I spoke to Margaret Hermant and Neil Leiter – the core of Belgium-based modern classical unit Echo Collective – in February 2018. At that point two albums featuring the Collective were about to be issued – World Beyond, a classical interpretation of Erasure’s World Be Gone that was the focus of my interview, and a classical reinterpretation of Radiohead’s complex, sonically challenging Amnesiac. Leiter had hinted at other projects, one of which was a collaboration with Maps, which surfaced as 2019’s outstanding Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.
The other project Leiter mentioned is what became The See Within, the first Echo Collective album to contain original material. At that point in February 2018, The See Within wasn’t even written; it merely existed as an idea, something he and Hermant were keen to do, but its execution seemed relatively remote. Their publisher, on the back of performances of Amnesiac and the reception to World Beyond, suggested that they should be prepared to “clone themselves” as classical interpreters for hire. It was clear when talking to Leiter that the idea, lucrative though it may well have been, had limited appeal: the goal was their own music, and what became The See Within thus became a driving focus.
The See Within contains eight pieces for strings and magnetic resonator piano, an adapted piano that allows long, string-like tonalities to emerge. The album finds the core duo of Hermant (violin, harp) and Leiter (viola) collaborating with a third member of the collective, Gary De Cart, whose use of the MRP on standout pieces like ‘The Witching Hour’ or the lengthy ‘Respire’ gives the album its distinctive melodic character. Despite the emergence of strange, alien sounds and textures (for example, the opening moments of the evocatively-titled ‘Glitch’ or the gentle, evolving music box clusters of the beatific ‘Unknown Gates’), the Echo Collective mantra is to avoid studio effects other than subtle reverb. Theirs is an approach born of the concert hall, of live music, of being able to use instruments to their fullest potential, without resorting to the studio to achieve their idiosyncratic artistic vision.
The result is an album that stands out in the crowded marketplace of modern classical music; an album that also stands apart from their previous interpretative or collaborative work yet feels inextricably linked through the way that Hermant, Leiter and De Cart interact with one another. Here you find moments of improvisatory freedom overlapping with rigid composition, of traditional playing effortlessly overlapping with instrument adaptations, giving each and every piece on The See Within an acoustic personality and sonic resonance unto itself.
A more engaging modern classical album you will not find.
The See Within by Echo Collective is released October 30 2020 by 7K! Echo Collective are published by Mute Song.
Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Gaia and George.
(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence