As far as concepts album go, Late Reflections, just released last week by German-Swiss duo Grandbrothers, likely will occupy a special position in the books. Or how many bands have had the opportunity to evolve and record an album in one of the most iconic German cathedral? Both Erol Sarp and Lukas Vogel acquainted with the presence of the Cologne Cathedral from their childhood or respectively studying in the Dusseldorf where they also met and decided to go on a mutual path as Grandbrothers.
“We have the very technical side and we have the musical side and it’s being put together.”
In 2019, cathedral builder Peter Füssenich approached the two to invite them to a major concert to celebrate 700 years of the construction of the building’s main part, but what started out as just one show, turned into a whole record that breathes the spirit of the vast space of the cathedral, making use of the gigantic reverberating potentials, once again crossing the boundaries between past and present.
“With this idea of playing a concert there, it was kind of quite obvious to write some music, especially for the concert…but then it really fit into our kind of plan. We just finished our latest, the last album and we’re about like to write new music. And there was this concert coming closer. So we just decided to see how we can or how it works to write music for this space.”
But let’s go back to the beginnings for a moment. The story of Grandbrothers starts at the Institute for Music and Media in Dusseldorf over ten years ago, where Erol and Sarp met and what started out with the idea “just to make some music together”, turned into a full-time band project and the formation of the band in 2011. With Erol already being “a really good pianist” at the time and Lukas “doing more electronic music and building [his] own synthesizers”, the two saw an artistic opportunity coming up. And if you look at the current hype in the neo-classic and nu-jazz scene, their encounter couldn’t have come at a better moment in time.
“And so we took this instrument and had this idea of checking out where we can go with it. We only use the sound of a piano, the sound source. And so we came up with a kind of a mechanic thing. We built our own little hammers. They hit all over the piano, the places like strings or the wooden and metal parts.” (Lukas Vogel)
“There was this idea to take the sound of the piano and manipulate it digitally or electronically with some effects and during the computer. So there were these two elements”, Lukas explains to me, fusing “these two elements” and thus merging the classical aura of the piano with a modern electronic touch. And in fact, it is hard to determine where to situate the sound of Grandbrothers, which is carried by frantic rhythms, pushing the confines of their instrument towards innovative directions. “We just kept on developing new ways of kind of get strange sounds out of the piano and use it in different ways”, Lukas continues, “and it was mostly pushing it into a kind of club direction. We wanted to play concerts where the people also dance and have beats and percussion”.
Music For A Dome
When the idea and possibility to realize the project that should become Late Reflections eventually materialized, it was kind of a given that the focus of this record would dismiss the club direction would have to make room for another dimension. Well, literally in this case. “We went there and made some tests where we kind of captured the room with like IR, impulse response measurement. Like we could play back the room in our studio”, Lukas recalls the initial preparations for the concert and the recordings, describing how they tried to make use of the space “in a kind of 3D surround way”.
“It would have been a little bit of waste of space if we just play the music from front. So we came up with the idea of placing loudspeakers all around … and we started to write music and it was so much fun that we really fast came up with a lot of ideas. And it was clear that we want to make an album out of it.” (Lukas Vogel)
From how the two talk about that experience there is a certain aura sparkling around the topic and a fascination about the whole experience. Although not religious in any way, being invited into the cathedral came close to a spiritual happening of sorts, as Erol describes the first sessions, which had to take place during the nighttime, starting from 8 pm. “I sat there and it’s always kind of dark because we could only enter it after 8pm because it had to be opened during the day. So we were there and I sat at the piano and played a bit. And for me, it was like one of the, or maybe the most crazy things that I did until then. And then we played the concert, which was even more crazy”, he recalls. How did he experience the room? “We were there in this building and I played the keys and it was like the whole room started to, you know, come alive. And it was, it has such a long time of reverb.”
“So you play a note and it just stays in the room, at least if you play it in a certain volume… everything is so big, it needs some volume or some energy until it starts. But when you reach that, like I just played one note, like really hard and it just like stood in the room and it was immediately, it was like, we have to be creative with that thing.” (Erol Sarp)
“We noticed immediately that there’s something in this room, like it’s really special and we have to put it into the compositions”, Erol goes on about the enchanted space and points out how the space itself determined the means of them crafting a sound to work in these walls. And when one immerses oneself in Late Reflections, the title of which is actually a technical reference to “the second part of a reverb… the reverb tail”, as Lukas remarks, one can get a notion of the acoustic dimensions and sounds bumping from one corner into the far other, creating this vast atmosphere of it all.
“You can’t just rent the cathedral. So it was really bound to this concert, because we had this context of playing a concert there. It was a kind of door opener to also record there.”
The circumstances of being tied to the night for their sessions and the fixed performance additionally worked as given constraints to dismiss all perfectionism and focus on the possibilities of letting the space of the cathedral form and mould their next musical endeavour.
“So it was a mixture of the time running because we just had these nights and we knew it wouldn’t be possible to say, can we stay for one more night? Or can we come back in a week or something? Can we rent it in a month again or something? It was clear that it was only these nights. So we had some sort of pressure, but also we tried to enjoy as much as we could, because we knew that this would be a once in a lifetime experience.” (Erol Sarp)
The Room As An Instrument
What I enjoy about this conversation is the level of technical nerdiness with which both Erol and Lukas discuss their experience and although my skills in that regard might be a bit limited, I can relate to the excitement of their explanations. What remains a crucial experience from the recording sessions in the cathedral is the plain fact that the giant room has served as an instrument on its own on Late Reflections, they assure me, and that is not just a metaphoric expression but has an actual technical relevance.
“All the names of the songs are connected to something [in the cathedral], like some part of the architecture or something that we experienced there.”
“We took the room as a kind of instrument we can use. And there we figured out some really nice ways to use it”, explains Lukas, trying to break down the technical aspects to me. “When you have this really long reverb, you’re not able to play a lot of notes into this room, it would just be very washy”, he goes on. “Low notes, like bass drums have a really long delay, even the low frequencies have longer delays than higher frequencies. So there were kind of restrictions. But we also didn’t have the idea of letting this room dictate everything and just make music that when you play the whole music in the room, everything in the room, it works perfectly.”
“We wanted to have more freedom by saying that we work kind of creatively with the room in terms that we’re not sending everything with the same level into the room. So sometimes we, for example, bass drums, we didn’t send to the room that much and other things we kept totally dry just to have, just to be able to play with the room.” (Lukas Vogel)
Late Reflections speaks volumes of the strong connection at work between the space and the music that is taking place in it, with Grandbrothers trying to take control it in the best way they can. In settling to the wide dimensions and its specific demands, whilst letting it speak for itself, they have created a memorable artefact that documents the confrontation between tradition and innovation, carving out a unique work of art. “The room or the sound of the room [does] something with you”, Lukas concludes, and that actually summarizes the experience of the duo quite fittingly.
In that regard, Late Reflections is all about the interplay of giving up control and regaining autonomy, although sonic awe certainly prevails. “We had one of the main organ players of the cathedral”, Erol reflects on the beginnings of the sessions. “He showed us how the organ could sound and he played for ten minutes and the sounds were coming from everywhere and it was almost like a holy experience or something was just like, it blew our minds. And I thought, I want to have something like this in the music as well.” And as he goes back in reminiscence, the spirit of these nights resurface in a vivid manner:
“It’s really epic when you go in there, you know, it’s just big and everything’s so huge and you have all these pictures at the wall and this long history. And we had this on the one side of the extremes and the other one was just, we wanted to build paths that are really intimate, where you feel like maybe you aren’t even in that place, just for like maybe twenty seconds later, you’re there again by using some sort of effect or whatever to make the room live again.” (Erol Sarp)
The room does feel alive after talking to Grandbrothers and if you take the time to immerse into Late Reflections you might feel the vast space too, taking hold of you with the sounds echoing back and forth, from one corner into the other. Music never takes place in isolation from its context, that might be one of the clues after this talk, and even if it happens in a seemingly empty space, it necessarily transforms and reflects the surrounding circumstances.