How Manchester went from the home of acid house to a hotbed for experimental classical music
Repurposed historic buildings and the blending of artistic genres are all part of the city's vibrant music scene
After hearing the Hallé or BBC Philharmonic play a Vaughan Williams symphony at the newly opened Bridgewater Hall, you might have taken a quick walk over the canal to the notorious Haçienda for a late-night tipple and an all-night rave. Certainly a weekend in Manchester held that prospect back in 1996 when the Hall first opened.
Today, luxury apartments occupy where the Haçienda nightclub once stood. But the music that throbbed through its walls is now being given a new lease of life. In a hat tip to its city’s cultural heritage, the Manchester Camerata’s Haçienda Classical series reimagines dancefloor anthems and acid house tracks from the club’s heyday in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Manchester Collective similarly reflects its home city’s fondness for diverse music-making. With its BBC Proms debut this year, the Royal Albert Hall was probably the Collective’s most conventional stage yet. Usually playing in disused cotton mills, factories and warehouses across Greater Manchester, its performances are typically intimate and immersive, breaking down barriers between musicians and audiences. As the world emerged from lockdown this year, the Collective hosted Dark Days, Luminous Nights, an audio-visual installation at the White Hotel, a former MOT garage in the shadows of Strangeways Prison. The following month, the same venue held a 54-hour non-stop rave.
We named the White Hotel as one of Manchester's best music venues.
Clearly, Manchester remains a city of musical extremes, and its music scene is now more far-reaching than ever, involving all corners of the city. This year, the Manchester Camerata gave its first concert in its new home at The Monastery in Gorton. Previously a friary, the building became derelict in the 1980s when the congregation moved away; it even featured on the World Monuments Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, alongside Pompeii and Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. It was only in the late 1990s that it was brought back to life, after a group of volunteers bought the building for £1 and then raised funds to repair the damage.
The Monastery’s interior today is opulent, particularly its Great Nave which is its main concert space. Vast pillars flank either side of the hall, with stained glass windows and impressive ecclesiastical statues. Outside The Monastery, however, things look rather different. Despite a major regeneration project now underway, Gorton remains one of England’s poorest areas. The Monastery jars against its surrounding landscape: an immense, stunning structure nestled among tightly packed redbrick terraced houses.
The ’90s also saw the opening of the aforementioned Bridgewater Hall, a venue with top-tier acoustical engineering, and for audience members it’s a treat to never feel far from the stage thanks to its innovative seating design. Furthermore, like The Monastery, there are other ancient buildings which have been reimagined as music venues. In 2013, the Hallé took ownership of St Peter’s Church, a Grade II-listed building in Ancoats, a vibrant neighbourhood which was once an industrial suburb and manufacturing hub. The area is now transformed, with empty mills renovated into light, bright, Instagrammable cafés and independent shops. The church itself has undergone major restoration, and now boasts a hyper-modern extension, which provides a space for the orchestra and choir’s rehearsals and education projects.
The city continues to invest in new concert spaces – a permanent new home for the biennial Manchester International Festival is currently being built at the former Granada Studios. Nothing stays still in Manchester long. With one of the highest student populations in the world and three major universities within the city centre, there is a constant influx of 20-somethings who help shape the city’s musical landscape. The Royal Northern College of Music has a lot to answer for. In fact, the Manchester Collective was launched by two RNCM graduates, one of whom had also previously attended Chetham’s School of Music, the city’s leading music school – and one of the best in the country. Just a few buildings away from its magnificent 600-year-old library is its state-of-the-art Stoller Hall, which opened in 2017 and is a popular destination for intimate chamber concerts, jazz recitals, comedy
shows and performances from the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra.
A diverse musical streak still runs through the city that produced Oasis, Elbow, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. Just as The Haçienda nightclub was born out of a yacht builder’s shop and warehouse in the early ’80s, Manchester’s ensembles are now helping regenerate the city’s ancient buildings and former areas of industry. The northern powerhouse home of Madchester, acid house and punk still has a thriving music scene today – and its orchestras and ensembles are at the forefront.
Check out our round-up of Manchester's best music venues.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.