“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?