Part classical, part jazz. The Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra is a pillar of the Berlin scene. This 18-strong ensemble, made up of a range of nationalities and backgrounds, has been pushing the boundaries of contemporary music since 2006. We caught up with violinist Grégoire Simon ahead of the upcoming virtual Kosmostage festival, put together by his orchestra, to get to the bottom of what makes this distinctly Berlin institution tick.
The Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra always seems to defy description. What does it mean to you?
That’s tricky because the Andromeda is such a special combo. I guess you could call it an orchestra with the spirit of a band. It’s made up of 18 different musicians from different backgrounds and around half of them studied classical music. The other half are more jazz, but each plays in very different contexts. I think part of what makes the group so special is that Daniel Glatzel, our conductor, can make everything happen together.
How does it differ from playing in a traditional orchestra?
It’s very organic and you feel freer because we only play compositions written specifically for the orchestra. But there is always also a space for improvisation, and since Daniel knows us so well, he knows how to write for us. Because of that, we have evolved together over the years. There is a lot of human history in the group, too, and that’s special.
Where does Andromeda fit in the music scene?
We have played in the contemporary music scene, but sometimes we’re limited by the genre. We play chords that don’t belong in contemporary and sounds that feel more at home at jazz festivals. That’s probably where we play the most. Sometimes, Andromeda is just too out-there for the jazz purists and too jazzy for contemporary.
We’re lucky that Berlin is such an open-minded city and that, in general, the audience is very mixed. We have all had the experience playing without boundaries. Here, we can say whatever we want and it’s all open. It can be surprising, which is one of the parameters that help us to create.
Do you enjoy surprising people?
Totally. That’s the aim of making art and music, and that’s also what I get to create for myself. I quit the classical scene because it’s hard to make something really alive and surprising there. Contemporary music is more open and you have to have an open mind about every piece. My generation, the generation of composers in the online age, all grew up with not only classical music, but electronic music and pop rock, and that’s always something that opens doors to the unknown.
Is there a rebellious streak to Andromeda?
Rebellious is the wrong word. I think that whenever you do something, the simple fact that this music has been produced means that it is something that is out of your control. So, you can’t label it, and that’s the freedom we create in the art. We also spoke a lot about freedom. But this is an orchestra, and that requires a lot of discipline. The compositions are quite complex and we work a lot.
We actually work on the pieces more than the average contemporary music group, and, over the years, those pieces only grow in detail. It’s not just about everything exploding all the time and being spontaneous.
Tell me about the Kosmostage festival.
It is the story of individuals becoming a collective and becoming a sort of being in itself. The motto of the festival is “swarm intelligence”. It’s about how we react to each other and, for the last part of the festival that I’m leading and composing, it’s about creating this trance dance. Really, the festival’s core is the question of the group and the individual and looking for the balance in between.
What kind of sounds can we expect at the festival?
The Kosmostage festival is also kind of like our home. That’s where we create our space. We curate the whole program and that lets us experiment even more. In the festival’s Cosmic Swarm Laboratory, we have created an interactive sound installation. Swiss musician Thomas Peter has programmed an algorithm which controls a modular synthesiser responding to acoustic changes and what’s physically happening in the room.
And as we play, the ensembles have to spontaneously deal with the installation. In half an hour you will have a piece by the violin player, and then go straight into a sonata by Schubert, and then an ambient trance improvisation with a loop station and a flute. The idea is to have different ideas that you have to put together. You’re always searching for something and that gives you positive energy. It can take you further into your imagination.
What boundaries do you face trying to create an online festival?
Of course, to be honest, we would have preferred to play to an audience. When we have an audience, we have more energy to react to and interact with, but now that it’s not possible, we accept it and we find new ways to create. Before we committed to the online edition, we had to ask the question of whether we were compromising. Is it still something that we want to do? And the answer is definitely: yes.
One solution was to reduce the time of the concerts to 30 minutes so that it’ll be more compact. Another is that there is a very strong visual component. It won’t be a static feed, and there will be zooming and slow motion and it will feel very alive. Then, there’s the question of how we can create energy in the video, and that’s where we really have to live up to this idea of becoming a being, all of our own creation.
In practice, how does that work with 18 different people?
You know, I think that’s the biggest challenge. There are some pieces in our repertoire that are totally written. That means Daniel did the composition, the energy curves and the form. There are also pieces that are more open. It’s not linear and that’s the way that we always wanted to work.
How do you create a trance?
For me, where it gets interesting is when you get out of yourself and when you lose the band. That’s the constant state of being one. You can have it with meditation or you can have it when you go out to a nightclub. You dance and, you know, for some people, drugs can help. For others, not. There is this dynamic that you can only achieve with group interaction. It’s a very specific feeling and, for me, it’s very important. So when you write music, or think about music, it’s really about the super-fine tuning. Where to leave space for liberty, and when to keep some form. You know, something like a swarm.
Kosmostage IV – Interstellar Waggle Crush will take place between April 27 – 29 at radialsystem.de