ON A weekday evening, just after work, I find myself in the lift of a tower block in New Islington with three strangers, moving smoothly upwards. Two of the strangers I met at the entrance – they’re here for the same reason I am. The third is a resident.
For an audience of maybe fifteen people, we make a lot of noise
“Having a viewing, are they?” he asks, curious about the doorman who ushered us in. There’s an awkward pause as we wait to see who will answer. It turns out to be me. “Actually,” I say, slightly embarrassed, “we’re going to see a string quartet.”
Festival in My House is a new project being launched in the run up to Manchester International Festival 2017. It consists of a series of small events that take place in the organisers’ homes, from dance lessons to henna painting. Tonight’s instalment, the New Islington Sessions, is notable for being the debut of the echo chamber quartet; a Manchester ensemble whose mission is to ‘update the chamber-music tradition with genre-bending house concerts’.
New Islington, Ancoats provided a backdrop to the performance
I met with the organiser, Leo Mercer, a few weeks in advance and he talked about intimacy and emotional connection and his love of Kanye West. When he offered me a place at the concert I accepted without hesitation.
Tonight, Leo is waiting at the door. I’m still responding to his greeting as I step over the threshold and realise that I’ve wandered into a performance in progress.
Peering into the narrow kitchen I spot three members of the quartet – violist Sophia Dignam, violinist Beka Reid and cellist Chris Terepin – sitting in a triangular formation. Sophia is playing a solo piece. Beyond them, looking directly at me, are about a dozen audience members. I smile awkwardly. For some reason my eye is drawn to the blown-up photograph on the wall opposite, which shows a man jumping off a bridge.
Feeling disorientated and exposed, I am directed to sign two forms, which I do without a second’s thought. One of them says something about image rights. Moments later I’m sitting on a cushion in the middle of the three musicians, doing my best to look at ease while a cello bow glides in and out of my peripheral vision. I can see the fourth member of the quartet now, violinist Stephen Bradshaw (pictured top), perched behind the sofa in the corner of the room. In the corner opposite is echo chamber’s collaborator for the evening, singer-producer Lazuli. Between them is a TV cameraman.
The concert begins with a piece of Renaissance polyphony. It’s a good choice – the serene call-and-response going a long way towards calming the tense atmosphere that comes with putting a lot of strangers in a small space and filming them. Still, I can’t help but be distracted by the sight of a table lamp that has been left unsettlingly close to a bundle of cables. Am I going to have to put out a fire? What’s the proper procedure? I picture accident investigators muttering in disbelief as they watch a video of the guy in the pink sweater pouring water on an electrical appliance and killing everyone in the room.
Fortunately, this morbid fantasy is swept away by the second piece, as the members of echo chamber take to their feet – those who aren’t pinned under a cello – and launch into an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. It’s an energetic display, and they’re clearly having a great time. Beka in particular is rocking out, performing dramatic slides on her violin barely more than a foot away from me. There isn’t room for the audience to dance, but I spot a few nodding heads and tapping feet. It’s clear that any awkwardness has dissipated.
Violinist Beka Reid (credit: Mani / Ancoats Coffee)
A short interlude follows, in which resident artist Conor Collins discusses his ‘black mirror’ paintings of Salvador Dalí and Donald Trump, which are designed to be viewed in the reflection of a switched-off phone. Then the quartet resumes with a pair of improvised pieces incorporating Lazuli’s vocals, which are soft and mantra-like and dripping with echo.
The finale is a composition by Bryce Dessner, guitarist in The National and an established composer. It’s the most challenging piece of the evening, ten minutes long and relentless in its intensity. But it’s also full of pointillistic effects that emphasise the spatial arrangement of the performance. I catch Leo filming on his phone, slowly panning across to take in the furiously bowing musicians and the motionless audience members sitting between them. Somehow, it brings home the strange intimacy of the situation in a way that wasn’t apparent before.
The piece reaches a surging climax and abruptly ends. For an audience of maybe fifteen people, we make a lot of noise.
On the way out, I find myself in the lift with two more strangers. We chat about the concert, expressing our enthusiasm but able to articulate it in only the most perfunctory ways: really different, so exciting. This seems frustrating, but then new experiences often take a little while to process, and it doesn’t help when a TV news reporter is asking you for vox pops.
In the end, there’s no denying the exhilaration of watching a group of expert musicians tear through a clever, genre-bending programme in a space that would barely accommodate a medium-sized dinner party. As we part company at the entrance, one of my lift-mates turns to me and says, “Maybe we’ll see you at the next one of these.” I say yes without thinking, but actually, they just might.