In conversation with Hidden Orchestra

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Interview by Shannon Lawlor

Hidden Orchestra is the solo studio project of multi-instrumentalist and composer Joe Acheson, currently based in Brighton, UK. Hidden Orchestra’s live performances have featured an array of rotating musicians since the project’s formation in Edinburgh, Scotland. In a live setting, Acheson is usually joined on stage by Poppy Ackroyd (violin/piano) as well as drummers Jamie Graham and Tim Lane.

Although quite impossible to pin to one single tone, Hidden Orchestra’s sound could be best described as an astonishing stir of electronica, post-rock, IDM, dub, classical and jazz. Since 2010, the band have released various EPs, remixes and compilations, with three full-length albums issued via British label Tru Thoughts. Latest album Dawn Chorus, was released in June 2017, swimming in field-recordings, organic and natural compositions and processed noises – from birds, to weather, to water and onward.

We spoke with Joe Acheson of Hidden Orchestra on classical training and travelling abroad:

Hidden Orchestra has been known for extensive genre-bending in the past – personally, could you list some key influences on your own writing formula?

Like Johannes Brahms and Brian Eno, I believe that when you are creating something original, you are really re-packaging everything you’ve ever heard, and there might be something new about the way you are putting it together – but the more you know about what has come before, the more you have to work with.

Part of the Hidden Orchestra formula has always been the idea of making electronic music by acoustic means – using only acoustics drums and instruments, and natural sounds – waterfalls and cellos instead of synthesizers and drum machines. Same with the genres – writing Classical music, but using the templates and structures of songwriting and beat production – verse/chorus/middle eight/breakdown/buildup/drop…

I started composing Classical music at a young age – my mother was a pianist, so I heard a lot of Debussy, Schubert and Albeniz, and I trained as a chorister – but there was rarely contemporary music of any kind playing at home. Choral music played a big part in shaping my appreciation for structured harmonies, clean and simple textures, calculated dissonance, and soaring melodic lines designed to bounce around enormous echoing acoustics.
At school I discovered more kinds of music, joining bands and messing around with music production software, whilst still playing in orchestras and singing in choirs.

When I first heard hip hop, I had never heard of sampling, I didn’t know much classic funk and jazz, and I assumed that the artists were writing, arranging and recording all of the parts themselves.
I later gained an appreciation for the art of sampling, through DJing and producing my own instrumentals, but this naive misapprehension ended up being an important part of my writing formula.

When I first created the Hidden Orchestra project, I was playing bass in a dubby drum and bass band, and felt the urge to write music of my own, for myself, containing all the different kinds of music I was into.
I wanted to use the chopped-up/looping/repetitive aesthetics of sample-based production from dance music and instrumental hip hop, but writing my own original samples.
This led to the formula of writing short pieces for solo instruments or small groups, which I would record and then sift through, picking out single notes, chords and short phrases to use as samples. And doing the same with drums, recreating vintage recording techniques to record hours of drum solos, from which I would only use a few bars.
I record musicians in my studio individually, from widely varying backgrounds (mostly Folk/Classical), also doing some guided improvisations, and then I compile these recordings to create my hidden orchestra..

(For more insight into Hidden Orchestra’s musical influence, stream a full playlist created by Joe Acheson HERE)

Your last album Dawn Chorus was just released in June via Tru Thoughts, could you explain how this recording process may have differed from the last few?

This record featured a lot more field recordings – each track was set to a different dawn chorus recording from my travels around Europe – and there was more extensive use of sounds being treated as samples, in the same way as the instrumental/drum recordings. I’ve always used geophony for atmospheric texture, and messed around with rhythms recorded from birds or machinery, but this album uses many more pitched sounds (broken extractor fans, bleeping radios, whistling wind) and percussive loops (corncrake, crickets, morse code equipment).

A lot of the rest of the process was the same – I try to keep the project evolving but sounding consistent, and like to work with some of the same musicians, whilst always enjoying adding new members to my imaginary orchestra (this time five more Czech clarinettists).

At the same time, I started writing ‘Wingbeats’ fifteen years ago, and the album includes snippets of many pieces I wrote over the last twenty years, including recordings of pieces written at school, and a recording my Dad made of my uncle playing the piano in 1967. So really, the previous albums, each of which took 6-year-long overlapping periods to create, are all part of the same process…

Touring definitely seems to be quite an intrinsic part of Hidden Orchestra, do you find it is difficult to explore your creative vision during your travels?

Travelling is essential – I don’t write music while on the road, there’s no time, but I take a microphone everywhere and am always recording interesting sounds that I stumble across.

It’s also amazing to perform the music live with my band – this is music I originally was writing for myself, so it’s always an incredible feeling to find other people responding to it. When possible I like to perform a track live before it’s actually finished, as the audience response, and even just the way you feel while performing it, can tell you a lot about what is and isn’t working… I don’t feel like I’m exploring a creative vision, just trying to follow that instinct which tells you whether something is good or not.

Could you explain how recording and live performances may differ?

The recording process is mostly me on my own in my studio, working on tracks very gradually over a 2-14 year period, with occasional single days of musicians coming in to record.

Playing live is  a really different experience, and the music comes across differently too – loud, energetic and immersive, rather than calculated, melancholy and meticulously-edited.

The core lineup is two live drummers, piano/violin, and bass/electronics, with live projection-mapped visuals using bespoke footage and on-stage cameras, and regularly featuring guests on cello/trumpet/clarinet/harps and more.

In such an ever-evolving time in the current music industry; how do you still manage to keep your arrangements true to your personal palette of interest, rather than follow a trend?

Double-edged question this one… on the one hand, it helped that I went North to live in Scotland at a time when most of the impetus surrounding this kind of music was probably in London, which allowed my music to develop more in isolation, and I’ve always deliberately tried to avoid trend and image (the orchestra is hidden), and to reach towards the elements of music throughout history that I consider to embody an absolute timeless quality, a slice of compelling rhythm or a glimpse of textural beauty.

On the other hand, I am living now, which affects the prism through which my aesthetic judgements are made, and I am a music fan who still listens to and discovers new music all the time – I try to follow all the trends, out of interest, and no doubt many of them are worming their way into my work via the all-consuming swamp of influences.

I also think this evolving time in the industry has had an amazing effect – because so much music is available and accessible, all the time, everywhere, people are more knowledgable and informed than ever before, they get less trapped in the music that informed their formative years, and tastes are more wide-ranging and ever-evolving too.

The decades of consumption of recorded music have led people to develop a really strong sense of production values and the way music actually sounds – a perception and an appreciation of texture and timbre. Not just the melodies or the way the music makes you feel, people like the particular sound of that distortion on that guitar or the grit in a synth or the thump in a kick drum or the reverb on a vocal..

You are clearly quite well-informed within the realm of classical music, could you go through your scholar-history or background, and it’s current affect on your writing?

I sang in choirs in churches and cathedrals for fifteen years, studied piano, violin, organ, and bassoon, playing in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and took a Classical Music course at Edinburgh University, focusing on composition, orchestration, and music technology.

That background definitely had a big impact on my aesthetic sensibilities – for example, I like thick textures of layered melodies and sounds in which individual voices sometimes get lost, which I think probably comes from choral music.

In parallel, a self-education in many other styles of music, learning guitar, bass, zithers, double bass, drums, flutes, DJing, music recording/mixing/production, live electronic performance…

I am still learning all the time, picking up new instruments, discovering new sounds, music, and production, recording and performance techniques..

Hidden Orchestra is also known for it’s use of electronics, do you find there is a fine-line between composing classically vs. electronically?

I think a lot of the music that is around now clearly has technology to thank for its very existence.

I was only able to start producing music on my own when I got my first computer, before that I wrote with pencil and paper and much of it was never heard at all.

I think this revolution in the accessibility of music production has had a profound effect on Classical music too – for the first time, composers have been able to hear (multiplayer) music in its finished form while they write it, to record it themselves, and still to be writing it while they are in the very act of mixing and producing the final product. Instead of studying and experimenting with orchestration with whatever musicians they can find, composers are able to conjure up limitless palettes of sound in real time. This too is a double-edged sword.

What are some of your most memorable highlights performing across the world with Hidden Orchestra?

So many, from starting with a small residency in a club in Edinburgh, where the queues outside began to reach around the corner, to playing in Prague for the first time and people knowing the tracks, to wild festival crowds from Glastonbury to Delhi, to performing with an extended lineup in the Royal Albert Hall..

The most memorable and treasured impression though is of all the different people and cultures we encounter.

What does the future hold for Hidden Orchestra?

I hope for many more years of productive and consistent longevity. But who knows?

Hidden Orchestra will embark on a tour across Europe in November, see full schedule below:

20/11/2017 Stadtgarten – Cologne – GERMANY
21/11/2017 Knust – Hamburg – GERMANY
22/11/2017 Lido – Berlin – GERMANY
24/11/2017 Principal club theater – Thessaloniki – GREECE
25/11/2017 Gazarte – Athens – GREECE
26/11/2017 Lucerna Music Bar – Prague – CZECH REPUBLIC
28/11/2017 WUK – Vienna – AUSTRIA
29/11/2017 A38 – Budapest – HUNGARY
30/11/2017 Tabačka Kulturfabrik – Košice – SLOVAKIA
1/12/2017 Niebo – Warsaw – POLAND
02/12/2017 Klub Żak – Gdańsk  – POLAND
06/12/2017 Melkweg Old Hall – Amsterdam –  NETHERLANDS
07/12/2017 Democrazy@BIB  –  Gent – BELGIUM
08/12/2017 Nosta – Opwijk – BELGIUM
09/12/2017 Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts – Brighton – UK

For more information follow Hidden Orchestra on Facebook

Image credit: Markus Werner