The plural in Manchester Histories Festival is an essential one. Just as there is no single Manchester, rather a city mapped uniquely by the desire lines of each of its inhabitants, there is also no definitive history, no neat succession of elected and non-elected figureheads, fixing time according to who is on the banknotes. The realities are more elusive than the official record, their relative importance not only a matter of gender, but of class, of race, even of taste.  

Intangible Sounds, a coming together of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dark Arts Research Kollective and Music and Sonic Studies Research Group, sets out with the aim of opening ears to the melodies and discord of the city’s marginalia and footnotes, affording them the prominence they deserve.  

The opening chords are struck by Katie Chatburn. Her Shape Of Sounds is a collective in the broadest sense, encompassing not only an electronic string quartet but the almost Ouija-like Soma Terra synthesiser, along with the front row of the audience, encouraged to add their noise through primary-coloured effects pedals and playable portable lamps. In the process, against the paused picture of the city itself, seen through a window more compelling than the work’s backdrop animation, Manchester is conjured as a work-in-progress, its skyline cranes sometimes stilled but never halted.  

Chris Gladwin, Runic Acid © Lesa Dryburgh

While Chatburn’s performance is arguably enhanced by playing out against the fleeting June sunshine of the late afternoon, Chris Gladwin’s Runic Acid v 2 might have benefitted from being set against the hours of darkness. Channeling something of The KLF’s approach to stagecraft, complete with a hand-crafted, feathered mask, Gladwin’s set nonetheless seems curiously apt for a space so close to the lost time of The Haçienda‘s ghosts; his faceless voice intoning “my heart is like a rhythm machine” like a post-modern incantation, his acid-laced rhythms even evoking an outbreak of spontaneous dancing at the back of the auditorium.  

Markus Hetheier, who also trades under the name of Industries, provides some light to Gladwin’s shade. His Queer Sonic Geographies, produced with a range of accomplices, sounds at times like an FM radio whose disparate stations slip in and out of one another, like human tides on a Saturday night, intersecting and parting on Deansgate or Canal Street, a sonic murmuration appropriate for the gathering dusk.  

Fittingly, however, it is the night’s final performance, a confluence of Susan O’Shea, otherwise of present-day electro-duo Factory Acts, and Julian Holloway of Analogue Trash label mates, Flange Circus, in which all the electronic elements align. Monstrous Women takes as its starting point a single event, one half-immersed by the flood of what followed in its wake; a meeting of 40,000 in the natural amphitheatre of Blackley’s Boggart Hole Clough, during the course of which Emmeline Pankhurst first made herself heard, insisting on making a speech.  

It’s a piece, as O’Shea explains, that resonates with the present day when the right to protest has been called into question by a swift succession of unpopular populist home secretaries, and women in particular continue to be vilified for having the temerity to speak up. The form of the performance wonderfully captures this content, initially having something of the bucolic delicacy of a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, before culminating in a crescendo of analogue post-punk, with O’Shea snarling, “Monstrous, monstrous women” like Siouxsie Sioux fronting the first incarnation of The Human League.  

Connecting the present to the past, revivifying the lived experience, it brings the point home with art and craft. A notable evening ends on a high note, even as it, too, passes into the histories of its audiences, written into their hearts with the pulse of electronica. 

By Desmond Bullen

All photos, including main image: credit Lesa Dryburgh


Manchester Histories