Spiro, 2012

Kaleidophonica is the follow-up to Spiro's much-praised Real World album Lightbox, but it's different, says mandolin-player Alex Vann because "we've pushed the ideas and the systems music further". Jane Harbour, Spiro's violinist, argues that "we've taken the most intricate bits of Lightbox and taken the whole mesh to a higher level. And if it sounds as if there are more than four of us playing, it's because much of the time people are playing more than one part at the same time. We try to play two lines on one instrument quite a lot, so at some points there might be eight lines going on...."

Spiro are virtuoso musicians, but there's energy as well as craftsmanship to their playing - and they are eager to point out that in their music, riffs are as important as tunes. When asked to explain how it all works, they talk in much the same way that they play, with one member of the band starting a sentence, and the others developing the idea. "The riffs are enmeshed and equal", said Jane, to which guitarist Jon Hunt added "a tune has the same status as a riff, they just become one of the team", and Alex finished the explanation off by adding "there's not one dominant top line, which is how folk tunes are usually played, but it's enmeshed with the riffs ...so you hear the tune, then it can disappear, and bits of it can re-emerge, or get shattered and broken up into pieces, or scattered around the arrangement, or re-appear like ghosts".

It goes without saying that unconventional music like this is created in an unconventional way. All four band members contribute to the process, by suggesting either riffs or tunes, and these are given names "depending on the way they make us feel". They then start mixing the riffs and themes together, said Alex "so it's like two people meeting and having a conversation, and that might spawn something interesting, and then someone else joins in the conversation and that starts to generate new ideas....".

Jane, whom he described as "the dating agency of the themes" is crucial to the process. According to Jon "her head is like a multi-track studio. It's phenomenal the things that can go on there. She can hear complex arrangements, and manipulate them in her head". Jane herself put it like this "We have a pot of themes and I just juggle them around in my head, and decide that this riff will go with that. But when I work out the systems stuff I write that down, and it's quite an intellectual process and can be quite mathematical. So it's both an imaginative process and mathematical pattern-making".

While Jane, Alex and accordion-player Jason Sparkes mostly provide the riffs, it's Jon Hunt who adds the traditional melodies into the Spiro melting pot. "I've always been Mr Tunes", he said. "I love traditional tunes and particularly tunes from the North-East and North-West. They resonate with me, and I'm always pushing them into the pot. But sometimes they scream and jump out again because they don't necessarily get on with the other characters!" The five traditional tunes that remained in the Kaleidophonica pot include Saw Ye Never A Bonny Lass, which was collected by the Border piper Matt Seattle, and which has now been transformed into the track The Gloaming, and Softly Robin, which was collected by John Offord ("the main North-West collector we have plundered"), which has kept its original title.

"I look through these books and find the tunes going round my head", said Jon. "And my head has its own editing process. The characters lodge themselves in your head and you find yourself warming towards some and not others".

Once the riffs and the tunes have come together in the Spiro melting pot, they are transformed into instrumental pieces that may have no lyrics but still tell a story - at least for the band. The tracks on Kaleidophonica have strange and intriguing titles, but none were chosen at random. So Yellow Noise is about sunlight, and taken from the Emily Dickinson poem about a burial ('let no sunlight, yellow noise, interrupt this ground'), while We Will Be Absorbed is about death "and being absorbed from human matter back into the cosmos". As for Spit Fire Spout Rain, it's a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear, "about Lear being kicked out by his daughters", according to Jane. "And the first time we played it with that title, there was a new emotion and intensity to it. When we are playing, we always have a story in mind, even if we can't put words to it. Quite a few of our tracks are a journey, or a story, where the themes are like characters, who are presented, turn up together, or get completely destroyed by each other, or go through adventures along the way...."

It's a highly individual approach to music-making, and it has taken time to evolve. The band first met up on the Bristol folk scene 18 years ago, when Alex, Jason and Jane started working together at the Richmond Springs pub in Clifton ("where you had to play Irish tunes and do them at the right speed", according to Alex), with Jon joining in once they had moved to another pub, the Robin Hood "where you could play whatever you wanted". They were originally known as The Famous Five ("and banging out tunes") but then started to add in new influences.

Jane was already a classically-trained violinist, who had been listening to Bartok and Stravinsky as well as rock and folk, and who had first studied in Japan under the celebrated and "inspirational" teacher Shinichi Suzuki when she was just eleven years old. Part of the training involved "looping", playing a difficult musical phrase time and time again, "and I really used to get into it, and hear other things in my head from that point". Back in England, she started "listening to lots of dance music, going clubbing quite a lot, and getting into repetitive riffs". She started experimenting by adding a "loopy riff" to an Irish jig, and soon after that was introduced to the music of the great American composer Steve Reich "and was really into it".

With both Jon and Alex playing in punk as well as folk bands, and Alex taking a later interest in electronica and modern classical music, it was no surprise that Spiro should develop their unique synthesis of styles. Today, said Jon, their followers are "people from all genres - classical fans, dance music fans, folk and jazz fans". "And there are teenagers and octogenarian fans", said Alex. "There doesn't seem to be a particular world that we belong to".

And so should there be a new name for this new genre of music? For once, they all spoke at the same time. "Kaleidophonica".


  • * * * * ...most exciting union... The riskiest and most exciting union of all involved Spiro playing with a singer for the first time. Their involving instrumental interplay has already trampled genre boundaries, but, with the flamboyant and charismatic figure of Mojmir Novaković - frontman of Croatian roots rockers Kries - growling menacingly around them, they developed an unsettling but thrilling new dimension. The Guardian (Live from Bridges, fRoots magazine's 35th-anniversary concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London)
  • It will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who recognizes the connection between music, spirit, and the beautiful fragility of life. From the first note, the strings of Spiro coalesce to fill the room with a glorious sound. ...the group's fourth album feels like the soundtrack to an epic movie such as Little Miss Sunshine. The songs cycle listeners through emotions of awe, excitement, passion, reverence and a bit of mourning. The tracks are so stacked because the four musicians often play more than one part at a time-simultaneously playing up to eight lines of music-on instruments including the violin, viola, mandolin, acoustic guitar, cello and accordion. synthesis.com (USA)
  • t's hypnotic and fluid enough to have a distinctly physical effect. ...rousing and hypnotic, with the latter's beautiful tune ("Too Long You've Been Away", from the north east) flowing and undulating against a subtle organising structure that's more rippled than fixed. "Yellow Noise" - inspired by Emily Dickinson's term for sunlight - feels intensely visual and transportative, as if you're being propelled at speed over a rolling land- and sky-scape on a music that opens its own vistas, unfolding in structure like an Escher infinity drawing in sound. The suspended violin pulse of Arches eases into the swift-running, full-tilt tune of "The White Hart" before an encore of "We Will Be Absorbed", a meditation on death and re-absorption into cosmicness, and it seems Spiro are intent on hypnotising us there. The Arts Desk Online (live review from The Foundling Museum) (UK)
  • Dazzling instrumental quartet Spiro play the second of three concerts... ...placing top folk musicians in the beautiful Picture Gallery of the Foundling Museum. Spiro's gyroscopic sound swirls guitar, mandolin, violin and accordion lines in euphoric but rigorous folk dances, inspired by minimalist classical music and punk as well as folk music. Time Out (Gig preview - Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, May 10th) (UK)
  • Spiro are like Detroit techno played by a travelling band out of a Hardy novel Acoustic-folk four-piece for people who can't abide acoustic-folk four-pieces, and those who can. Guitar, mandolin, violin and accordion - if that's enough for you, then enjoy your trad-folk ghetto. It's not enough for Spiro, because Spiro are like Detroit techno played by a travelling band out of a Hardy novel. Rob Fitzpatrick, The Word (UK)
  • ...the response is a whoop of joy and cries for more. It's English folk meets Philip Glass, or in this tune Arvo Pärt, as the music builds up to warm violin lines, descending over and over. The music is intricately worked out, without the improvisations or solos of a regular folk band, as if they are in an inextricable machine...Jane Harbour on fiddle has most of the melodies - she's coiled like a cobra ready to strike, shifting from side to side and fixing you with her eyes. And then the music stops. It's sudden and surprising but the response is a whoop of joy and cries for more. The Evening Standard (Live review) (UK)
  • In short - they rock... ...there's a strongly beating heart at the core of their tunes and their minimalist influences owe as much to techno as Steve Reich. In short - they rock, moving around the stage like stadium grungies... Spiro's 21st-century post-folk is a heady soup of influences that somehow stays absolutely true to their music's English roots" Venue Magazine, Bristol Live review The Venue (Live review from The Fleece, Bristol) (UK)
  • ...cohesive, heart-warming and often strangely affecting wall of sound joyously isolate them from the crowd. ...this new set takes their intuitive appetite for pursuing the hidden contours of music a whole fantastic leap further. Folk tunes may be their calling card, but the orchestral, semi-classical edge, the sudden dives into dance rhythms, the engulfing beauty and the sheer, mindboggling complexity of their playing pitch them far beyond all conventional notions of genre or style. ...this is a band which works not in notes but in contrasting colours. ...Kaleidophonica has an all-embracing heart, too, that crosses boundaries of genre and taste, happily devoid of self-indulgence or grandstanding. BBC Music Online (UK)
  • shimmering pulse...changing like the surface of an unpredictable sea. ...the reichian shimmering pulse is still at the heart of Spiro's finely machined modernist version of folk music: ...each separate line repetitive yet the whole constantly changing like the surface of an unpredictable sea. Financial Times (UK)
  • ...dramatic tension between the poles... ...expressing a sort of dramatic tension between the poles of traditional English music and minimalist classicism - a faintly mathematical matrix of textures, lines and tonality. The Independent (UK)
  • ...careful constructions and unrelenting rhythm... Spiro's latest album sees the band return with more of their unstoppable music-making, weaving around themes with incredible dexterity and musical intelligence. ...careful constructions and unrelenting rhythm...all executed with immense skill and precision, made even more impressive by the fact that the album was recorded live without any overdubbing. ...for any listener, Spiro are a unique band offering something not found elsewhere on the music scene today. To be intrigued, entertained and maybe even challenged, listen to Kaleidophonica. brightyoungfolk.com (UK)
  • It's enigmatic and beautiful. Spiro occupy a unique place on the British folk scene. The quartet of fiddle, guitar, mandolin and accordion draw on traditional tunes but work them into a web of delicate acoustic sounds that repeat or slowly transform. ...emotional detachment...balance and structure. The interweaving of lines forms a counterpoint which often builds up with a rhythmic thrust. And then suddenly it stops. It's enigmatic and beautiful. The Evening Standard (UK)
  • ...mesmerizing and beautifully complex in structure. These pieces are intricately planned and leave no room for improvisation, in a performance as carefully executed as a symphony. ...endlessly tumbling rhythmic phrases... Far from minimalist, the arrangements are complex in their use of repetition and driving rhythms, conjuring up images of 3D fractal explorations - mesmerizing and beautifully complex in structure. If you have an ear for the unorthodox, seek out Spiro - you'll enjoy the journey. Folk Radio UK (UK)
  • Spiro are that rarity: true English originals. ...engaging, experimental...who defy categorisation. They play violin, mandolin, accordion, guitar and cello, make use of traditional English melodies in many of their intricate compositions, (Spiro) are definitely not a conventional folk band. The traditional influences are "enmeshed" ...into an elaborate, atmospheric or quietly stirring rhythmic style...melodies and riffs juggled between the different instruments. Spiro are that rarity: true English originals. The Guardian (UK)
  • This is a series of intensely visual pieces of music... ...alternating snatches of shorter riffs and glimpses of traditional tunes with longer stretches of ebb and flow… Comparisons have been made with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but I'd like to add Michael Nyman to the mix. Rose Engine, Aerodrome and Swarm have a pop sensibility that infuses some of Nyman's work. It's all breathless stuff, genuinely unlike anything else, and exciting, rewarding and gorgeous in equal measure. fRoots (UK)
  • ...whirling deliriously round and round (Spiro) play music that seems to hover a few feet off the ground, kept in place by its sheer insistence. (Their compositions)… lend themselves to either whirling deliriously round and round on the spot or gazing out of a train window as the English countryside flickers by. The Word (UK)
  • ...cinematic, breathtaking and beautiful....Folk has never seemed so relevant. ...building in rhythmic and melodic complexity and bearing fruitful comparison with minimalist classical music and electronica. ...the four band members use acoustic instruments to build exquisite loops, but Spiro do not simply reinvent the old but rather uncover deep harmonic and rhythmic structures that were in the music all along. ...shuddering cascades of notes...beautiful melancholy that is traditionally English and yet wholly of the now. Folk has never seemed so relevant. Kaleidophinica Track appears in Songlines Top Of The World Album. Songlines Magazine (UK)
  • ...complex arrangements with emotion and attack "...Systems music meets folk, courtesy of the Bristol instrumental quartet who manage to combine complex arrangements with emotion and attack" (Robin Denselow) The Guardian (UK)