opera fronted by Diamanda Galás.

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Reharsal for Paradise with Alice Zawazdki as Satan (centre) (Photo credit: Anna Read)

Conceived and written by violinist Rakhi Singh and electronic artist Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough) with text by Declan Pleydell, it simplifies the poem into three parts dealing with Satan, the Garden of Eden, and Change. It opens with recorded baroque harpsichord, which is overlaid with antagonistic synths and voice. Whistling solo violin modulations heavy with pull-offs and hammer-ons follow, then passages with a spartan melodic glimmer. The fusion of baroque and electronic sounds are harnessed in a clashing fusion of style, sound and substance.

The dates of Milton’s life correspond closely with the High Baroque in Rome. Combining Baroque and contemporary directions serves to both situate and radically relocate Milton’s poem, also enacting a deeper thematic role. A key concept in Paradise Lost is that the music dramatises the conundrum of the “Fortunate Fall” whereby Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden brings humankind out of ignorance into the world of knowledge. “Light out of Darkness!” exclaims Adam in Book 12 of the poem. Manchester Collective’s middle section in the Garden of Eden presenting Adam and Eve (sung by Huw Thomas and Declan Pleydell) is no Arcadian pastoral but is bleak and austere.

The final section embodying postlapsarian “change” is rich and sumptuous with Vessel’s rinsing electronics coming to predominate. With driving rounds of manipulated recorded strings competing with the two live players Rakhi Singh and Kate Conway slashing at their instruments, the climax musically dramatises the gravity of the extreme sunderance in the myth. With bruising electronic bass and drum taps, screaming violin and a searing electronic sound world we leave the baroque past behind.

Moving into light, we explore the conundrum that Lucifer of course means bringer of light, the Biblical paradox which the blind poet tapped into pretty hard. It makes for a great use of contemporary sonic and harmonic vocabulary to musically express the complex idea of the Fortunate Fall. Alice Zawadzki’s performance captures the poignant sense of being at once gleefully compelled toward evil but suffering in the rejection of Heaven. Satan’s and the poem’s most famous line “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” has a desperation and ironic impossibility that is often overlooked. It’s rhetoric. Satan is a most operatic of characters and, as in the poem, always steals the show.

LINK: Paradise at the Manchester Collective website

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