The Echo Society Is Pushing Classical Music into the Future
The LA ensemble's unique aural-visual performances are as likely to be inspired by Aphex Twin as they are by Mahler, featuring the likes of Chelsea Wolfe and The Haxan Cloak.
Photo courtesy The Echo Society
Classical music doesn’t exactly conjure images of trendy hat–wearing, fair trade vodka-drinking, sexy creative professionals, and yet that’s just the crowd fills the room on a mid-December evening in LA when experimental classical collective The Echo Society makes its debut. The 200-person audience would sit in reverent silence as the group’s seven members perform original orchestral compositions, themed “Winter,” written especially for the night and never to be performed again.
The sound is both lighthearted and heavy, played by a nine-piece ensemble of string and electronic instruments as custom visuals splash colors across the crowd. The venue isn’t a stuffy concert hall, but the chromatic industrial-chic of Mack Sennett studios, the same creative space where Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy and Iman once filmed the video for “Remember the Time,” the hieroglyphs from which are still painted on the wall.
That was three years ago. Since then, Echo Society has evolved into an ongoing performance series of one-of-a-kind, one-night-only aural-visual performances in unconventional spaces. They offer intelligent but accessible fusion of classical and electronic sounds, existing outside of what those genres’ respective audiences are typically primed for.
The project functions as a way for its seven members, who are successful producers and film composers in their own rights, to bring rapidly evolving music technology into the historically analog classical world. Serving as a creative hub for artists across disciplines to trade ideas, each Echo Society performance inserts fresh concepts, young talent, and new audiences into LA’s expanding and evolving classical community.
“I respect people who make very slow, not-beating-people–over-the-head-with-hyper-volumes types of music,” says The Echo Society’s Brendan Angelides, better known as electronic producer Eskmo. “What we do requires some attentiveness, patience, and people being down with subtlety. We also have people coming from the classical world, and those people need to be patient too.”
The Echo Society came to life after its members, all friends in LA, attended a 2013 orchestral performance that fell flat due to what they felt was a lack of local heart. “They had brought all New York musicians in,” recalls Angelides, who is also the lead composer on Showtime’s Billions. “It was like, ‘LA has so many amazing musicians. What if we did something? Let’s try to combine electronic and orchestral music.’”
The guys—Angelides, Benjamin Wynn, Joe Trapanese Rob Simonsen, Jeremy Zuckerman, Nathan Johnson, and Judson Crane —decided they would each write a composition based on a theme and then perform their creations for friends and family. Five months later, they were onstage performing “Winter.” Promotion was exclusively through word of mouth. The show sold out, as did the three Echo Society incarnations that followed in venues like a 550-seat church and a 700-person capacity warehouse. They now have a small support staff including a production manager, publicist, and several night-of-show assistants. On August 31, they perform their biggest show to date, “V,” at the palatial 1,600-seat Theatre at the Ace Hotel, featuring guest collaborations from The Haxan Cloak, Chelsea Wolfe, BAFTA nominated composer and recording artist Chris Clark, and contemporary classical composer Ted Hearne. This time, they’ve advertised.
The Echo Society performing "Veils"
The Echo Society’s success places them in the midst of the city’s expanding experimental arts scene, which continues finding space for classical music. Last fall’s tremendous experimental opera Hopscotch—an immersive event that used 24 vehicles to transport three-person audiences to makeshift stages that included the LA river and an Airstream trailer—featured opera singers performing alongside actors and instrumentalists. This past April, a 70-piece youth orchestra performed “Yeethoven,” a mash-up of Kanye’s Yeezus and the works of the 18th century composer. Last November, a 30-piece orchestra debuted California Love, a classical interpretation of the music of Dr. Dre. And throughout 2016, the Museum of Contemporary Art teamed up with local electronic luminary Anenon to host fringe ambient music projects in its galleries.As technology and the internet have amped up accessibility to both production and collaboration, live crossover between the two worlds has become part of their respective evolutions. Electronic music producer Kate Simko has collaborated with classical instrumentalists for her London Electronic Orchestra project, while dance world OG Pete Tong will again present orchestral takes on Ibiza classics this winter during three events happening throughout the UK. It’s helping push classical music into the future.
The majority of The Echo Society’s members have day jobs composing music for film and television. Their works have soundtracked movies including Straight Outta Compton, Tron: Legacy, Don Jon, Looper, Foxcatcher, The Legend of Korra, and Kung Fu Panda. Wynn hails from the electronic music realm, touring and producing as Deru. On the whole, they’re as likely to be inspired by Aphex Twin as they are by Mahler. As the Echo Society, they’re all able to flex creative muscles not always tapped by their professional work.
“Even with an amazing film like Straight Outta Compton, you’re still going along with the idea of the director,” Angelides says. “This project is very much us trying to do stuff we’re not used to.”
The crafting process for each show begins with determining a theme, which have included “Winter,” “Solstice,” “Bloom,” and “Veils.” The more esoteric “V” follows the concept of “breathing spirit into matter.” The guys then get to work on individual compositions, convening a few months ahead of the show for a series of living room salons during which they philosophize, share what they’re working on, and offer constructive criticism. Johnson says that playing his work-in-progress for this small group of friends makes him more nervous than presenting his professional compositions to high-powered movie executives.
“With this project, we’re figuring out how we can do something we’re not used to, have it be vulnerable, have it be a collaborative and democratic group thing, and then do it in front of a whole bunch of industry people that we could potentially mess up on,” Angelides says. “I feel like there’s so much real heart that can come out in that process.”
They’ve also recruited conceptual lighting and stage designer Tobias Rylander, whose work includes Soundtrack 7, a seven-day dance performance with FKA Twigs, fashion shows for brands including Balenciaga and tours for The xx, The Strokes, Explosions in the Sky, and more. For “V,” Rylander is working alongside Echo Society art director Anthony Ciannamea to delivery intricately choreographed visual experience that transcends the Ace’s opulent architecture.
”Classical music is still kind of a traditional world with a set venue and way of listening,” Rylander says. “There are very few opportunities like this—to do conceptual design with light, video and visual media to classical music.”
Funding for the project has come largely from its members’ own pockets, as well as from donors including mega-agency William Morris Endeavor and music industry professional organizations ASCAP and BMI. While the ensemble and staff get paid, the core group does not. Wynn says that even losing money has a silver lining, “because [it means] the project hasn’t been turned into an industry yet.”
The ephemeral, one-time nature of such an ambitious and as-yet-unprofitable project seems like a lot of work for minimal glory, but that unique, visceral experience is also part of the appeal.
“In this day and age, the experience is the most profound art form that there is,” Wynn says.
While they’re grateful for their success, staging a show for 1,600 people with myriad guest artists and a huge ensemble wasn’t exactly part of original plan (“Everyone could have probably used another week,” Rylander says of preparations for “V.”), and future performances will likely see them scaling back down to more intimate spaces. They see themselves doing small outdoor shows and turning the project into a mobile, touring installation.
“It’s about how we can engage people in new, creative ways given the technology we have right now,” Angelides says, “and still have it feel heartfelt and human.”
Katie Bain is heartfelt and human. Follow her on Twitter.