Imagine sitting on a couch next to a stranger, surrounded by arcade games and Nintendo wall decorations, staring into the face of a paper mâché mounted smilodon head, while a string quartet plays a mashup of medieval chant and Jimi Hendrix. This was the unique musical experience that the Mancunian string quartet Echo Chamber offered four nights ago (Monday 6th) at the MegaBYTE cafe in Glasgow.
An arcade cafe might, on the surface, seem an odd choice of venue for a classical music concert. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix and Kanye West are not necessarily the most intuitive musical companions to Franz Schubert, Arvo Pärt, or Pérotin. But Echo Chamber, although still very new on the music scene, is eager to challenge some of the social mores that have sprouted up around classical music.
The choice of venue was a result of the quartet’s association with the company Groupmuse, an organisation that provides a platform for people to set up classical music concerts in small, unlikely venues. Quite often, that even involves a member of the public arranging a concert in their own living room! The idea, which has already taken off in the States, is to build a community of like-minded people who really enjoy classical music and listening to it in unexpected places. As violinist Stephen Bradshaw put it when we talked after the concert:
Chamber music is very much a tradition of friends coming together to play music. It is often described as being like a conversation. As soon as you take that out of a small room and put it in a big concert hall, some of the more salient elements of that are lost.
This is very true. Although a concert hall’s acoustics may be better, this particular experience really invokes the salons of, say, Haydn and Mozart, friends who occasionally met to play string quartets together, or the 19th-century Viennese parlours that Franz Schubert gathered in with his circle. Although, perhaps an even more fitting analogue there would be the Schubertiads, established after Schubert’s death, which often involved fans of Schubert coming together in drawing rooms to celebrate the music they loved in an informal setting in the company of others who shared their passion. This practice fell out of fashion eventually; even as early as 1946, the music critic Alec Robertson was bemoaning the loss of these cosy gatherings. But perhaps Groupmuse’s house concerts will inspire a resurgence.
If such a renewal is to take place, Echo Chamber’s unique style is perfect for the situation. Their repetoire, inspired by listening to songs on shuffle in Spotify and the Radio 3 show Late Junction, is vibrantly innovative. As Bradshaw pointed out, there’s no rule that says you can’t pair 13th-century music with Kanye West, so if it sounds good together, why not go for it? The unconventional musical juxtapositions are interesting and engaging and during each performance there’s a sense of a shared joke between the players and the audience, which is enhanced by how close everyone is gathered. The cello was less than an arm’s length away from where I was sitting.
This was an unforeseen addition to this particular evening’s arrangement (even for the players!). After the first piece, the quartet’s artistic director, Leo Mercer, suggested we all moved to sit around one table with each member of the quartet situated at one of the four corners. Personally, my initial reaction was intrigued bemusement, but I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed the rest of the concert turned out to be, given its intimate nature.
I think also, this was a really positive inclusion for a concert of this style, where the individuality and variation from concert to concert is a big attraction. The quartet also includes improvisation for the musical transitions, and these are completely different each performance. For example, Monday night’s transition between Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze featured a lot of powerful, dramatic tremolo that was fantastic, and all the more impressive for having been made up on the spot. During the interval, when the performers came and chatted with the audience, Sophia Dignam (viola) was laughing about how she started the tremolo, unsure whether it would work out well, and the others followed her lead and they just went for it – and I have to say, it worked brilliantly! Mercer, the artistic director, even mentioned that he thought it was their best transition to date! It was lovely that all of the group were so open and willing to talk about the performance; they were all really friendly and it enhanced the whole atmosphere.
It’s a somewhat unusual setup for a string quartet to have an artistic director, most quartets operate as a purely democratic unit, but here Mercer is very much an asset to the group, always coming up with new ideas to encourage both the audience and the players to experience and think about the music in new ways. Bradshaw described to me the group’s rehearsal process. Generally they will spend about forty-five minutes rehearsing the music, then Mercer will come in and “do his artistic directing thing”, for example:
He might get us to think about different lines of music as different characters in a play, or get us to move around the room, sit in different parts of the room, try and experience the music in a different way in order to get us to play in more kind of fresh and exciting ways. […] He has a very unique style of artistic direction, and he’s constantly trying to take us out of our comfort zone, which is a really good thing. Classical musicians have the worst comfort zones, and we’re just used to doing a very specific thing within a certain set of confined rules. And Leo’s all about taking us out of those comfort zones, taking us out of those “echo chambers” and getting us to try out new stuff all the time.
Echo Chamber’s house concerts are not Mercer’s only out-of-the-box production. He’s written an opera called The Marriage of Kim K, based on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Again combining classical and contemporary, the opera will feature reality-TV style aspects alongside music from Figaro as well as newly composed material. Echo Chamber will actually be providing the music for the production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It’s an intriguing idea, and judging by the surprises of Monday’s concert, I’m not sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be distinctively special.
Bradshaw told me about what the quartet hoped to achieve with their concerts:
We really want people to experience classical music in a non-pretentious way, and that’s probably one of the biggest features that we do as a quartet. Making classical music less about turning up, smartly dressed, and not clapping between movements and more about just coming and enjoying the music you like, with a drink in hand, with friends. That’s what we want people to take away from this. Yes, a sense of community, a sense of – not necessarily classical music being cool – but making it something accessible, something you enjoy going to listen to. Have fun, have fun going to a house party but one where you listen to your friends playing classical music! Simple as that really!
I think they have accomplished that goal. Everything about Monday’s concert was crafted to make the experience as unique, friendly and hospitable as possible. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening, with very talented, thoughtful musicians and their beautiful music in a small retro cafe. And although the word is frightfully overused, I’d go as far as to say the evening was “hygge”.
Echo Chamber’s Facebook: www.facebook.com/musicechochamber
Echo Chamber’s Twitter: twitter.com/_echochamber
Echo Chamber’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/echochambermusic
Groupmuse’s Website: www.groupmuse.com