Manchester Collective: A cultural organisation for “people who live in the real world”

Classical music has a reputation for being uppity, a bit exclusionary. But Manchester Collective, co-founded in 2016 by their music director Rahki Singh, and chief executive Adam Szabo, set out to be different: “We had just both got to the point where we were really sick of seeing audiences that were old and white and very affluent.”  

In fact, when I spoke to Adam, he was quick to suggest that whilst Manchester Collective may play Bach, Schoenberg, Vilvaldi, ‘classical music’ is not an especially good descriptor. “What we basically do is tell stories, and music is the tool that we use to tell those stories,” he says. 

We spoke ahead of the release of the Collective’s debut LP on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community. At the heart of the LP is The Centre is Everywhere by Edward Finnis, which gives its title to the release. “I’m a sucker for a good title,” Adam says.     

Co-founders Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo | Photo: Robin Clewley

In The Centre is Everywhere, Finnis features twelve solo parts, with no two musicians playing the piece, thus breaking with the hierarchical manner in which the orchestra is traditionally constructed. The centre really is everywhere.     

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At the opening of the Finnis recording, you hear footsteps, ambient noise and street sounds. The music itself feels very much rooted in the real world, not what an untrained ear like my own might expect from orchestral, or so-called ‘classical’ music.  

Also on the LP is Company, by the minimalist composer Phillip Glass. Glass is an interesting character. Whilst he would later go on to enjoy international acclaim, he used to drive taxis around New York in the 1970s and early 1980s to make ends meet, and didn’t earn a living full-time from music until his 40s. He also worked as a plumber.

It’s not just about what’s on the canvas, it’s about the wall that you hang the canvas on, and it’s about who gets to come and see the painting

The music video for Glass’s Company I features visuals cut from one of the Collective’s upcoming projects, Dark Days, Luminous Nights. It will roll together an exhibition of photographs, a half-hour film and a sound installation at The White Hotel in Salford. Tickets are cheaper for Salford residents, and subtexts of gentrification and de-industrialisation inform the work: 

“Within five minutes you can be walking through Spinningfields, past these billionaire skyscrapers and fancy restaurants […] and five minutes later you can be walking past Strangeways prison. That’s in the bottom 10% most deprived postcodes in the UK.”   

Photo: Adam Szabo

The project features disconcerting – at times frightening – visuals which are married to more lifting, ‘luminous’ music. This dynamic is neatly captured in the title, Dark Days, Luminous Nights, which, as Adam explains, is a nod to the strange relationship art enjoys with its environment:   

“We’re living in this fundamental contradiction where, on the one hand […] we’re living in a world which is basically garbage, and there is horrendous inequality and horrendous suffering, and it’s hopeless.” 

“And on the other hand, somehow, as human beings, we have the capacity to create things of great beauty, that are moving, and can give people these incredible life changing experiences within their own minds.”     

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It’s exactly to make this sort of work that Adam and Rahki set up Manchester Collective: “The project has really been to reimagine what a cultural organisation can look like in the twenty-first century.”  

This means that they are less constrained by the ‘classical’ or textbook ways of doing things. The Centre is Everywhere draws together works from across centuries and continents. Likewise, Dark Days, Luminous Nights blurs the boundaries between an exhibition, film and concert.  

It also means that the Collective are committed to engaging with twenty-first-century problems, whether that be gentrification or the exclusion of certain audiences from the arts.  

“We don’t make any of this stuff in a vacuum […] if the cultural world is sealed off from the social, political, economic and cultural context [in which it] exists, then we’ve already lost, What’s the point? We’re going to be making work for people that live in the real world.”  

“It’s not just about what’s on the canvas, it’s about the wall that you hang the canvas on, and it’s about who gets to come and see the painting.” 

Manchester Collective at the Southbank Centre | Photo: Vic Frankowski

‘Classical’ or orchestral music can occasionally come across as cinematic, a bit conscious of its own grandeur. It has a reputation for being intimidating. But The Centre is Everywhere is different. Rather like Phillip Glass, it feels very human – far from ordinary, but not at all inaccessible.  

Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night closes the LP, drawing together moments of great beauty and optimism with periods that can feel bleak and oppressive. Schoenberg was inspired by an 1895 poem by Richard Dehmel. The poem begins: “Two people walk through the bare, cold grove; the moon accompanies them, they gaze into the night,” and ends: “Their kisses mingle breath in the night air. Two people walk through the high, clear night.” 

The experience of two lovers – a radical, very human experience – changes the way they interact with their environment. Manchester Collective hopes to create similar, radical moments. 

The Centre is Everywhere by Manchester Collective is released on Bedroom Community. Consider buying the LP from one of Greater Manchester’s independent record shops.