Prom 46: Manchester Collective: NEON
(Royal Albert Hall, 19 August 2023. Review by AJ Dehany)
A scrupulously-sequenced Late Night Prom of music entirely by living composers brought Manchester Collective’s third album NEON to a wide audience in a concert that thoughtfully negotiated tensions between scale and intimacy.
Manchester Collective was formed in 2016 by Adam Szabo and Rakhi Singh. The precocious ensemble achieved instant acclaim as an approachable arbiter of genre-bending contemporary directions in art music. In their short career they’ve already curated a BBC Proms concert in 2021. Their welcome second appearance included new commissions by Hannah Peel and Ben Nobuto, reworkings of 17th century music by Oliver Leith and David Lang, and a spirited thwack through Steve Reich’s Double Sextet.
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The ensemble has a reputation for bringing serious music to intimate and unlikely venues. Adam Szabo appeared on stage to discuss the difficulty of the space at the Royal Albert Hall. Some of us were feeling pleasantly worn from the universalizing gestures of the earlier Prom, Mahler’s Third Symphony— the longest symphony in standard repertoire. Szabo quipped about the “big ballsy music” of Mahler and of Steve Reich. A big concern for this concert was “to find the fragility and intimacy, how the sounds work their way around such a titanic room.”
Fragility and intimacy might seem at odds with Manchester Collective’s penchant for amplification: in 2021 one reviewer criticised the over-amplification of everything, while another praised its orchestral oomph. At this Late Prom, if the hammering of the piano in Steve Reich’s Double Sextet was headache-inducing, you also had the double sextet redoubled by the echo in the Royal Albert Hall shouting every sound back from the far walls. The noise was, at the very least, immersive.
This negotiation between energy and atmosphere characterised the programme. Hannah Peel’s Neon was strongly atmospheric on a blue stage in the low-lit hall. Texturally crunchy but spare and emotionally wrenching, tight dissonances coil around drone loops screwed from recordings of Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. The short three-part commission echoes the structure of Reich’s Double Sextet. It opens with the arpeggiated textures of minimalism, those rhythmic patterns that fall in and out of phase as in Reich’s work, but to my ear are closer to Penguin Cafe Orchestra: less of the robust phasing games, more emotional wallow in pleasing colour.
While minimalism can invoke meditative states in audience and performer alike, Ben Nobuto’s 13-minute composition-collage SERENITY 2.0 is more of a maximalist enterprise, a guided meditation that goes off the rails, an epochal digimodern collage that captures the hectic brain energy of Tik Tok. (For older listeners like me, it sounds like turning an AM/FM radio dial through stations rapidly.) A soothing voice says “I am manifesting all that good Deep Relaxation: letting go” among unsettling and chaotic samples, wild percussion, insistent vibraphone and pranging string quartet. With bravura irony it originally debuted at the White Hotel in Salford, a former car mechanics pit. Then, an empty can of Five Bean Mix was the hero of Nobuto’s percussion instrumentation, but the Albert Hall had to make do with lighting cues, spotlights and colour gobos to immerse you in the madness. But as with the Peel and Reich, more serene dark static passages made clear that the overall clatter shouldn’t distract from some detailed and nuanced writing throughout.
In the quiet part of the programme before the finale, Oliver Leith’s A different ‘Fantasie from Suite No. 5 in G minor’ for string quartet leafed through material by Baroque composer Matthew Locke. Those decisive seventeeth-century cadences remain but are tied together in a more harmonically attenuated way—which to be honest is just as good a way of describing Bach. This wasn’t some particularly far out extrapolation, but no doubt would reward more careful listening.
The players slowly dispersed as Rakhi Singh moved into the spotlight for Mystery Sonata No. 7, ‘Glory’ for solo violin by the one of the founders of Bang On A Can, David Lang, from a series based on a set of 15 religious sonatas by another Baroque composer, Heinrich Biber. The music is hard to place, vulnerable, but it’s got a lot of pedal going on, as a nagging monotone underpins a feeling of ponderous stasis. It can be monotonous but with a nice wallow in its sparseness.
The hammering piano (the excellent Katherine Tinker) starts up again as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet motors into being with a live sextet and a pre-recorded ‘ghost sextet’. To me, backing tracks are an accepted form of instrumentation in pop so there’s nothing hauntological about it. Adam Szabo described the Double Sextet as “iconic” and “the purest expression of Reich”. It’s both characteristic and uncharacteristic. Much of the Double Sextet is of a piece with that dense rhythmic wall of phasing rhythm, but especially in the freer music of the Slow movement this 2006 piece feels more of a piece with Reich’s darker music of the 2000s.
It gets very dense and involved and more emotional than the familiar Reich works that undeniably seem to justify the label iconic: Piano Phase and Violin Phase in the 1960s, Clapping Music and Music for 18 musicians in the 1970s, Different Trains and the Counterpoint pieces from the 1980s; these are purer exercises in rhythm. Double Sextet is a surprising and often more appealing work: as well as all the familiar looping and phasing it has terrific moving passages you could call filmic— before the return of the hammering piano, which admittedly made for an appropriately euphoric ending to a concert mixing uniquely modern concerns with timeless emotionality.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
POSTSCRIPT/FOOTNOTE: I enjoyed Percussionist Beibei Wang’s Instagram insight into Reich’s Double Sextet. She writes: “So much of Steve Reich’s music is inspired by cities and machinery. It has these interlocking rhythms driven by piano and the vibraphone. They are really chunky and heavy duty. Floating on top of these there is a beautiful melody played by strings and woodwind. There are a lot of repeating patterns and it is really challenging. The time signature changes almost every single bar. As a percussionist this piece requires really intense concentration. It’s almost like a meditation. It’s already over a hundred bars long and you have to play every one exactly as written so you can fit with the other musicians who are also meditating. In the last section it rolls back into life and ends up on a triumphant note. It feels like Steve Reich is saying “Congratulations, you made it!””
Hannah Peel Neon 11’
Ben Nobuto SERENITY 2.0 13’
Oliver Leith A different ‘Fantasie from Suite No. 5 in G minor’ 5’
David Lang Mystery Sonata No. 7, ‘Glory’ 8’
Steve Reich Double Sextet 23’
Manchester Collective – Rakhi Singh violin/director