FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Echo Collective

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Interview with Neil Leiter (Echo Collective co-founder).

I love playing this music and feeling my heart slow down in the pulseless moments, and then the opposite, getting carried away by the wall of sound and transported to the next realm.”

Neil Leiter

Words: Mark Carry

Photograph: Jesse Overman

official echo photo

Echo Collective is a collective of classically trained and professionally active musicians based in Brussels Belgium. Past and ongoing collaborations include A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Stars of the Lid, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Laniakea, Adam Wiltzie, Dustin O’Halloran, and Christina Vantzou.

The live experience is one of those rare occurrences where a multitude of emotions can engulf your every thought, like a whirlpool of forgotten dreams that suddenly resurface to the pools of your mind. Of course, an experience such as this is impossible to quantify but the feelings and profound impact caused by these sonic transmissions is absolute and true.

When I think of some of these live experiences, the Echo Collective string quartet lies at the heart of several otherworldly live shows: Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s ‘Atomos’ tour (several years later) and Stars Of The Lid’s 2016 European tour. Undoubtedly, the gifted quartet have developed a common musical language with these awe-inspiring modern composers and the wall of intense sound unleashed by these live strings – blended with electronics, drone noise, ripples of piano notes or otherwise – navigates the depths of the human heart and (unknowingly) transported to another realm.

As part of the Echo Collective’s concert residency at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels during the 2016-2017 season, the Echo Collective will re-adapt and reinterpret Radiohead’s Amnesiac album. In a similar way to André de Ridder’s exceptional Stargaze modern classical ensemble – their reinvention of Boards Of Canada’s ‘HI Scores’ EP or the divine ‘Deerhoof Chamber Variations’ record are just two examples – Echo Collective are continually searching to redefine the boundaries of music (and in turn, these boundaries become beautifully blurred).

www.echocollective.be

https://www.facebook.com/collectiveecho/?ref=bookmarks

As part of the Echo Collective’s concert residency at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels during the 2016-2017 season, the Echo Collective will re-adapt and reinterpret Radiohead’s Amnesiac album. For details of the first edition of the BRDCST Festival and Echo Collective’s show (as a double-bill with Germany’s Hauschka), please visit HERE.

wpid-screenshot_2015-08-06-10-51-53

Echo Collective performing with A Winged Victory For The Sullen at the BBC Proms, 5 Aug 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London.

 

Interview with Neil Leiter (Echo Collective co-founder).

It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your awe-inspiring musical project of Echo Collective. Firstly, can you please take me back to the founding of Echo Collective and the particular space and time in which this collective began on their music path? I’d love to gain an insight into your musical background and classical training. Also, please introduce to me the current personnel who comprise of Echo Collective.

Neil Leiter: First Mark, thank you for your interest in Echo Collective. It is a true honour to be part of your inspiring blog.

Echo Collective began five years ago. I was introduced to Adam Wiltzie by a childhood friend Caroline Shaw. She plays violin as part of ACME in New York and is a fantastic and renowned composer. As part of ACME, she had played with Adam as part of A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Stars of the Lid. Adam was looking for European based musicians to play with, and she put us in touch. I will be forever grateful for that introduction.

Margaret Hermant and I put a team together to collaborate with AWVFTS and Echo Collective grew out of that initial relationship. All of our musicians come from a classical background. For example I studied viola performance at Indiana University Bloomington, and had been an active professional in Brussels for ten years before Echo. Margaret our violinist and harpist, studied in Brussels and has also been an active professional for many years before Echo. The list goes on, but the background is the same. Classically trained musicians, searching to redefine the boundaries of music and what it means to be a classical musician.

Echo was and still is primarily a collaborative group. Though we have started to branch into our own projects, our roots remain collaborating with modern composers on their new projects, recordings, and tours. Though we tour mostly as a string group, normally between three and five musicians, our team in residence at the AB in Brussels this year, is seven strong: Margaret on violin and harp, myself on viola, Harm Garreyn on cello, Gary De Cart on piano, Hélène Elst on bassoon/contrabassoon,Yan Lecollaire on clarinet/bass clarinet/baritone sax, and Antoine Dandoy on orchestral percussion. The upcoming albums that we plan to release also are in this formation.

You have formed an integral part with many of the finest modern composers of today, including Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Christina Vantzou and more. Please discuss how the process of collaboration has developed between Echo Collective and these array of composers? It is clear that there is a dedication, trust and openness between you and these collaborating musicians. Each of these projects must take you on some deeply rewarding and fulfilling experiences. How have you developed as a string quartet in light of these wonderful projects and collaborations?

NL: You are completely right that collaborating with the aforementioned composers is deeply rewarding and fulfilling. Part of what makes it so special is that there is a real dialogue between us and the composers. Because we come from such different backgrounds, part of working with each of them is developing our own common language for musical communication. And as we develop this language together, there is a deep bond that develops. All of these people are like family now.  I think that these strong relationships come from learning how to communicate in our own special way, in an individualised way. In a way that only relates to their music.

I know that these composers appreciate that dedication. And all the people that take part in Echo have that innate ability to live the music live. In fact my wife jokes that I am probably the biggest Winged Victory fan. And I might be, I listen to their music and the music of all these amazing people all the time. And I truly do love it. All the people of Echo do. And that love is felt by our collaborators and hopefully the audience.

It is hard to say how we have developed over these years. I think that probably, we are faster in understanding what the composers want. Often times anticipating ideas before they are brought up. After playing so many concerts together, mostly it just takes a few words or a certain look between us to know where we are going and how we are going to get there.

The live experience of playing cities around the world with these incredible artists must be another truly inspiring avenue and path to be on. I was fortunate to witness Echo Collective onstage with Stars of the Lid last year and Jóhann Jóhannsson a few years previously. Can you shed some light on the preparation and rehearsals that are involved with these tours? I wonder what particular stage in the live context would be your favourite? The energy and depths of emotion that fill the atmosphere during these shows of yours create such a deeply profound impact on the listener. Can you somehow reflect on the live performance of music and the effect of strings (and the live string quartet) has on the live setting?

NL: For me personally, music is at its best live. I think that is where the greatest range of emotion is communicated by the performer and felt by the audience. And this is where the live strings really add the most. Because we are naturally acoustic, we can give the soft moments the transparency of un-amplified sound. And because we are amplified, as the music reaches those mind bending peaks in volume, we can help give it that extra oomph. In those forte moments, often times I feel that even in three we sound like one hundred.

We have worked over the years with Tom Lezaire (our long time sound engineer with AWVFTS and SOTL) as well as other sound engineers to keep the natural sound of the string instruments.  Even in the loud moments, the audience should feel the direction of the sound from the strings, the bow moving across the strings, the hiss of the contact point. Though the audience only sees the musicians on stage, the relationship that we have with Tom and the other sound engineers is imperative to a strong live performance.

As we play these great compositions, we try to feel the emotion that we want to convey. As a result, if we are doing our job correctly, the depth of emotion that we feel, should be the feeling that the audience gets swept away by. I love playing this music and feeling my heart slow down in the pulseless moments, and then the opposite, getting carried away by the wall of sound and transported to the next realm. That is by far my favorite part of the live context, being transported by the music.

As Margaret always says, and she is so right, having a stable team that is able to communicate and feel in these common ways is essential to being swept away and sharing that feeling with the audience. It is not by accident that we convey these feelings, it comes from years of playing together.

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Echo Collective plays ‘Amnesiac’ is an ongoing residency at Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, which culminates in April 7ths Brdcst Festival performance. Firstly, please discuss your reasons for choosing Radiohead’s Amnesiac album and indeed your love and fascination with this band? This of course was a special time, when ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ were unleashed into the world at the turn of the millennium. What are your memories of first hearing ‘Amnesiac’ and the impressions it left on you?

NL: This might surprise you, but I had never listened to the Amnesiac album before Kurt from the AB proposed it as the focal point of our residency. I grew up singularly focused to a fault on classical music. In fact it is a kind of running inside joke how little popular culture I actually have.  That being said, other members of Echo are huge Radiohead fans.

Kurt Overbergh, the artistic director of the AB in Brussels, initially proposed a choice between Kid A and Amnesiac as the focal point of our residency. At that point, I asked for a week, and immersed myself in these great records. We decided to work on Amnesiac because it is more complex, more built on layers, in my opinion more based of classical construction and colours, and in many ways more of a challenge.

The live recordings of ‘Amnesiac’ from AB Brussels, are quite extraordinary and the intricate arrangements are a joy to savour. Can you talk me through the process of notating, arranging and fleshing out these songs, so to speak? What I love is how you add many colours, textures and new perspectives to the sound world of ‘Amnesiac’. What have been the most challenging aspects of this project?

NL: Gary, our pianist, and I have been working this year to arrange these songs. Of course the process involves notating all the parts from the original songs (Gary is a real pro at this) and then imagining how to apply it to our ensemble. In a lot of ways, reworking the songs without voice has been freeing. Where a traditional rock song has to leave lots of room for the vocal line, we have allowed the secondary lines to be more equal with the vocal melody. This results in more interaction between the lines, and as a result hopefully lots of colours and variation in sound and form.

The hardest part has been finding our voice within, while still remaining ‘true’ to the original.  We want the audience to feel like they are meeting an old friend for the first time. To feel comfort in hearing a song that they love, but to be challenged to listen and interact with it like it is the first time. That is a real fine line to balance.

After our initial arrangements, all the fleshing out and balancing happens collectively in rehearsal.  We try things, see if they work, play a concert, reimagine, and repeat. We are constantly searching to take the sound to the limit, to appropriate each line as our own. In this way, the pieces are not just interpretations but reinventions. Our residency at the AB has really allowed us the time to work through all these processes, and to assimilate the music for ourselves. It has been a fantastic opportunity that we are very thankful for, and I think that we are finding that illusive balance.

The opening ‘Pyramid Song’ is magnificently re-arranged. The woodwind instrumentation replaces Thom Yorke’s voice but retains that sombre, brooding, dense feeling and atmosphere. Can you talk me through the instrumental make-up of ‘Pyramid Song’ and what new layers were composed for some of these parts?

NL: Like almost all of the songs, there is very little composition added to these amazing pieces, the lines from the original are kept, but readapted in our colours and techniques. In Pyramid Song the intro and outro are wind like color effects that we added to help set the mood. We achieved this through extended techniques in the strings and winds. And the baritone sax replaces Thom Yorke’s voice, later doubled by the contrabassoon. We chose those instruments to try and capture the amazing timbre he is able to achieve. It was one of the first arrangements we did, and still one of our favorites.

‘Hunting Bears/Like Spinning Plates’ epitomises the dynamic range of your ‘Amnesiac’ performances and just how aesthetically rich these compositions are. One of the defining moments arrives with the gradual awakening of ‘Like Spinning Plates’, coming after the sparse ‘Hunting Bears’. So much colour is added to the latter, it’s a piece I’m sure you particularly enjoyed arranging and performing? The strings on top of the piano and percussion – arriving on the rise of the song – is one of the defining moments of this live set.

NL: Hunting Bears is originally a big guitar solo, but for us was very reminiscent of a recitative from opera. Very free and in a way spoken. Margaret plays both the harp part and then the violin part which replace the guitar, and we follow her seemingly free form improvisation like an orchestra would accompany a singer in a recitative. We chose to use it more as an introduction to Spinning Plates than as a standalone piece.

And our version of Spinning Plates is based on Radiohead’s live version of this song. Their live version spoke to us directly, almost like something that we would have composed ourselves. It is probably my favorite, and also the most classical of all the songs. Like in many of the arrangements the vibraphone and glockenspiel are integral in creating the resonate atmosphere.  Everything just fits together like a clock. The contrabassoon line, which is not really the melody in the original, is a great solo line in our version. Put all together it gives the sensation of flying.

‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘You and Who’s Army’ remain as vital and affecting on these live recordings. I feel listening to these arrangements of yours, it not only reminds us how incredible Radiohead’s works are but how you are able to channel new energy and perspectives into these songs. ‘You And Who’s Army’ was always one of my favourite songs from the original and to see how this instrumental version slowly bloom and continually build is certainly the record’s crescendo.

NL: Part of the work that went into these arrangements was imagining the dynamics in a classical way.  That means creating long crescendos, or dynamic contrasts that might not be evident in the original.  ‘You and Who’s Army‘ was in fact reimagined as one long crescendo. The soft color of the bassoon solo accompanied by harp and soft viola and cello, that transitions into a raucous jazz inspired baritone sax and violin solo. This version really shows our full dynamic range both in terms of volume and color. As the layers pile up, so does the emotion. This is an extremely classical construction, and is part of what helps us reclaim the song as our own.

What are the kinds of conversations you’ll be discussing about honing in on your sound as you’re working together for the next number of weeks before the Brdcst festival? It must also be quite liberating to be undergoing a project such as this where there is vast possibilities as to how to bring ‘Amnesiac’ to life with your artistic vision?

NL: At this point we are fine tuning. Everything is basically set, and we are working towards esoteric things like flow, how to connect the pieces, in which order, communication, balance etc.  This is the part of the work where it really becomes chamber music.

How ‘Dollars and Cents’ is transformed into a sweeping orchestral jazz work out is another important part of Echo Collective’s ‘Amnesiac’ and how it serves a wonderful prelude to ‘Knives Out’. What have you learned about this body of work by Radiohead and what new insights and feelings/impressions you may have now after being immersed deeply in this project for the past few months?

NL: As we have worked through this large undertaking, we have been confronted with many things that we are not often confronted with as classical musicians. For example, non-classical musicians often talk about the groove, whereas classical musicians talk about pulse. This immersive process has really helped us to find that alternative perspective and abandon many of our preprogrammed classical clichés. By working through these arrangements we have in many ways transformed into a band. And that is exciting. But I am continuously struck by how classical and jazz oriented Radiohead is. It is ironic, but as we move away from what we know best, we continuously come full circle and are confronted with our origins. I feel that these songs are as much classical as they are not. And that paradox also gives the energy to reimagine what is already a great piece of art.

What other plans for Echo Collective lie on the horizon? I hope there will be (physical) releases made available in the near future.

NL: Thankfully there are many things on the horizon for Echo Collective.

We plan on releasing three albums in the near future, though where is still a great mystery. Of course we want to release the Amnesiac rework which we will record in August. We also want to release a reworking of Burzum’s ‘Daodi Baldrs‘ that was commissioned by the AB two years ago, which is already recorded, and we continue to play live. And we would like to release an album of our own original material that we have been working on in parallel to the Radiohead as part of our residency.

And then of course we will continue to work with AWVFTS as well as other artists in collaboration.  For example, we are in the beginning of collaboration with Daniel O’Sullivan. And of course we are always looking for new collaborations with artists.

We are doing more and more film work these days. As well as teaching graphic scores in collaboration with Christina Vantzou. All in all we are very excited as our activities continue to diversify.

echo_logo_nolayers

 

www.echocollective.be

https://www.facebook.com/collectiveecho/?ref=bookmarks

As part of the Echo Collective’s concert residency at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels during the 2016-2017 season, the Echo Collective will re-adapt and reinterpret Radiohead’s Amnesiac album. For details of the first edition of the BRDCST Festival and Echo Collective’s show (as a double-bill with Germany’s Hauschka), please visit HERE.

 

3 Responses

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  1. Very exciting to read this eloquent interview.

    Jeff Leiter

    March 28, 2017 at 9:47 pm

  2. Impressive, Neil!

    Peggy Payne

    March 29, 2017 at 3:43 am


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