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THE DECOR of the coffee bar on the edge of Manchester’s Northern Quarter where I meet Rakhi Singh merges salvaged wood, raw concrete and metal ducting — all textures which can be found in the crystalline intensity and jittery, staccato brutalism of Written in Fire, the violinist’s collaboration with pioneering electronic composer Sebastian Gainsborough, aka Vessel.
Written in Fire borrows from Leos Janacek’s string quartet Intimate Letters and a “memorised” performance of the Czech composer’s piece precedes its premiere at Kings Place in London next Thursday.
It was created during a two-year residency at Snape Maltings where, says Singh, the absence of wi-fi proved invaluable. “It gave us time to think. We talked a lot to begin with about what we wanted. It’s not a remix. It’s how Janacek makes us feel today, a very personal reaction to a piece which is incredibly engaging and physical and demanding.
“Those are all things I love experiencing and having the challenge of communicating. For Seb it was interesting in terms of structure and types of sounds and energy.”
The Czech composer drew inspiration from his celibate friendship with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman 38 years his junior, though he does not give her a voice in his work. “Janacek’s obsession with her gave us a whole different perspective. It’s in the music somewhere, using big abstract feelings which find their way in but not deliberately — there’s no ‘Kamila’s theme.’”
The journey from acoustic to electronic was very gradual, she explains. “We wanted it to feel like the quartet becomes an instrument, so you can’t tell whether it’s violins or synths playing. Seb made recordings of gestures and improvisations which he then remoulded to create new sounds.”
The resulting music features Rakhi’s sister Simmy on violin and Manchester Collective’s Ruth Gibson on viola. “I feel like we’re in a band. Everyone is there, feels comfortable in their place and knows they’re important. As a result, you create something vibrant.”
She uploaded the entire 25-minute piece onto computer to “translate” it for the players, “but it was good to be there in the room because I was able to communicate what I felt and give it more of an emotional context. These amazing musicians will sit and play what I’ve written but there’s so much more to it than that.”
The idea of composition — “creating something which can live on after you” — is all connected to the same thing, she stresses. “It’s about empathy and there are so many different ways that can happen.”
A short tour of medium-sized venues across the country sees Written in Fire paired with the Janacek quartet. “It’s a slightly different set-up at each,” says Rakhi. “For some we’ll have live visuals by Portuguese film-maker Pedro Maia, though we don’t feel the piece necessarily needs them because it stands alone.”
Neither as intimate nor informal as Manchester Collective shows, the hope is still to dissolve the divisions between classical and contemporary audiences in performances combining acoustic instruments with electronics.
“Seb has said to me that classical music is just as bonkers as all the experimental shit that’s going on now. The works of art that speak to me are the ones where I feel a balance between intellect and emotion because I like both.
“I don’t warm towards things which are too intellectual but that’s just me. We are not the same. Everyone is different and sometimes I think we forget that!”
Rakhi Singh and Vessel perform Written in Fire at London’s Kings Place on April 11, box office: kingsplace.co.uk and then tour until May 8.
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