© Julien Bourgeois
Echo Collective

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“Post-classical”, “neo-classical”, “non-classical” : nobody knows what to call this music – but Neil Leiter and Margaret Hermant, aka Echo Collective, don’t mind one bit. Orchestral instrumental music from outside the classical establishment has become huge over the past few years, and Leiter and Hermant have witnessed the evolution and extraordinary rise of this movement right up close. They’ve worked with some of the most important players, both in the recording studio and for concerts worldwide. And though the Echo Collective members themselves very much do come from within the classical music establishment, they don’t care which side of the fence they are seen to be on.

As Leiter puts it: “we come at it from the classical side, we bring our understanding to the neo-classical world; a lot of these people are not from a classical background but are essentially writing classical music, so we are able to bring our training to bear to help bring their music to fruition”. And it’s precisely this sense that their musical training is a set of skills to be put to use in the service of the music – not a signifier of some culturally superior and impenetrable realm – that you can hear running through their own work, starting with their re-interpretation of Radiohead’s Amnesiac.

Echo Collective essentially came together around A Winged Victory For The Sullen: the duo of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran. The American-born Leiter was introduced to Wiltzie by their mutual friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and musician Caroline Shaw. Belgian violinist and harpist Hermant was also recruited to play with AWVFTS and she and Leiter gradually began to find common ground as they contributed to the project. Initially they were essentially players for hire for live shows, extensively touring the first album – but then when Atomos was commissioned, they became much more deeply involved. They were a vital part of the processes: recording, orchestration, fleshing out musical ideas, preparing performances with the Wayne MacGregor Dance Company, and then again touring the live show culminating at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the BBC Prom concert curated by DJ Mary Anne Hobbs.

All this time they were also playing in related projects: with Wiltzie’s much revered other duo project Stars Of The Lid, with O’Halloran’s solo work, with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. And of course, through the course of the mid 2010s, the atmospheric sounds these acts were playing was snowballing in popularity. Acts allied with AWVFTS – the likes of Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds and more – were achieving huge success, while composers like Jóhannsson were making ever deeper inroads into Hollywood (he is now probably best known for his scores for films like Arrival and A Theory of Everything).

This music has on occasion been met with snobbery: in particular when playlists of “relaxing” neo-classical composition started racking up plays in the millions. But Leiter is sanguine about this: “there’s background music and background music,” he says; “some is good and some not so good. And anyway, in certain senses it’s actually more important than ever to have music that is peaceful, that you can unwind to, given we’re living in this time of hyper-technological stimulation when every second there are demands for your attention and thought. It’s not bad to provide that chance to unwind! But more than that, this is music that allows people to let go and feel their own true emotions – which can sometimes lead to some very intense responses.”

Echo Collective certainly don’t just make audio wallpaper; far from it. As they toured and recorded with AWFTS they increasingly crossed paths with Kurt Overbergh of the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in the heart of Brussels, and he eventually invited them for a concert residency which allowed them to develop some material of their own. They experimented with many things, including their own compositions and improvisations and even interpretations of black metal records, and very quickly found that they had a musical voice of their own: one which had the spacious, contemplative accessibility of the music they’d been making with others, but reflected their own training and experiences too. They were making music with real depth, and their own inimitable personality running through it.

Part of the Ancienne Belgique commission was to interpret either Kid A or Amnesiac; they chose the latter which Leiter says he felt “had more layers, more complexity, was a little more esoteric, so there was more to chew on and add our sound to,” and arranged it for string trio, harp, piano, bassoon/contrabassoon, clarinet / bass clarinet / baritone saxophone, and orchestral percussion. And it was this which grabbed the attention of German music hub !K7’s new sub-label 7K! – who have signed them for a two album deal: first to release the Amnesiac reinterpretation, then for a record of Echo Collective’s own compositions. Not only that but they have been signed for publishing by Mutesong, which led to a hook-up with Mute mainstays Erasure, re-arranging and re-recording their latest album World Be Gone with classical instrumentation backing Andy Bell’s vocals.

This ability to flow easily from black metal to Erasure, Radiohead to Stars Of The Lid shows exactly what kind of musicians Echo Collective are. Without prejudice, without over-reverence, without particularly caring about genre boundaries – but always with utmost seriousness – they take on challenges set by others and put their own mark on them, they dig for the musical motifs that work for them. In short, track by track, performance by performance, they are evolving into a musical act with a distinct voice of their own. Nobody might be sure what to call it or where to place it, but with music this buzzing with influence and inspiration, who even needs to?

– Joe Muggs, 15 January 2018


12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann (notes by John Schaefer)

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann is the result of a long and unlikely journey, one that spanned almost seven years and included a painting, the members of the Pet Shop Boys, and the looming spectre of Brexit. It began with a question: is the creative process fundamentally the same for the composer writing music and the visual artist painting a picture?

The person asking this question, back in 2012, was the British philanthropist Richard Thomas. He wondered if it would be possible to commission a work that was the result of a genuine collaboration between a composer and a painter – not simply one responding to the work of the other. He had collected the work of the German painter Thilo Heinzmann, and asked that artist if there were a composer he’d be interested in working with. Heinzmann immediately named Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The Berlin-based artist had been introduced to Jóhannsson’s music by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the musicians better known as the Pet Shop Boys, who were also collectors of Heinzmann’s work. Jóhannsson had seen and admired an exhibition of Heinzmann’s painting in Copenhagen, where he then lived, and so when Thomas approached him Jóhannsson readily accepted this unusual commission. The artists’ four-year dialogue began with the composer and painter agreeing on a Heinzmann work that would hang on the wall of Jóhannsson’s studio while he wrote the music (that painting appears on the cover of this recording) and concluded with this twelve-movement string quartet.

But the collaboration was not simply about the final product. “On one level it is a collaboration between composer and artist,” Richard Thomas explains, “but its true form is neither music nor painting; it’s communication.” Most of the actual conversations that inspired the piece took place in Berlin. Heinzmann, Jóhannsson and Thomas met, he says, “ten or eleven times at least, and the conversations ranged from the conceptual to the political to the deeply personal.” Whether there were actually twelve conversations is beside the point: the work’s twelve movements don’t correlate to specific discussions, Thomas says, but collectively offer “an emotional record of the friendship that grew up between the three of us.”

Thomas took a far more active role in the creation of this piece than is customary for the commissioner of a new work, but he admits to having an ulterior motive. “For me the essence of the European Union is cultural unity,” he says, “and the way to express that, is to do it.” So here was a project involving an Icelandic composer living in Denmark, a German painter, a British catalyst, and subsequently in the
Echo Collective, a Belgium-based collaborative ensemble. 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann became – in part, at least – a plea for a continued commitment to what some have called The European Project.
Jóhannsson, for his part, was enthusiastic in supporting this idea. In a 2013 email to Richard Thomas, he wrote “the piece could be seen as a series of conversations across borders – a celebration and an investigation of an ideal.”

Originally, Jóhannsson was going to write for a mixed chamber ensemble with electronics – the sound world he inhabited so gracefully and effectively as both composer and performer on works such as Englabörn (2002) and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (2006). Thomas suggested that Jóhannsson consider scaling the work down to a string quartet. “I want a score that will outlive you,” he recalls saying, “which is ironic and sad now – one that doesn’t depend on technology or you playing. I want you to think of yourself as part of the tradition of classical composition.” The string quartet, Thomas points out, occupies a place in classical music analogous to that of oil painting in the visual arts – as a form that contains some of its creator’s most important thoughts.

Jóhannsson, who had worked with several string quartets in the past, agreed, and the 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann quickly took shape. The movement titles are suggestive; they do not refer to literal conversations. The mood is restrained, and often melancholy. The already-evident fraying around the edges of the European Union seemed to affect Jóhannsson’s mood, although Thomas points to another, more visible source of inspiration: “The delicacy of Jóhann’s music is a response to the delicacy of Thilo’s paintings. They were both taking existing forms and changing them slightly, so you’re not sure you’ve seen or heard something like this before.”

In Jóhannsson’s string quartet writing, one can hear references to a long history of classical music: the chant-like melody in “Manifest,” for example, or the interlocking patterns over a drone that echo medieval music in “Form.” The tentative rhythms of the cello in “Stuk” suggest a piece that aspires to the propulsion of Philip Glass but lacks the needed certainty. And the haunting “Lacrimosa” is built like a Baroque canon atop a repeating cello line. There is even a passing reference to Jóhannsson’s own electronic work in the very high harmonics that float over “Harm.” Tellingly, Jóhannsson’s “Danse” is a simple but elegant waltz; the title offered him a chance to evoke the more rhythmic electronic dance music of his own time, but he chose instead to revisit a much older dance form.

Jóhannsson also offered typically poignant moments: the violin’s quiet lament in “Shell,” or the plaintive melody over gently throbbing accompaniment in “Pol.” The mood lightens in “Zurich,” with its lilting rhythm – until the piece comes to an abrupt ending. Throughout, the composer’s writing for quartet is assured and emotive.

12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann premiered in London on April 16, 2016. The Richard Thomas Foundation, in describing the piece, called it “a composition to be listened to by a British audience, for whom it is a specific, but subliminal, message about European unity.”

12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann was never intended to be an “occasional” piece of music, that is, a work written for a single event or occasion. Over the course of its twelve movements, it traces the arc of a journey, an emotional journey that will vary from one listener to another. “Everyone would have their own response,” Thomas says; “mine is informed by my friendship with Jóhann, and I hear it as a search for harmony and peace.”

After the premiere performance, Jóhannsson decided he wanted to revise the piece and invited long time live collaborators Echo Collective to work jointly in the process. Through touring ‘Orphee’ Echo Collective and Johann had built up a deep musical understanding and common vision. After he had suddenly passed away in February 2018, the members of Echo Collective finally had a chance to play through the original score and it became clear that the piece was in fact complete. “The first time I heard them play it,” Thomas recalls, “it was like Jóhann was sitting next to me.”