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April 11 2012

Manchester's stylish new home for music

Chetham's school and library's latest building combines mediaeval and modern, with plenty for the wider community and rooms whose oak and felt walls can be tuned. Helen Nugent pays a visit

Not many buildings can lay claim to have been a 15th century ecclesiastical centre, a gunpowder factory, a Civil War prison, a school for poor boys and a meeting place for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But the buildings which form the core of Manchester's medieval quarter are no ordinary structures.

Affectionately known as 'Chets', the Chetham's School of Music sits cheek by jowl with Chetham's Library, the oldest lending library in the Western world. The school is the largest specialist music institution in Britain and boasts a glittering list of musical alumni.

Now, hundreds of years after a local man, Humphrey Chetham, bought the property to house his school and library, this city centre landmark is entering a new phase. A £47 million project, which includes a state-of-the-art development spanning seven floors, will, it is hoped, transform music education and performance in the north of England.

"The buildings we had weren't fit for purpose," says Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's. "We had a team but nowhere to play. Now it's like coming out of a sardine tin and on to a decent sized plate."

Among the facilities at the new site, which is linked to the 15th century complex by a steel footbridge, are two new performance spaces (a recital hall and a cavernous concert hall), academic and music departments, an outreach centre for the local community and a light-filled atrium spanning seven floors.

More than 500,000 handmade bricks have been employed in the construction of the centre, all crafted in Yorkshire and designed to complement the sandstone of the original buildings.

Supporters of the project are particularly proud of the structure's acoustic accomplishments. A combination of thick, felt curtains and oak surrounds come together to produce rooms that can tune themselves. Put simply, the materials can be adjusted to absorb sound and therefore the quality of the music.

Threlfall says:

We've got 100 odd pianos which, in our current building, constantly need retuning because of the faulty heating. Students have been practising and rehearsing in little cells for a long, long time. Some of the rooms have got plaster coming off and there is no sound installation.

In the new building, rooms have been built within rooms in order to provide near perfect sound-proofing, a necessary feature given that Chetham's is next to a major train station and a key bus route.

Michael Oglesby is project leader of the redevelopment. He says:

We didn't want to create a pastiche. We wanted to create a building that works with what is already here but is a building of its time. And that's what we have done. There are no compromises in the new building. The existing building is full of compromises.

The medieval buildings are wonderful but the music school is something special and unique in Manchester. When planning this we seriously considered building a new school elsewhere, it would have been cheaper and easier. But the weight of feeling, not just from the school but also from the city, meant we were keen to keep the school at the heart of the city.

By the time Chetham's new home opens as a tourist attraction in 2014, the project will have been going for 12 years, from conception to completion. However, the development will be fully functioning for the new school year this September. Work on the 400-seat concert hall will be finished when the final tranche of funding has been found.

In the meantime, students will be able to make full use of 50 music teaching rooms, 62 music practice rooms, a music technology centre and four ensemble rooms – all with acoustic and humidity control to protect the instruments.

Roger Stephenson Architects, the firm behind the new design, are known in Manchester for combining old with new. They were in charge of transforming the old Free Trade Hall – where Bob Dylan went electric 46 years ago – into a major new hotel. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 08 2011

London burning: history just went sci-fi

Images of the city's looted, burnt-out streets conjure not so much the 1980s Brixton riots as a new, dystopian reality

In HG Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, an attack by overwhelmingly superior Martians drives Londoners to flee their city. Mad columns of panicking people fight for space on roads out of the capital. When the narrator enters the abandoned metropolis he finds an eerie wasteland, where only a few derelicts and drunks remain on the deadly streets.

There was something a bit Wellsian about photographs of riots and looting across London this weekend. Pictures of burning shops and broken windows, and young men confronting uniformed police, included crowdsourced images snatched by witnesses in the rapid, unexpected diffusion of trouble. The most dramatic, of Tottenham on fire and the blackened aftermath, are positively apocalyptic. To me, it all seems uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction. Even the place names have that quality of ordinariness that Wells exploits in his fantasy of a London apocalypse: Tottenham in flames, insurrection in Enfield, anarchy in Leyton and Islington ...

This sounds melodramatic – it was not the end of the world – but it is important to recognise the surreal and eerie sci-fi image of London in these pictures of the rioting and looting. It might even be a corrective to the mis-application of history.

For many observers, especially in Tottenham and Brixton, the weekend conjured echoes of the 1980s, when accusations of racist policing combined with the Thatcher government's economic harshness to bring communal protest and violence to British streets. At a time when a Tory-led government once again stands accused of treating young people as economic cannon fodder, the echoes are there in the underlying context. But do the events themselves summon up such history? The mostly teenage protagonists in pictures and eyewitness accounts suggest that, for these rioters, the 1980s are an extremely remote historical period. You may as well compare this weekend with the Gordon riots in the 18th century.

History always repeats itself, said Hegel. But he forgot to add, commented Karl Marx, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. What Marx meant in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is that history does not repeat itself at all. It only appears to, because human imaginations cannot keep up with the speed of change, so they dress it in costumes borrowed from the past. It is not the 2011 rioters who are dressing in history's robes – they appear to have modelled themselves more on recent zombie movies – but commentators, who are reaching for analogies of 1980s socialists to attribute these troubles to familiar causes.

It is worth looking at images of London's violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness. Sci-fi nightmares of urban catastrophe resonate with these pictures because this is a city made strange. Whatever is going on here, it is not familiar, and will not be easy to put right.

• Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay's the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London's best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 06 2011

Fastest! Tallest! Marxist!

He once made a film about Palestinian disco-dancers. Now artist Phil Collins is tackling eastern bloc gymnastic displays

Halfway through Phil Collins's new film, a statue of Karl Marx is winched out of a Berlin square. It recalls Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Jesus is airlifted over the roofs of Rome before the shenanigans begin. Both sequences invite similar questions. What happens when the key symbol of a culture is run out of town? Does life become sweet? Does it leave an icon-shaped hole?

The Runcorn-born, Berlin-residing, 2006 Turner prize-shortlisted artist wanted to address these questions in his film, called Marxism Today. But most of all, he wanted to find out what happens to a discredited creed's followers, as they move into an alien new world. "I was in Berlin on the 20th anniversary of the Wall coming down. All the focus was on reunification and the subcultures of dissent that existed in East Germany – be it the Protestant church or punks. The one voice that wasn't heard was that of teachers of Marxism-Leninism in East Germany. Where did they go? There must have been a lot of them: it was a compulsory subject."

So he put ads in papers and magazines inviting old Marxist teachers to get in touch. "Some were suspicious," says Collins, "but we got 40 replies and 10 people were filmed. In the end, I only put three in because they told their stories in an effective way – and helped establish a vivid sympathy."

In the heart-rending opening interview, unemployed Petra Mgoza-Zeckay remembers 1989. For her, it wasn't a year when the walls of tyranny came down, but a time when her life fell apart. She had been a teacher in Marxism-Leninism for medical students, married to an African socialist. "My parents didn't like me marrying a black man," she says. The couple wanted to go to South Africa, where they planned to join the ANC and fight apartheid. But her husband became depressed and took his life in May 1989. Soon after, Mgoza-Zeckay lost what she calls "her fatherland" and then her job. She couldn't share in the euphoria of the times, and remembers West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl going walkabout in Karl Marx Platz. "Kohl handed out bananas and Coca-Cola. I don't eat bananas any more – and of course I don't drink Coca-Cola."

When I meet Collins, he is installing two screens in the British Film Institute's Gallery by the Thames. One will show Marxism Today, another a film entitled Use! Value! Exchange! featuring former Marxism-Leninism teacher Andrea Ferber lecturing present-day students in Marx's Das Kapital. The 20-minute short is more fun than that sounds, not least because Ferber is a dead ringer for President Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica.

Collins is awaiting the arrival of some authentic East German school desks and chairs. He plans to put them in the middle of the gallery. "The idea is that, after one film, you'll get up and move to the next 'classroom' – as if you'd just had double maths and now it's double historical materialism."

Is Collins romanticising eastern bloc glumness? He denies the charge, saying his work isn't at all steeped in the Ostalgie that gripped some Germans after reunification. Indeed, he casts a sceptical eye over what education meant in a society where you were notionally free – so long as you didn't inquire too loudly in class when tyrant Erich Honecker was going to sling his presidential hook. Collins uses footage from a GDR TV programme made by and for teachers, in which one expert witters so intractably about socialist education that Collins fades him out. And then fades him back in.

Marxism Today is, though, nicely poised between scepticism and near admiration. In the marvellous ending, Collins uses archive footage of a vast gymnastic extravaganza, in which legions of lithe youths perform intricate patterns in a huge stadium. It made me think not so much of the servile tyrannised masses, but of how beautiful they all look together, and what a rush it must have been to take part. This sort of thing could never happen here, I thought, not because we are freer, but because we aren't sufficiently disciplined.

Collins heightens such contradictory feelings with a wistful soundtrack provided by Stereolab. As the display ends, the word Sozialismus (socialism) appears on the terraces in huge letters, leaving us in no doubt about the event's ideological purpose. "Socialism always had to announce itself," says Collins. "Capitalism is more furtive. We don't say we're bringing capitalism to countries we invade – we say we're bringing democracy, freedom. But really we're bringing capitalism."

Marxism Today fits well with the rest of Collins's work. "I've always been interested in the othered," he says. Note the construction: not the other, but the othered: peoples reduced to something they are not, by our presumptions – presumptions that Collins challenges. His work is far from funless, though. He once went to Ramallah and auditioned Palestinians for a disco-dance marathon. This was for the 2004 work They Shoot Horses and consisted of two videos, each lasting seven hours, showing dancers throwing shapes or slumping on the floor. So what was that about? "We don't think of Palestinians as people who can disco dance, which seems a little unfair. Know what I mean?"

Collins also took a karaoke machine to Indonesia and Colombia, asking fans of the Smiths to sing along to their depressive oeuvre. The result, 2005's The World Won't Listen, demonstrated an important truth: kids in Bogotá and Jakarta can be as loveless and whiney as kids in Hulme and Salford. "It was also about the legacies of British subcultures and how they find their places in cultures you would never expect."

Marxism Today – arriving at a time of fees protests, debates about free schools and ideologically inspired tweaks to the national curriculum – couldn't feel more topical. It features old footage of an East German teacher instructing schoolchildren to set aside their prejudices about how rich and happy everyone is in West Germany. Instead, he tells them, they must use rational thought to realise that, over the border, they are as exploited as Marx hypothesised.

Isn't this state-sponsored brainwashing? Collins turns the argument around. "Ask yourself how the British education system structures itself. Marxism is always connected with brainwashing or taboo or infection, but here the hegemony is invisible: we're never explicitly told about the ideology we're being taught, while in eastern Europe it was at least overt." He starts listing British kings and queens, a catechism doubtless learned in Runcorn. "I was taught history in a way that scarred me for life."

Talking of lifelong scars, it's time to ask the Big Question. What's it like to share a name with a 1980s pop superstar? "Oh God. Growing up with that name, people think you're joking. If you get stopped by the police, you're always the one who's going to get arrested because they think you're taking the piss when you give that name." You must love his music, though? "His music was always a middle-aged Thatcherite moan. Even in its most joyous moments it was a self-inflicted wound."

Perhaps this new work will deepen the renewed interest in Marxism prompted by our global recession and scepticism about capitalism. Maybe it's all part of a movement championed by philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his new book The Idea of Communism. Žižek suggests that, now we've all had some nice anti-communist fun, it's time to get serious again, time to get with the socialist programme. "Do not be afraid," he writes, "join us, come back!" © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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