Intimately detailed metrics on audience behavior have turned the live-music economy into a stratified, identity-driven numbers game. Completely different crowds may frequent the same room each night of the week—a booking strategy that’s necessary for any space to stay afloat in a competitive market, but one that leaves little room for forward-thinking programming or performative innovation. Instead, music lovers must turn to nonprofit institutions and adventurous curators to supply fresh works that expand our understanding of sound and form, bringing us ever closer to learning what the still nameless and shapeless sub-genre of “new music” actually means.
Sometimes, such ventures can nurture new collaborations that last far beyond any exclusive run of shows or limited residency. This is a love story about one such collaboration, which flourished because of shared intentions and mutual understanding. It also might double as a master class in how to destroy the performative egos that have been an anchor of classical music forever.
When the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series commissioned s t a r g a z e, a German orchestral collective, to form a “virtual residence” with Minneapolis synth-pop group Poliça in the fall of 2016, their intention was to help incubate a truly collaborative, cross-genre work. Poliça and s t a r g a z e release that collaboration on February 16 as Music for the Long Emergency, a collection of songs that owes equally to each group’s compositional approaches. They come together again on February 17 for a performance at Symphony Space presented by curatorial collective Infinite Palette, when they will play the whole album along with Bruise Blood, a reimagining of Steve Reich’s seminal Music for Pieces of Wood, and the premiere of Brooklyn electro-acoustic composer Daniel Wohl’s new composition, Angel.
As the collaboration began in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, the record also asks what it means to keep creating in times when all you feel like doing is closing yourself off from the world. Like the most lasting work, it stands up to temporal uncertainties by asking timeless questions.
“How do you make music in these times of great tragedy?” Poliça frontwoman Channy Leaneagh asked National Sawdust Log over the phone. “We’re inundated; our heads are spinning with all the news. It’s not a new conversation, but how do you make stuff that’s not going to dumb us down, not a pill to swallow that calms us down? How do you feel things and be okay with it?”
Collaborating on Music for the Long Emergency let Leaneagh work these questions out as she reconnected Poliça’s more synthetic production back to her classically trained roots. “It makes me want to cry… it makes my teary-eyed, actually,” she said. “I don’t understand how it’s all working like this, and I love to hear them play. There are parts in the song ‘Fake Like’ where I get to sort of sit back and accompany them.”
The necessity of working remotely taught Leaneagh that more composers and players ought to try consciously to work offline, thus facilitating the need for more performance spaces and creator spaces, ”where people come together about art without just going backwards, without trying to just live the nostalgia of going back to create punk spaces and zines.”
But she‘s not discounting the effectiveness or practicality that digital communication can bring. To the contrary, the core nature of Liquid Music’s virtual residency required the two groups to communicate digitally via Facebook and Skype while out doing their own things.
“Luckily, I was in the states for something else in advance of the collaboration and able to visit the band in Minneapolis, start talking and listening,” said s t a r g a z e co-founder André de Ridder. “Then [Poliça] came to Berlin on tour and we spend a day at my house in return, with some members of s t a r g a z e around, had a first very open session and played/arranged/improvised some music and textures together.” The two groups recorded a huge chunk of material together out of those home demos, and it was only afterward that they started to trade ideas online.
“They’re incredibly versatile and are to pick up on a lot of different sounds,” Poliça’s Ryan Olsen related in a conversation with Liquid Music about rehearsing with s t a r g a z e in Berlin soon after the virtual residency began. “I was playing random radio blasts with like static signal, like sample hits, and they would recreate them on violin. They are insane sculptors of sound, masters of their tone. They are able to react to it and play with it.”
This process was not unusual for s t a r g a z e, whose fluctuating roster means that everyone in the group may be all over the world at any given time. De Ridder says that each group member’s different approach to working on a project is a tremendous asset. Some are much more meticulous and organized than others; While De Ridder confesses to being a bit of a luddite, more prone to work with manuscript paper than with software with Logic or Sibelius, he’s comfortable with members sharing different responsibilities and abilities.
S t a r g a z e also understands that each collaborative process must be tailored specifically to the work at hand. Before recording its arrangements for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s fantastic 2017 album The Kid, for example, the collective already had scores written out by Smith, which they recorded in Germany and sent back to her. Smith used those bits and pieces of those scores as modules, treating, cutting them up and editing them into her song. They were never in the same room at all, save for the time they first met, at Rewire Festival in the Hague.
Though Liquid Music’s decision to pair Poliça and s t a r g a z e was the initial catalyst for Music for the Long Emergency, other serendipitous events suggested the pairing was meant to be. Poliça has long considered Berlin its second musical home, too—Tom and Nadine Michelberger, owners of posh live/work space Michelberger Hotel, were close to both groups. They throw a nameless annual festival at the venue Funkhaus, where they set the collaboration up with a practice space when Poliça came back to rehearse with s t a r g a z e.
To this end, the collaboration had all the makings of a couple’s passionate reconnection after being apart. “It was a true example of the smallness of the world, and the beauty of that,” Leaneagh said. “I fell in love with s t a r g a z e because they have a [sense of] abandonment [about] what you’re supposed to do. They’re excited about making, creating, and using their instruments in ways that they haven’t before. Making music with people is always a form of falling in love, of courting each other in a non-sexual way, but communicating a love language.”
Once that love is firmly established, the same tools that go into sustaining any healthy relationship are required to keep a remote collaboration strong. Patience and listening are at the forefront, along with an abandonment of expectations and ego. But because the relationship operates on a fixed timeline, collaborating creatively with others presents an additional challenge of always having to be “on.”
“It’s in direct rebellion to our work lifestyle and our narcissism, in the sense that we have to be present and there really isn’t time for personal drama,” said Leaneagh. “You have this small amount of time to connect with each other, listen, especially in the classical music world where it’s not just a producer saying, ‘You sing this, this melody, and I already have the lyrics.’”
Poliça started off writing very simple melody lines. Leaneagh never played a synth line on any of their records, but Ryan Olsen recorded her playing basic synth melodies as a foundation that s t a r g a z e could layer its music atop. “It’s just the first word in a conversation, asking them what they want to communicate back,” she said. “Not letting anyone imprint too heavily.”
Now that Poliça and s t a r g a z e have established a blueprint for working together, the practice can be applied to other works. For Saturday night’s Symphony Space show they also plan to perform a reimagining of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, called Bruise Blood.
“The Reich [piece] we started playing just with s t a r g a z e, almost as an exercise for fun,” said De Ridder. “Then we started finding things by giving harmonies and improvising over it (the original is mainly percussive and very strict), then we suggested it to Poliça and it became an entirely different piece yet again, that linked it to many other influences both Poliça and stargaze had musically. We did a similar thing with [Terry] Riley’s In C.”
Looking out at the landscape, De Ridder sees many other examples of adventurous programming beyond the commercially viable “live film scores” intended to bring outside audiences in. He mentions the integrative mix of genres and audience involvement at the Southbank Centre and Barbican in London, along with artist-curated festivals like ATP that started the trend around pop and indie music.
“It’s not necessarily about ‘mash-ups’ and band with ensembles/orchestras but placing certain performances in new contexts, and band or electronic musician playing as part, or before and after an orchestral or classical contemporary performance,” he said. “We tried this with our own festivals at Berlin’s Volksbühne [with] ‘s t a r g a z e presents’. This points towards ‘interdisciplinary’ presentation also!”
The end result, Poliça and s t a r g a z e reason, is not just nourishing the new music community, but the artists who make that community thrive. Music for the Long Emergency is a love story that shows how far intention and commitment can go toward seeing a project through.
“The people that I often really gel with collaborate from a carnal place, from a place of absolute feeling,” Leaneagh says. “It’s very physical, about the way the body moves and the way that my emotions bend to the other notes that we’re creating. You’re trying to listen.”
Poliça and s t a r g a z e perform together at Symphony Space on Feb. 17 at 8pm, part of a two-night series curated by Infinite Palette; symphonyspace.org
Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural leavings, for Vulture, Newsweek, No Depression, RealClear Life, and other publications.
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