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Music missionaries Manchester Collective stop by Future Yard as part of their Heavy Metal tour on 11th December. A new commission from Sebastian Gainsborough, aka Vessel, takes pride of place in the programme. Stuart O’Hara speaks to the composer about the story of his new piece, the meaning of ‘classical’ and collaboration.

Perhaps Sebastian Gainsborough aka Vessel should have featured in these pages a long time ago. But maybe it was worth waiting for his collaboration with contemporary classical group Manchester Collective. This one’s different; it’s a commissioned work for orchestral instruments and electronics, and it’s going on tour in December. With umpteen audiovisual collaborations under his belt (Immix Ensemble, Pedro Maia, Anouk de Clercq) and 2018’s album Queen of Golden Dogs established as a recent classic, the promise of new material from Mr Gainsborough is exciting precisely because the only certainty is that you won’t be able to guess what it’ll sound like. Never safe, never predictable, always cathartic.

His commission for Manchester Collective, Squint, will speak to audiences. It’s a sequence of sounds that contains multitudes. Water bubbles past a medieval French chanson, hammered dulcimers nestle alongside beeps and beats. As it builds, ever more insistently, it’s like looking up at the clear night sky out in the countryside – the longer you look, the more is revealed. The longer you listen, the more you hear.

Do you find your music takes on a different life when you go out and perform it live?
I’m curious too. This will be the first time I’ve made music that I will have no part in performing live. I was talking to [co-founder and chief executive of Manchester Collective] Adam Szabo, and I was just assuming that I would be on stage mucking about as well. He had to gently remind me that that isn’t traditionally how a commission works, which was actually quite a shock. Performing live is such a crucial part of it all, for me. It’s also my space for what can be an ecstatic communion. I honestly feel quite uncomfortable about not being able to take part in that, but who knows? Perhaps it will be surprisingly delicious.

VESSEL Image

You’ve worked with [Manchester Collective violinist and co-founder] Rakhi Singh before, on Passion. That’s kind of classical in its form and instrumentation – three movements, strings, voice and electronics. Apparently, it was partly inspired by the novels of Clarice Lispector. Do you often draw inspiration from non-musical places?
Yes, I do. I pour ideas into my brain, usually via books, and turn on the cement mixer. Afterwards I can’t remember anything of what I’ve read. For this piece, I was completely obsessed with female Christian mystics of the Middle Ages, so I’ve done a lot of reading and research around that.

The main text in Squint, which is spoken word and runs throughout, is taken from another collaboration I took part in. This piece is called One and is a video work written and conceived of by the artist and filmmaker Anouk De Clercq. The singer and performer Helga Davis speaks the words. We’ve now made three pieces together and it’s hard to overstate how precious this collaboration is to me. They’re quite tricky to summarise neatly, but if anyone would like to find out more, searching the title with Anouk’s name will bring up all the information.

What’s the French song at the centre of Squint?
Je Suis Trop Jeunette. There’s a French band called Malicorne who did a rendition of it, which I love and have partly followed here. This tune is apparently pretty old (some sources date it to 1480, but who knows). Although this is totally unverified, I’ve concocted the idea that it shares some DNA with the fin’amor [courtly love] movement of around the 12th century, and subsequently also the Beguines, a mystical and semi-heretical Christian movement who were, at least in part, known for their eroticised, ambiguously gendered relationship with God. It’s just a folky love song, really, but if you imagine that the focus of the singer’s attentions is mystical transcendence rather than some spotty adolescent, then it takes on quite a different character, and a useful one for me in the context of this piece.

I pour ideas into my brain, usually via books, and turn on the cement mixer

Let’s say it is from 1480. Which elements of 21st century music might have a chance of surviving 500 years from now?
I’m going to say 2000s RnB and pop stuff. Some of that music is so mind-blowing. Talk Talk and Scott Walker. George Michael and Björk. As soon as you start writing names so many spring up that humans couldn’t possibly stop finding relevant and amazing.

What is ‘classical music’ to you, right now?
I’m not sure if I have any unique insights into the nature of classical music, I don’t know much about it. I’m often brutally pragmatic when it comes to music, generally. I don’t listen to a huge amount of it, and when I do, I tend to become obsessively fixated on whatever it is, primarily because I want to learn from it. I’ve listened to Bartók’s string quartets, or Laughing Stock by Talk Talk countless times, for example, and obviously I love that music beyond words, but it’s also about finding teachers.

That said, I do think that we are starting to see more people who traditionally would have been excluded or alienated from classical music start to be platformed more and, surprise surprise, a lot of that work is – to me, at least – much more interesting, much more exciting than dusting off yet another performance or record of a piece from 200 years ago which has already had more than enough exposure. I’m pretty allergic to the overtones of public relations that this term has acquired, but ‘disruption’ is crucial. Any form of art which is actively resistant to change, as you could argue classical music frequently has been, is going to rot. So, bring on the vultures, I guess.

Heavy Metal is being billed as a ‘loud and intense programme’. Press release jargon aside, are you naturally a loud and intense artist?
I love loud music; I think it can be really useful sometimes. I’m much more interested in quiet music at the moment, but I’m sure that will change again. I don’t usually think of myself as anything particular, to be honest. I find it’s quite an odd idea, really, to take a pleasure in categorising oneself. I feel like a lot of the time we – artists? Humans? – look to amplify any possibility that we might be just a little bit different to everyone else, a little outside of categories. Which is often a bit delusional, I guess, but useful, nonetheless.

Heavy Metal by Manchester Collective is at Future Yard on Saturday 11th December. 

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