Working as a classical artist with These New Puritans on pop album 'Field of Reeds'
André de Ridder tells of how he founded a collective of contemporary classical musicians to work on innovative projects, leading to a collaboration on one of the most innovative pop music albums of the moment.
I first met the band These New Puritans after the critically acclaimed release of their previous and second album, ‘Hidden’ and through helping them to mount a series of special ‘Hidden live’ shows with a small orchestra and children's choir. It was a wonderful experience and one the band hadn't necessarily thought possible, after an already complex recording process, with a number of session musicians adding instrumental parts to the songs. After that I was asked to become involved with the new album from an earlier stage and lead the initial ensemble recordings that formed the basis for the songs and pieces on ‘Field Of Reeds’. The band and co-producer Graham Sutton travelled to Berlin in April 2012 with engineer Phill Brown, to record the instrumental tracks with musicians I had selected from stargaze - a collective I founded of like- and open-minded people and friends working in both classical contemporary and other current musical genres with a view to collaborate on and initiate innovative projects. Some of us knew TNPs already through playing for them at the ‘Hidden live’ show in Berlin, back in December 2010. This time we wanted to build on that, with a view of using the same musicians in future live shows for the album, in order to deepen the musicians understanding of the music and familiarity with the band. (An orchestral These New Puritans tour is planned for 2014).
These New Puritans decided to record on the premises of the former GDR radio-station ‘Nalepastrasse’ on the outskirts of former East-Berlin, beautifully situated by the river Spree, encompassing hundreds of wonderful studio spaces, most of which are listed buildings now. After the reunification and hitherto official abandonment of the ‘Funkhaus’, these studios were leased out by the council with a promise to stay available for the cultural sector and creative community: I myself co-rent a space together with Mouse On Mars. We recorded in the gorgeous chamber-music studio P4, wood-paneled and geared towards a wonderfully natural sound for acoustic instruments. After a day of rehearsals, we opted to record everything in two parts: one day with the strings (a quintet including double-bass) and one day with the brass section (which would later be overdubbed by the strings, and other soloist instruments, back in the UK). This is of course the biggest difference to recording ‘classical’ music with ensembles or orchestras, where usually everything is recorded in one room at the same time. In the case of ‘Field of Reeds’ it was kind of a hybrid way of working, keeping each section intact, but recording them separately.
Interesting though, that everything else, like drums and electronics, keyboards etc were recorded afterwards. This meant that there were no existing tracks to play to; we were working from scratch and had to record to a click-track, (a set metronome) which classical musicians always need a while to get used to, especially with natural breathing involved for the winds and the way the strings bow and develop the sound in a less punctual way.
Another challenge in popular music recordings, which we had here was to keep track of the tuning between the respective groups, particularly when things are recorded as overdubs. When recording an existing, fully notated piece of classical music, you tend to know what it's about and what it sounds like overall, so there is an emotional trajectory and a dramaturgy that you can follow. But in this process none of us could know the end result of the songs which were achieved only after a complex editing process and more recordings. The vocals in particular created a complete metamorphosis of the material (even though in the mind of Jack Barnett [These New Puritans’ songwriter] these were already fully fleshed out in the compositions from the start).
In general this means you have to have complete trust in finding the right sound, helped by suggestions from the composer, producer and myself as conductor. This is a process that produces the best possible material, working much deeper and further to complete the jigsaw - creating fascinating and very ambitious, genre-defying music.
It is infinitely gratifying to now be presented with the finished album and hear how we have contributed to this work which I am sure will be talked about for a long time. We will join the new line-up of These New Puritans (already grown to a septet!) for the first time in August this summer, at the wonderful German Haldern Pop festival, performing some of the new songs with full orchestration. From there we will look further towards concerts of that kind of scope next year, to explore the live potential the album possesses, continuing to bring classical and popular sounds together. I can't wait to see and hear how this will be realised.