Kaleidophonica

Spiro

Released 20 February 2012

  1. Yellow Noise
  2. Steeple
  3. The City And The Stars
  4. Arches
  5. The Mezzotint
  6. Rose Engine
  7. Abbesses
  8. Spit Fire Spout Rain
  9. Aerodrome
  10. Softly Robin
  11. The Gloaming
  12. Swarm
  13. We Will Be Absorbed
  14. When Wars Alarmes

Liner notes

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…”

'The City and the Stars', directed by York Tillyer

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.

Photo credit: York Tillyer

“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”.

Listen

Reviews

  • 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 Guardian
  • Cinematic, breathtaking and beautiful....Folk has never seemed so relevant. Songlines (UK)
  • 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)
  • 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 fRoots Magazine (UK)

Further Listening

  • Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow

    Spiro

    Released 10 April 2015

    With Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, the title of a Keats poem, Spiro take us through the "extremes of human experience. It's an album about being alive. Keats' line 'Dancing music, music sad, both together, sane and mad' is pretty much a musical mission statement for us."
  • The Gloaming

    The Gloaming

    Released 17 January 2014

    The Gloaming carves new paths connecting the rich Irish folk tradition and the New York contemporary music scene. From haunting sean-nós songs to raucous folk explosions, they make music that is both ancient and utterly new: respecting traditions whilst bringing an unconventional energy into the mix.

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