Name: Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo of Manchester Collective
Nationality: British / Australian
Occupation: Music Director/Curator
Current Project: Dark Days, Luminous Nights runs from 3-10 June at The White Hotel in Salford
Venue/Event Recommendations: The White Hotel, Salford/ Manchester International Festival
If you want to learn more about Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo and the immersive audio-visual experience visit the Manchester Collective website manchestercollective.co.uk
When did you start in a curatorial role - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Rakhi: I’ve always had curiosity about different music styles and cultures. During my years at the RNCM I found myself wanting to experience and learn about the different styles on offer, from baroque period performance to contemporary classical music. It’s only in the last 5-6 years that I’ve realised that there is another avenue of expression within curation and it’s a constantly evolving practice. I learn the most from my friends and colleagues, many of whom are musicians, choreographers and visual artists and their artistic journeys help to inspire and influence my own. From Olivia Chaney, Oliver Coates, Serafina Steer, David Maric, Nicolas Aldstadt, Vessel, Alice Zawadzki, Simran Singh, Andersson Dance, Pedro Maia...to name a few!
Adam: Looking back, I’ve been producing concerts and events since my early days as an undergrad at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. My dad was the principal cellist of Opera Australia, and I grew up surrounded by and listening to opera. One of my first musical memories is watching the dress rehearsal of a production of Don Giovanni, absolutely buzzing with excitement at the opening sword-fight. That sense of drama has always been key to my sense of what makes a great artistic experience.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as a curator and the transition towards your own approach? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
R: You can be inspired by the approach of others but you have to set that aside when finding your own. I try to learn about the things I’m interested in the hope it will sink in and regurgitate in a changed form. This is the learning/emulating, I guess. When it comes to the act of creating or curating I am not consciously trying to be original but trying to find a strong instinct that I want to follow. And not let the brain and distracting voices get in the way, which can be hard!
A: I’ve always felt that programming is only a very small part of what makes a musical experience compelling for an audience. My way into our curating work has generally been to look through the lens of the audience experience above all else. That having been said, of course there are artists who have been really influential for me – in particular, the work of Richard Tognetti at the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Over the last 20 or so years, he has developed a really special programming style at ACO – they often play arrangements of chamber repertoire, highlight neglected works, and have built an addictive, virtuosic string sound that is always exciting to hear.
What were your main challenges in the beginning of setting up Manchester Collective and how have they changed over time?
R: Initially the main challenges were getting people to come to our concerts! Adam and I had a huge drive and passion for what we wanted to do, but no-one had heard of us so we had to just do, do, do until we started to get a little attention. Now, the challenge is to stay focused and true to what our direction is. It’s very easy to get distracted but I wouldn’t ever want to lose that burning desire to use the medium of classical music to change people’s lives during the time they choose to spend with us.
A: For me, at the outset the challenges were mainly artistic. How can we best commission new work that we love? How can we grow as a collective of musicians, ensuring that each concert or programme is more exciting than the last? Today, the main challenges that I face are often about our continuing evolution as an organisation. Of course, it’s essential that we stay true to that drive and that fire, to keep challenging and disrupting, but we also have new responsibilities to focus on. How can we change the classical sector for the better? How can we highlight musical voices from different worlds? How can we ensure that the arts world 20 years from now is more diverse, more courageous, and more accessible than the arts world of today?
How do you see the role of organisations like yours in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
R: As we progress and grow, I can honestly say that it feels like we are finding a new way for a creative organisation to exist. This is hugely down to Adam’s incredible guidance and the way he allows and prioritises individuality and flexibility within our team. We’re finding ways to approach management in an artistic and empathetic way plus creating a nurturing and challenging environment for the players by constantly learning new skills and pushing musical boundaries. Of course, like any arts organisation, you can be limited by financial constraints but there is no limit in our ability to think laterally and around problems that arise.
A: I think our role within the sector is to show one potential, viable, sustainable way that an arts organisation can flourish in the 21st century. The goal that we are working towards is to develop a new creative and organisational model altogether.
It’s pretty widely accepted that in the UK, heritage classical organisations are in a tough spot. We’re all having to deal with the results of a generation of devastating cuts to the provision of music education in schools (which has resulted in a huge step back for diversity and inclusion in classical music), as well as with age-old problems to do with audiences and relevance. Simultaneously, there is more financial pressure on us than ever when it comes to public funding to support our work. It’s clear that the sector as a whole will need to make significant, fundamental, structural changes if it is to continue to flourish in the future. We have to be a part of that change.
How would you describe your role in the creative process?
R: My role is to direct and shape the musical performances, to create a space where the musicians feel safe and free to express themselves, to design programmes with Adam and to shout from the rooftops about why the world needs to experience this music.
A: Couldn’t have put it any better. Our conception of the Collective is that it comprises both the musicians and the management. My goal is to create the circumstances where all of us can produce our very best, most creative, most vital work.
Tell me a bit about your perspective on the selection process for your programming, please. In how far do PR companies, the media and public awareness of an artist or band play a role in programming them? How much room is there in your work for taking creative risks?
R: From the off it was very much about our personal musical tastes, not about what we think people want to hear. The reason was not to get likes but to share things that mean a lot to us and truly excite us. Luckily people seem to like our ideas so we’re continuing to work on them. We are conscious to never be influenced by outside forces which means the freedom to take risks is always there.
A: Audiences are not particularly good at predicting the kind of work that they are going to love before they see it. Rather than chasing the whims of a fickle public, or programming according to popular trends, our role is to find repertoire that we find to be compelling and valuable, and to make the best possible case for that work.
Working in this capacity with musicians can occasionally lead to deeper insights into the music itself. In which way, do you feel your work can change the way music and certain styles of music are perceived?
R: This is the beauty of curation. It’s about selecting and piecing things together that make what I call the third thing. When the whole has become far more than the sum of its parts and given you a fresh and original perspective on what might have been overheard or under-looked. There are many ways to do this – from juxtaposition to total immersion. I guess it’s a form of storytelling too.