Saturday 10 October 2020

Their job is to be advocates for the music: Rakhi Singh of Manchester Collective on the group's recent EP 'Recreation'

Rakhi Singh (Photo César Vásquez Altamirano)
Rakhi Singh (Photo César Vásquez Altamirano)

During lockdown the Manchester Collective has been continuing to be active, the group's website has been busy, and the group itself has been recording with a series of recordings planned. The first of these, Recreation on the Icelandic record label Bedroom Community, came out last month, and it interweaves movements from Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 with movements from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons plus a chorale by Bach, all linked by interludes from composer Paul Clark (co-founder of the Clod Ensemble). I recently met up with the violinist on the disc, Rakhi Singh who is the collective's co-founder and music director to find out more.

Rakhi had performed Vivaldi's Four Seasons as a soloist with the Manchester Camerata in 2017, and whilst she enjoyed the music she had wondered whether it was necessary to perform all the concertos. She also does a lot of listening and having String Quartet No. 1 by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) on her playlist made her think of the Vivaldi, somehow the two very different works had a certain brightness and vivacity in common. Then she started to think about a set which mixed the two works (and in the end they have added some Bach too), and she adds that this type of idea can come when you are not thinking about them and that when you have those moments, they are joyful. There is also the hope that if the combination of music means something to you, it will mean something to others as well.

Manchester Collective
Manchester Collective

The group first performed the programme on tour, and of course the first thing that had to happen, before even the first rehearsal, was that they cut up the Ligeti and Vivaldi instrumental parts, interleaving the different movements to create the collage of music. And then, as often happens, at the first rehearsal her first thought was 'what have we done', will people enjoy it. 

The Manchester Collective performs innovative programmes in sometimes unconventional venues and attracts a wide range of audience members including those who have not heard the music before [read more in my recent interview with their Adam Szabo - Audience development and evangelism at the core of what they do]. Whilst some programmes are such mash-ups, at other times they perform the music straight as in their performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Rakhi enjoys mixing things and usually follows her nose, but there is no objection to complete works and if something doesn't work then they go back to the original.

Whatever the music, Rakhi feels that their job is to play the music that's there as strongly as they can. Their job is to be advocates for the music. Quite what this means will differ from audience member to audience member, and from performer to performer; Rakhi comments that one of the problems with current classical music is that we try to make everybody the same. The group usually repeats concerts in different venues, and these performances will be different each night, often going through a cycle from first performance to last. But she also feels that such performances need space too, if a performer is trying to put themselves into the work, they need time off too!

Part of the Manchester Collective's ethos is to find a new place for live classical music in the UK, and this means that they have to work hard, rehearsing and touring. But since lockdown, with concerts cancelled, Rakhi has found herself in one place for a long time. This has proved restorative, yet she wonders whether they can go back to the way it was before. There is also the worry about keeping the group alive under such challenging circumstances; if the Manchester Collective survives all these challenges then they can give people work. And Rakhi knows people who had just left a regular job to go freelance, and then bang, all their work disappears.

Rakhi Singh
Rakhi Singh

With live work cancelled, the group decided to concentrate on recordings. The recent EP was actually made last year, following the live tours of the programme, but since July they have been working as a quartet, a sextet and a string orchestra at the Stoller Hall in Manchester to create a series of recordings. It means that they can keep contact with the musicians and keep the group developing. In fact, the first time the players were in a room together was very emotional, but also doing a six-hour day was at first difficult to concentrate, they were not used to it.

The group's next disc will be coming out in February 2020, when they will be performing a new work by Edmund Finnis and Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht ('Transfigured Night', from 1899). Finnis' work, The Centre is Everywhere, was premiered by the group in a programme which included Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, but Finnis' piece deals in light so Rahki feels the Schoenberg is a good match.

Whilst Rakhi spends around two thirds of her time working with the Manchester Collective, she also thinks it is important to have solo projects bubbling away too. She wants to continue learning, and so it is important to make space for creative learning, though she adds that we are inclined to forget the things that we can do well and worry about the ones that we cannot do.

With many of her solo projects, Rakhi collaborates with other art forms, something that she finds challenging but brings a feeling of growth. She thinks it important that we continue to put ourselves in the position of being a beginning, learning a new skill, this can be painful and difficult, but you are growing.

She finds that she is starting to step outside her familiar skills more, adding that though she had a superb education it was rather narrow. The problem with education, she feels, is that you need to learn all the technical skills, but it is what you apply them to that really matters. Her strictly classical music education did not prepare her for improvisation, nor did it cover the myriad of scales used in jazz, traditional and non-Western music. And she points out that whilst it is important to learn a structure before going outside it, we should bear in mind that we made all the rules anyway, so we can break them. But she is not implementing radical change, Rakhi goes for slow growth, you need to learn to be able to let go of the things that don't matter. She feels that too often we are occupied with the small things as a distraction from the bigger ones.

Rakhi Singh with Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough), the electronic musician/DJ (Photo NTS Live)
Rakhi Singh with Vessel (Sebastian Gainsborough), the electronic musician/DJ
with whom she has collaborated on a number of projects (Photo NTS Live)

Rakhi's own background is intriguingly mixed. Her father was Indian, so that he made curries at home and there was Bollywood music playing, but her mother was Welsh yet had studied in Budapest (and there were visits to Budapest with her parents). Her mother teaches young people, and so Rakhi learned via the Kodaly method from her mother, so there was singing, dancing and games. At the time she simply regarded it as all part of life, but now she wonders if it has contributed to her musical curiosity; she loves listening to different tonalities and scales. When she went to India for the first time, listening to the music she though these people think differently; not good, not bad, simply different.

And, thanks to her Kodaly training she loves asymmetric time signatures, something that is common in Eastern European music; she mentions a trip to Bulgaria where they saw groups of children dancing to 15/16 or 11/16 time signatures. She was also amazed at how strong the folk tradition still is.

When I ask about influences, she first mentions being blown away by Janine Jansen's playing, the first time she heard her; she also mentions Maxim Vengerov's personality and the way Pekka Kuusisto and Patricia Kopatchinskaja both exude imagination. But Rakhi had a friend who went on the jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music, and through them Rakhi was introduced to jazz and to folk, and they would talk about and listen to Michael Jackson and Bobby McFerrin.

She also had some incredible lessons with Professor Eberhard Feltz in Berlin. The Quatuor Ebène work with him, and he is friends with the composer Gyorgy Kurtag, and Feltz would always ask the question why. So that no matter how well-prepared you were, you found yourself digging deeper. And, she adds that if performers don't ask the question why, then what are listeners to do.

Manchester Collective - Recreation

Manchester Collective (Rakhi Singh - solo violin/music director, Caroline Peter, Will Newell, Helena Buckie, Steve Proctor, Will McGahon - violin, Ruth Gibson, Kimi Makino, Kay Stephen - viola, Peggy Nolan, Will Hewer - cello, Sam Becker - Double Bass)
Available from Bandcamp

01. Prologue

J. S. Bach - Du großer Schmerzensmann, BWV 300
Paul Clark - Vignette
Antonio Vivaldi - Violin Concerto in F minor, RV 297, ‘L'inverno’, I. Allegro non molto

02. First Day of Summer

Antonio Vivaldi - Violin Concerto in G minor, RV 315, ‘L'estate’, I. Allegro

03. Métamorphoses Nocturnes: First Vignette

György Ligeti - String Quartet No. 1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ (excerpt)

04. Interlude

Paul Clark - Interlude

05. Métamorphoses Nocturnes: Second Vignette

György Ligeti - String Quartet No. 1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ (excerpt)

06. Last Day of Summer

Antonio Vivaldi - Violin Concerto in G minor, RV 315, ‘L'estate’, III. Presto

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes  - book review
  • Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place  - concert review
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  • Not toeing the line: Kristjan Järvi on deliberately creating his own sound-world on Nordic Escapes, his first disc of entirely his own music  - my interview
  • Toe-tapping arias & moments of drama: Vivaldi's Tamerlano from Ottavio Dantone & Accademia Bizantina  - Cd review
  • Shedding light on an important figure in the Irish literary renaissaince: the songs and airs of J. F. Larchet prove a real discovery - CD review
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  • Home


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