interview: Sam Fairbrother
The Commission for New and Old Art
The Commission for New and Old Art present ‘The Long 40s’
at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Fri 06 Oct: https://www.anthonyburgess.org/event/concert-the-long-40s/
Visit The Commission’s website here: https://the-commission.vercel.app
‘We have given up on certain contracts between the state, artists and audiences.’ I meet Sam Fairbrother in Chorlton, at the Spread Eagle. I should more accurately say I pin Sam down in Chorlton; we are both people in the habit of spending our days darting around South Manchester, juggling projects and meetings. It’s funny how much running around is a natural part of mounting an event in a fixed location. It’s the end of the day and we agree to make the most of the dying bright rays of summer, on the terrace with a bitter shandy.
‘The model we have been labouring under for some time has come to such a low ebb; I am concerned there is a lot of denial, because it’s very depressing and difficult to talk about. The most useful thing to do is stop the denial, speak warmly and honestly amongst ourselves and decide what we’re going to do differently.’
Sam is one of a collective of artists behind The Commission for New and Old Art, who have been programming concerts across Manchester. Their concerts are part of the city, and as much as the Commission are interested in reviving forgotten compositions, their evenings are indisputably cut from the fabric of modern Manchester. In a snatched attic space, during a Bach cello suite played on viola, you will hear trams rumbling and tooting, men shouting whatever they are compelled to shout. What characterises a Commission gig for me is their groundedness; we are always part of the material world. Their audiences and venues and attitude are all of a contemporary Manchester with scant space for public assembly, and a huge appetite for performance and music which folds the past into a dart to launch at the future.
The Commission launched this summer, with a series of chamber concerts in an artist studio overlooking Shudehill tram stop. Their new website holds a statement of their intent. Talking to Sam, it is clear the group have thought carefully about their mission, ‘The priorities are: people talking across disciplines; new work, that thinks about certain artistic traditions that are overlooked; people coming together across the different ways they’re paid.
‘If you are largely involved in a company that is funded by the state, dynamism is killed and you have a certain approach to venues, contacts and organisation that means you can’t take certain types of work because it doesn’t fulfil a particular dead-in-the-water vision of professionalism. Which means, frankly, you have a lot of people that are tired or exasperated, or emotionally unfulfilled, or artistically unfulfilled or uninspired, sat round. What we’re trying is to say, how can we do it in a way that means everybody can work together and get paid but in a way that feels equitable and interesting and – fundamentally – FUN.’
The Shudehill gigs of the summer were in this spirit: playful, surprising. Each showcased a different flavour of the Commission’s interest in bringing forgotten music to the forefront: music of the (long) 1940s; from the Caucasus; Tudor music; electronics. Each concert began with a piece from Bach’s cello suite, played on the viola by the Hallé’s Chris Emerson. The pieces were introduced casually, some context, none of the hagiography you see much of around classical or 20th century pieces. Sam is mindful of the challenge he and The Commission face in courting an audience, ‘One of the things about the experiment is the honesty of, “We’re trying in a different way.” We’re experimenting with different ways to get different people to sit in a room together.’
Asking people to occupy a room with strangers – especially a new or unusual space – is a challenge. Sometimes the source of challenge is the content of the work but often it’s something else, ‘Why don’t certain groups of people go to things? The answers given are to do with education, reception – and also assumption and stereotype. One thing we don’t think so much about is the more material reasons: the cost of the bus; the cost of petrol; the accessible nature of the building. Beyond that, the forms of art which are currently allowed – which are very slim to be honest, compared to what were allowed previously, in less conservative times – are mandated by lots of bureaucracy, administration, that hampers people coming together for different reasons. That’s what I worry about.’
It’s all well and good making numbers, of course. And the Commission gigs I have seen have all been rammed. There are, however, other measures of success. The way in which the audience share the space is important too, and Sam is keen for those who attend to bring more than just their bodies to the room, ‘Everybody goes to things and everybody goes, “How nice,” and leaves. If an audience, however large or small it is, sits and decides to go with the awkwardness of a situation and enjoy themselves in it, then it’s been a success. That’s the big thing. If you are not used to sitting in rooms with different people than whom you usually see – particularly after the pandemic – there is an awkwardness and uncertainty about what to do. The way that hits artistic form is very interesting.’
One of the concerts I saw – Music from the Caucasus – broached this awkwardness in its performance of Tierverse, a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and composer Paul Dessau. The audience were enticed into participating in a dice-rolling game to determine which animal the next song would be sung about, and whether Sam would perform it in English or the original German. I point out to Sam that his role as emcee is a crucial part of that invitation to share the room, and settle into the awkwardness, the newness of that interaction with new people. ‘That’s why it’s art, it’s not lectures. Artfulness is something that’s not particularly cherished; art or artfulness has that strange use of the word ‘pretentious’ thrown at it.’ And I agree with Sam on his point – that art need not be embarrassed of itself.
There’s a school of thought that would argue against experimental art in times of austerity and oppression – that perhaps we should prioritise feeding or housing each other and save art and imagination for later. I don’t hold with that and nor does Sam: ‘I’m actually remarkably uninterested in the bread and roses argument. Because the roses are the bread, for the people doing the art. If all conversation between people that live very different lives dries up, you can never have the conversations about the bread, or how everyone might get the bread. In that situation, the roses make the opening of a bakery a lot easier.’
When occupying a room like the ones which host The Commission’s work, encountering new faces in the room is reminiscent of attending Union meetings. There are new people, there are people more or less familiar with the space than you, there are chances to reflect on what shared ambition brought you all here this evening. At a very practical level, occupying a room to hold a chamber concert is logistically no different to making use of it for a political meeting. ‘We do not have a functioning public sphere. If you have a crisis of a public sphere you cannot organise anything. I don’t see a lot of attempts to think about, never mind make interventions on it. That was one of the things we started to talk about: how art intervenes and relates to that. I would not want a trade union meeting or work conference to be an exercise in awkwardness and fidelity in the way that these nights are.’
For Sam, there is no creation of public life without artfulness. Public life and the tending of community are obviously, obviously linked to the art that we enjoy once the actions are logged and the minutes recorded. Keep us alive, yes, but when we live we must be able to talk to each other, and we must be able to learn new ways of talking. Art is where we exercise this skill and the public nature of the evenings is important. The Commission are offering not just performance, but an attitude to public space which is sorely lacking in Manchester and the broader UK. ‘There’s loads of stuff going on, most of it is semi-private at the moment. If you know who’s doing gigs in people’s front rooms then you can go to things all the time.’ Is it easier to put on a private event? ‘It’s much easier. The stakes are lower, there’s less risk.’
An event being private makes it less political. There’s a silence to performing in private. ‘In private you don’t want to change someone’s perspective, whereas in public it’s about the possibility of changing your perspective. I like to think we’re living through a bit of a 1950s, in the way that burgeoning culture collapsed out of people’s houses as the 60s moved on. People are doing really cool stuff. How it becomes public and after that how it might become mass – we just have to do so much work.’
Chiefly, The Commission for New and Old Art are creating space for possibility. When the Commission recruit collaborators, Sam tells me, they lead with questions: ‘What do you want to try that other places are struggling to accommodate? Would it interest you to do it with these people or in this way? What do you want to do?’ Those invitations are extended to their audience, when they are encouraged to acknowledge how, and with whom, they are occupying spaces. ‘There must be places where there is not a point other than something might happen. The state has given up supporting that in Britain and many commercial ventures are not interested in it as a question. Who else is doing it? We’re trying to. And we’d like more people to get involved, however they want to – sat in an audience or writing or playing.’
In a typical Sam Fairbrother answer, I ask him about the future of the Commission, and he talks about the past: ‘Thinking about the past doesn’t have to be nostalgic. The past can be a place to consider awkward things, make something good out of that awkwardness.’ Sam makes use of the past; it is a lesson to be learned from, an arsenal of tools which can be used to carve the future, not an embarrassment to be put aside and moved on from. For Sam and the Commission the past can be put to work.
‘We will engage with musical, theatrical traditions that are overlooked at the moment, maybe not very cool, maybe people don’t want to be thinking about them so much because they were awkward socialists or strange avant-gardists who didn’t care about politics or they’re not very trendy or they were too poor or they were too rich. Whatever it was. New work is coming – that’s the thing which is really important, that really excites me. New things for everyone. Not out of obligation but because it’s fun. Not because we must but because we can.’
This interview was conducted at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton, Monday evening, 25 Sep 2023. At the time of interview, Sam had been listening to ‘A lot of late 2000s bands; the music of Hans Eisler; The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; Shirley Collins; Stan Kenton; and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.’
Title image by Tommy Bradley