It’s hot and dark inside. Gentle, brainy rock is rumbling through large speakers. The young crowd drifts in, grabbing a drink and settling in a seat, if they can find one. Others stand around the edge of the room or bunch into the centre. There’s an excited hum of anticipation – the Manchester Collective is about to present one of its evenings where those arbitrary divisions in music are blurred and new ears coaxed to try repertoire they might never have considered before.

Rakhi Singh © Adam Szabo
Rakhi Singh
© Adam Szabo

The Collective has been making a name for itself recently with acclaimed performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – eagerly lapped up by a curious audience open to persuasion. This week it came to the Peckham’s CLF Arts Cafe with a programme ranging from the earliest Baroque to the very latest contemporary work.

Cleverly, the Collective drew its audience in with a low-key, mesmerically meditative piece, Daniel Elm’s Islandia. Instrumentalists emerged one by one during the course of four individual numbers, building from single keyboard and guitar to include percussion, a string quartet, trumpet and electronics. This is a quiet, introspective collection, the most successful being the title piece, Islandia, which Elms lends a special optimistic texture by placing a bright solo trumpet over excited strings.

Elms has taken scraps of ideas from several sources, including a notebook of Appalachian folk tunes gathered by Cecil Sharp, which he found while sequestered in Imogen Holst’s house at Aldeburgh. Sharp had found that one tune could have as many as 12 variations, depending on where on a particular mountain range it was sung. In The Old Declarn, Elms takes those variations and runs them on top of each other, abstracting the tune, offering fragments here and there. It appears shapeless and random but it has an undeniable wistfulness, an echo from the past finding fresh expression today.

We had some eloquent introductions from violinist Rakhi Singh and viola da gamba player Kate Conway before they played two Baroque solo items as a curtain-raiser to the main event of the night, Paradise Lost, co-created by Singh and Sebastian Gainsborough.

<i>Paradise Lost</i> © Adam Szabo
Paradise Lost
© Adam Szabo

Singh played the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor almost as though she were a storyteller, letting her tale unfold in a beautifully measured, pleasingly shaped account which held the audience completely rapt. Conway fared less well with her recalcitrant viola da gamba, which refused to stay in tune under the heat of the lights, but she gamely battled her way through Marias’ haunting Le Voix Humaines which, she explained, formed the inspiration and foundation for Paradise Lost.

The Marais theme was restated, bent, and reshaped by recorded sound and electronics before Singh and Conway were joined by lyricist and singer Duncan Pleydell, and Alice Zawadzki and Huw Thomas, who between them represented Satan, Adam and Eve. A kind of three-act drama evolved, in which for once the Devil (sung by Zawadzki) failed to have the best tunes – but then neither did Adam and Eve, the most interesting writing being reserved for the instrumentalists. Sadly, the dull vocal lines were furthered hampered by the audience’s inability to hear any of the words, despite amplification.

Just before the performance we were invited to find the text on our mobile phones, but few took up the offer and sat baffled, trying to catch even one word. Was that “gift”? Or was that “guilt”? Who knew? And yet. Here was a wonderfully refreshing evening; a relaxed exploration of new music, generally attractively performed in front of a young audience keen to know more. I can think of dozens of ensembles who would kill to have such an attentive crowd with such a young profile. The show moves to Hull and Salford on Friday and Saturday. Catch it if you can: the future has arrived.


***11