Berlin is a city of contrasts. Cultures, people and ideas all jostle for space, rub up against each other, and occasionally clash. It’s an atmosphere that allows experimentation and creativity to bloom, for new concepts to be born.
Within this environment, it makes perfect sense that the seed for Andy Leomar’s Symphoniacs could not only be planted, but also grow into something sprawling and significant. Andy and one of the group’s principal members, cellist Colin Stokes, sit with us to talk about the generation of the idea and the excitement of watching it come to life.
This city is home to arguably the best club scene in the world, and its heart thumps to the beat of techno. There is, however, a long and rich tradition of classical music that is alive and kicking. Andy has drawn inspiration from both of these seemingly disparate arenas to create something fresh. Classical and electronic music have had many flirtations and dalliances over the years, but the level of reimagining and reinterpretation in Symphoniacs is an entirely new love affair.
It might seem like a simple idea to take chart-busting dance anthems and place them within a classical framework, or to take well-known classics and give them a dance twist, but the depth, deftness and originality that Andy has brought forth shows that simple ideas can have the most elegant execution. Working together with the hottest young talent in the classical world, he has created immersive soundscapes that are anything but traditional.
Andy started his music career at the age of six, studying classical music at a conservatory in his hometown. In Austria, he explains, it is normal for parents to encourage their children to play instruments, citing the well-known lineage of musicians in German and Austrian culture. “Back then, the only way to learn an instrument was to do it the classical way,” he explains, “so you go to a conservatory, and there they teach you Bach, Beethoven, great classical pieces.” The introduction to contemporary music came later, when as a teenager he wanted to go out to dance and meet girls. He laughs: “I started with Mozart and ended up with rap and dance music!” After training in Vienna as a Tonmeister (translated as ‘sound master’ in English, a specialised sound engineer), he moved to Berlin to set up his own studio. “Of course I wanted to produce pop music, so I did some projects in that genre,” he explains. “But I always try to combine these two worlds: the classical, very traditional world where I come from and pop music club culture.”
Colin, like many classical musicians, also started young, already asking for a cello when he was three. By eight, he was commuting to the nearest conservatory in Baltimore. Unlike Andy, Colin wasn’t interested in electronic music until much later: “I did my grad school at Juilliard, and there I got very into the contemporary scene in New York.” He credits experimental composers like Elliott Carter as well as the Greenwich Village and Brooklyn club scene with piquing his interest in contemporary classical music: “It’s only classical music because it’s performed by classical musicians,” he explains. “You know, you have electric guitar or drums, and it really sort of blurs the lines of what classical music is. And that’s when I started getting into more popular music because I felt like it was important to inform what I was doing classically.”
Andy remembers clearly when the Symphoniacs idea began to take shape. He was working with a young violinist who told him that he had been up late the night before dancing to classical music. “Dancing to classical music?” Andy wondered. The violinist explained that they had simply played classical pieces like Vivaldi, but up-tempo. “And I thought, ‘this is crazy’, but somehow, I got a picture in my head and thought,‘I like the idea of having classical musicians playing classical pieces yet making it dance-y so you can play it at a party.’”
The project started small, with Andy making arrangements on his keyboard and experimenting with what it might sound like to play a keyboard synthesiser riff on a cello, which is a lot trickier than it sounds. Choosing the songs wasn’t easy either: “On the one hand I was looking for current dance music, songs that people know. But it was always the question of whether it works on classical instruments.” There were also legal issues, considering they wouldn’t be playing covers, but entirely new adaptations. They also reinvented classical favourites: “The classical pieces we chose are pieces that are well known, but I think it’s good to reach a large audience with classical pieces they already know,” says Andy. Colin adds that some songs seem to have been made to be set to electronic music: “Vivaldi is so rock and roll, it’s so aggressive and fast and it’s just begging for a beat,” he says. The list of album tracks includes timeless classics such as Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ and ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons, as well as dance anthems like Daft Punk’s ‘Aerodynamic’. Once drafts of the songs were in place, the next step was finding the talent. “We had worldwide auditions,” says Andy. “We were looking for the greatest talent of this young new generation of classical musicians.”
Vivaldi is so rock and roll, it’s so aggressive and fast and it’s just begging for a beat.
Once a group of core members was selected, Andy set about showing them the first drafts of the material he’d been working on, and was met with enthusiasm from the young protégés. As he explains the process – from the arrangements to the technical intricacies of recording – it’s evident that he’s really a master of the medium, coming to this endeavour with all the awareness of a highly trained craftsman. “It’s amazing working with Andy on a project like this,” says Colin. “I think a lot of electronic musicians came up on electronic music, but to have a Tonmeister – someone with a classical background – it’s a completely different approach. A lot of producers or recording engineers don’t have the skill set to record classical instruments well. It’s very different from a guitar or even a horn. So to have the classical ear in addition to the skills of an electronic producer is amazing.”
While one might think that classical and electronic music are opposite ends of a spectrum, Andy and Colin maintain that the two genres share a great deal of common ground: “There is sort of an elegant symmetry in Mozart, a very classical-era composer, and I think electronic music is probably most similar to music from that period. It’s very elegantly structural. It’s not so romantic, it’s more about patterns and how they can develop subtly. So I do think there are a lot of similarities between classical and electronic music.” He explains that their project offers them the power to expand beyond the limits of what is possible within either genre: “There’s so much range with classical instruments. You can have such a tender sound, like with the beginning of [Martin Garrix’s] ‘Animals’. It’s an amazing piano introduction, and it’s so tender, but we have this huge range because we can go from the bottom of what an acoustic instrument can do, all the way up to everything that Andy can do with the electronics, so it’s just this massive range that the genres don’t have on their own, but together there’s such a wide range of tension and release that’s possible.”
Upon first sight, the Symphoniacs collective look more like a rock band than a chamber group: all young and handsome, clad effortlessly in leather jackets, t-shirts, and white sneakers. All have accomplished careers in their own right, and perform regularly with chamber groups, orchestras, or solo, and thus there is a pool of about 20 musicians who are swapped out based on availability. “This is also exciting,” explains Andy, “because every concert is actually unique.” He considers the possibilities that this offers for experimentation and improvisation one of the most wonderful parts of the project: “This rarely happens in classical music because you are not supposed to improvise or interpret the great masters, but here you can try out something new, and every time you play a track, someone plays it slightly different, and then, if it works, you try to integrate that into the next performance.”
And what performances they are. Whereas traditional classical concerts consist only of musicians on the stage against a sparse background, Symphoniacs live really is a thing to behold. A full-on visual extravaganza, cutting-edge lighting design flashes in time with the beat, sputtering in rainbow colours, while dual video screens flash abstract images of splashing paint, seasons and fireworks, creating an entirely immersive environment. “You have all these different components to pull meaning out of the music,” says Colin. “The LED screens and the brilliant guys and girls who worked on the visuals with Andy pull a lot out, which is really nice.” Andy agrees that the performative nature of the project also highlights the impact of combining these two seemingly disparate disciplines: “I think it’s perfect because it represents the club and music scene, but then you have the clash with the traditional instrument, this old wood, so it’s both worlds that are far from each other and to combine them is exciting.” And of course the musicians are the true highlight. Apart from bringing their extraordinary technique, they exude a rock and roll spirit, and are clearly having the time of their lives performing on stage.
Andy, who conducts and mixes live during the performances, likes the prospect of earning the audience’s trust and playing with their expectations. “If we ever play the Philharmonie in Berlin, we would love for the audience to dance with us because that rarely happens with a classical audience and we want them to leave thinking, ‘Wow that was a great time’, but we also want to give them the quality and intensity of classical music.”
I like the idea of having classical musicians playing classical pieces yet making it dance-y so you can play it at a party.
What is it like for a classical musician, groomed in an environment of stark contrast, to perform in this context? “It’s amazing,” says Colin, “feeling the subwoofers behind you is pretty unreal. I mean, it’s great to play with an orchestra – also a powerful feeling – but it’s much different to be in a really large space with these crazy huge sounds behind you, it’s exciting. And the whole process, every time we come it’s sort of getting bigger and bigger with more moving parts, just to be part of a project this large has been great for all of us.” A bit like being in a rock band, perhaps? “I think the dynamic is a lot more like a rock band than an orchestra,” says Colin, emphasising that they really feel like a collective rather than the sum of their parts. “I think we got lucky with the dynamic in this core group; we bonded pretty quickly and we have a lot of fun together. Maybe too much sometimes!” Andy jokes, if you want to combine these two worlds you have to accept the rockstar lifestyle.
When speaking of the rock and roll lifestyle it’s hard not to think about Berlin, the city where Symphoniacs started. What role does the city have in the project? Andy is certain that the birth of the project is synonymous with the city of its conception: “For us, Berlin represents this young electronic music scene, but you also have a classical music scene. Some of the best orchestras are here, some of the best conductors. Here you can go to a club and a concert in one night! Berlin also gives you space for creativity and you still have possibilities to try out new things.” The international nature of the city is certainly reflected in the project itself, and was also a selling point for people to join in the first place. “It’s very easy to start a new project here because you find great musicians who want to be involved,” Andy says. Colin is in full agreement, and says that coming to the city was part of the draw for him: “The city has a very distinct flavour. I think everything in Symphoniacs is flavoured by the feeling of Berlin, there’s at once an openness and a feeling of grunge. There isn’t any arrogance; it’s down to earth.” Andy recalls one musician who showed up to the audition in a tie, as one normally would in the classical world. It didn’t take long before the tie disappeared and the spirit of Berlin took over.
Launched in October, the group will soon begin their world tour, bringing classical music to the masses and perhaps bringing dance music to the classical world. “I think there is a sort of initial scepticism of crossover projects within classical music,” says Colin. “I think in the past the people who went off the beaten track were not always so established in the classical tradition. But I think the classical integrity of this project allows it to be attractive not only to people new to classical music but also to strictly classical musicians, and I think that’s really unusual for a project.” While we are talking, the sweet, trembling sound of a cello can be heard through the wall – another Symphoniac waiting in the wings. It’s just a taste of what life is like in this world, where music is life and life is music.