Strings attached: Vivid's indie classical revolution

The festival teams the world’s hottest bands with orchestras and innovative composers.

It’s easy to be skeptical about what happens when you stick an orchestra or a Strad-sporting virtuoso in front of a band of scraggly rock musos – case in point, David Garrett’s Rock Symphony album, dubbed Limelight’s “bad taste release of the year” in 2011. 

But there is a growing number of intrepid musicians from both camps who are turning the tide away from the dreaded “crossover” disasters of recent years, to draw out harmonious sound worlds from unexpected collaborations and new modes of performance. Whether it’s the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing a program of Nick Drake and Pagninini in a dank Surry Hills pub, The Kronos Quartet covering Icelandic band Sigur Rós, or Radiohead frontman Jonny Greenwood working with legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, it seems that hipsters are creating a new brand of classical music.

Vivid Live curator and Sydney Opera House head of contemporary music Fergus Linehan is on-trend: for this year’s festival he has found a bunch of these intrepid alt-pop stars and broad-minded classical composers and invited them to take over the opera house for 10 days. The line-up is a significant step forward from last year’s offerings, guest-programmed by Modular Records owner Steven “Pav” Pavlovic, which didn’t feature so much as a whiff of classical music. Vivid has changed its approach, ditching the curatorial whims and limitations of cult figureheads (Brian Eno and power couple Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson presided over previous years) to focus squarely on “ambitious popular music” bound to intrigue contemporary classical music aficionados and young fans of alternative rock, folk and electronica.

The acts at Vivid from May 25 to June 3 include:

  • Experimental Danish band Efterklang with the Sydney Symphony
  • Sex-kittenish songstress Karen O’s “Psycho Opera” Stop the Virgens
  • The Planetarium song cycle, teaming American folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and National guitarist Bryce Dressner with 30-year-old wunderkind composer Nico Muhly
  • Flame-haired British chanteuse Florence substituting her bandmates (she usually fronts appears as “Florence and the Machines”) with the Ceremonial Orchestra. 

Danish trio Efterklang aren’t strangers to the process of expanding the traditional indie rock band structure to sculpt and refine more complex sounds. But then, says bassist Rasmus Stolberg over the phone from Copenhagen, they weren’t really an ordinary rock band to begin with. “We have a good collaboration going on in the sense that we're not really instrumentalists. We are sort of more like composers, producers. Because we don’t have this guitarist that needs to play his riff on every song, or a drummer that needs to play on every song, it’s an open atmosphere where anything can happen in any song.” 

Stolberg insists that this flexibility allows them to “try new things” – including tours with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra and the Britten Sinfonia, and recording with a Greenlandic choir on their EP Parades. Ironically, the forthcoming album Pyramida, which they will perform with the Sydney Symphony and UK-based Australian conductor Matthew Coorey at Vivid, is one of their sparsest yet. “It's a lot more ghostly and darker than some of our previous work – it has this edge of loneliness, maybe. It’s like a vast, open, landscape.” 

He’s looking forward to fleshing that out in Efterklang’s Australian debut, but admits that an undertaking of this scale isn’t without challenges for even the most adventurous indie rockers. “Performing with an orchestra is a lot of work. It's a difficult process for a band and it's always nerve-wracking because you have maybe one, if you're lucky, two, days to rehearse with the orchestra. 

“But for us it's always worth it. On a good night there's a feeling of the band actually being at one with the orchestra. You can't get that with every single member of the orchestra, but you always make new friends – there's always a percussionist or someone who is really tripping on what we're doing.” 

Stolberg acknowledges that not all such projects are a success. “It's actually an amalgamation of two worlds meeting and creating something new. I think that's what everyone should try and focus on when they do these projects. And, quite often, it doesn't really work. 

“But it's my dream and hope that we can make something that will, on stage, give the orchestra a great experience of playing with musicians from a different world, and I know the same thing will go on for us. So that hopefully, we can create something here that is not just some rock band playing with strings, and not just a new classical piece.” 

Efterklang’s secret, he insists, is the mystery left by the group’s lack of classical training. “I think I would prefer if we don't get too professional. One of the messy things is that we use orchestral elements but we don't actually really know how to use them properly. And it's a part of our sound; that we do stuff that you wouldn’t do if you were trained properly. Sometimes we end up making things difficult for ourselves without knowing that we are, and I think that also sometimes helps us create something different.” 

The band’s openness to new, shared experience has brought them to Australia for the first time to perform in a venue they never thought they’d play, and with which they feel a strong personal connection. “ I can tell you that Danish people are very proud of it because the architect Jørn Utzon is a national hero. And I know it ended on a bad note… But that’s not something that we really talk about in Denmark.”

Vivid Live runs from May 26 – June 3 at the Sydney Opera House. Efterklang perform with the Sydney Symphony May 26. View event details here.

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Strings attached: Vivid's indie classical revolution
Karen O's "Psycho Opera" Stop the Virgens
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