photo: Julien Bourgeois
photo: Julien Bourgeois

In only a few years, Brussels-based Echo Collective have forged an enviable reputation in the post-classical world: sought out for their instrumental and arranging expertise by icons such as A Winged Victory For The Sullen and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, or lending their interpretative intuition to genres as diverse as alt.rock, synth-pop and black metal.

Finally, an album of their own material, The See Within, confirms Echo Collective are equally inspired creators, using their past accomplishments as a springboard to a new, illuminating vision. From brief, singular themes to lengthier, shifting and questing episodes, this masterclass in composition, expression and technique bridges intimacy and grandeur in line with the most rewarding of post-classical works.

The See Within is scored composed for violin, viola, cello, harp and, in its first appearance on an album recording, the magnetic resonator piano (MRP). “All sounds are acoustic, and produced in real time,” explain co-founders Margaret Hermant (violin, harp) and Neil Leiter (viola). “No processing or post-production other than reverb. The acoustic element is Echo Collective’s identity. A natural sound.”

The MRP, of which only one currently exists (built by its inventor Andrew MacPherson), is a game-changer. Magnets fitted to the piano – “imagine the effect of a giant E-bow” suggests Hermant – and an extra pedal prolong the notes, creating the kind of sustain and crescendos that can be achieved with strings.

“We discovered the MRP about six months before recording the album,” Leiter recalls. “It allowed us to give piano and strings equal expression, and to present a unified acoustic sound, since any drone effect on a piano is usually reliant on electronics. It’s been fascinating to take a traditional instrument and set it free.”

The MRP is played by Gary De Cart, The See Within’s third composer alongside Hermant and Leiter, though the album’s fourth musician, cellist Charlotte Danhier, is credited with co-writing the title track. Both De Cart and Danhier are regular members of the fluctuating collective, but the core is its two founders. They met when ambient minimalists A Winged Victory For The Sullen were seeking string players for a European tour. Leiter, from North Carolina, and Hermant, from the French side of Belgium, knew each other at music conservatory, and were acquaintances in Brussels, but had never performed together. “When we started, we were immediately close,” recalls Hermant. “It felt very like natural.” 

Touring and recording with A Winged Victory… the duo crossed paths with Kurt Overbergh of the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in Brussels. He requested they organise a concert residency. Taking the name Echo Collective, Leiter and Hermant were free to develop their own material, expand their repertoire and bring in other musicians. One project was Overbergh’s suggestion; to cover either Radiohead’s Kid A or Amnesiac albums; the latter was chosen because, “it had more layers, more complexity, and it was a little more esoteric,” says Leiter. “There was more to chew on and add our sound to.”

Amnesiac was subsequently scored for 7 players: string trio, harp, piano, bassoon/contrabassoon, clarinet/bass clarrinet/barritone saxophone and percussion. “It was a great challenge,” says Hermant. “And a good way to discover how you can work together, and to find a way to make someone else’s music yours.”

The transition from classical to post-classical was effortless, certified by Berlin label 7K! signing Echo Collective, beginning in 2018 with a studio version, Plays Amnesiac. The same year, the collective accompanied vocalist Andy Bell on a similarly revamped version of the Erasure album World Beyond. Their extensive CV includes collaborations with Joep Beving, Daniel O'Sullivan, Christina Vantzou, MAPS, Michel Bisceglia and James Heather, but Hermant and Leiter always intended to push on with their own compositions.

The eight tracks comprising The See Within were composed specifically for the album. “The Ancienne Belgique residency produced full pieces but we didn’t feel we found our identity with them,” says Leiter. The album title The See Within indicates how they succeeded: “To look inside ourselves, to find an intimacy and a sound that you want to share,” Hermant explains. The album title pays respect to Lisbeth Gruwez’s dance piece The Sea Within, “a beautiful expression of the way people perform together, instinctively, but also organically,” she adds. “It’s how Echo Collective makes music together.”

The See Within benefits from complimenting approaches, with Hermant favouring improvisation (the title track, for example) whilst Leiter, she suggests, “is more scientific, or conceptual,” structuring his ideas and scores beforehand, such as the opening ‘Inflection Point’. De Cart also scored ‘From Last Night’s Rain’ beforehand, since the MRP was only available to the collective for three days before the remaining instruments could be recorded, and then rescoring in reaction to playing the instrument. “We didn’t know how the MRP would fit,” Leiter admits. “We imagined it would take the role of filling out the sound, giving a depth and a nest for the sound. We built the album around what we hoped the MRP could do.  It was very rewarding and inspiring to open up a new palette of acoustic colors.”

‘Glitch’ and ‘Unknown Gates’, meanwhile, are “brother and sister, related harmonically,” says Leiter. Hermant had suggested, “a piece that echoed something I’d already heard. Working on ‘Unknown Gates’, this amazing glitch was created by the MRP – the magnet does a kind of tremolo when you play extremely soft. The ‘glitch’ was the perfect sound to express the feeling of the echo.”

‘Respire’ stands out not only because it lasts 11 minutes, but for its exquisitely, restlessly evolving dynamic, one that gradually slows down, to mirror the core concept: “creating an atmosphere of calmness,” says Leiter. The inspiration was the physicality of appearing on stage with the likes of A Winged Victory… and Jóhannsson. “We felt such gratitude to feel our energy slow down, and to connect with the audience and the other musicians,” he says. “We wanted to give that tranquility back to the listener.”

The collective’s co-founders acknowledge that The See Within connects their past with the present, absorbing the experience of collaboration to feed their own inventive beauty. “We spent the last eight years creating music with amazing people, and learning so much,” says Leiter. “And when you write your own music, you can’t help bring those people with you.”

One of their most cherished memories is working with Jóhannsson, beginning with the Icelandic composer’s European tour of his 2016 album Orphée. The relationship worked so well that Jóhannsson asked them to help rework his next score, 12 Conversations With Thilo Heinzmann. Tragically, he died before this new adventure could begin, though in 2019, Echo Collective’s understanding gf Jóhannsson’s intentions brought the work to fruition with their second album 12 Conversations (released by Deutsche Grammophon).

As Hermant points out, “We have been inspired by others. For example, for ‘The Witching Hour’, we wanted a more ‘Winged Victory’ sound. But we never want to create something similar. It’s sometimes the reverse experience. You create something and then realise it resembles something you have already experienced.”

It’s there in the name Echo Collective. “We’re a collective, with our roots in classical music and structure, but we are, in a sense, a shadow of that world, or an echo, whilst projecting a future sound,” says Leiter. That sound has already debuted with ‘Wistful Breath’ – recorded after the album – appearing on 7K!’s recent compilation String Layers. But The See Within is where Echo Collective’s enviable reputation will enter a new dimension: not only trusted accomplices and expert interpreters but visionary composers, looking within to project a new chapter in the ongoing development of post-classical music.

photo: Julien Bourgeois
photo: Julien Bourgeois