The list of non-classical albums recorded in sacred spaces is small, but it’s led to some impressive sounds over the years. (Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Sessions is a particular favorite.) Grandbrothers, the duo of Erol Sarp and Lukas Vogel, recently created their own entry in that category with their new album Late Reflections. Recorded in the Cologne Cathedral, the album takes use of the space’s unique sound to create something vast and immersive. I spoke with the duo about the process that led to the making of the album and the challenges they faced along the way.
Was Last Reflections the first time you wrote music inspired by a place, or had you done so beforehand?
Yes, it was! We got invited to play a concert at the Cologne Cathedral that took place in August of 2022 and we wanted to write new music for this occasion and especially for this room. It was really cool to have a real conceptual context for the first time, because previously we would rather collect ideas and songs until we felt that we had an album. This time there was always this big concert that also set a timeframe with a definite deadline. And although it may sound that it put a lot of pressure on this whole thing, it actually was really relieving. And the room itself was so inspiring that throughout the whole process we felt nothing but joy and inspiration working on the compositions.
Concert series like Wordless Music and Ambient Church have found a wide audience in using sacred spaces for live performances of ambient and minimalist music. Do you think that things like that series, as well as Late Reflections, says something about contemporary music — or about art and culture overall?
What we have learned is that huge spaces, especially churches or even cathedrals, have a huge impact on the overall sound and the way that you would approach something like this. One thing is to be working with effects and audio plugins that can emulate the realness of such a room really, really well. And we did that while we were writing the music as well, as we couldn’t write the music there. It definitely helped a lot to get an impression on how everything could sound like in the end. But it’s another thing to be actually working inside that room and not just soaking in the absolute reality of the way the sound behaves in there, but also the total package. The optical impressions, the smells, the exhaustion that is created when you have to walk from point A to B and therefore have to take several stairs and do around 1000 steps each time.
And also on an emotional level there is something to it. I wouldn’t say that it was a sacred experience, but we knew that something magical was happening there for us. Something that we will probably be doing only once in our lives and that made all the tiredness and sheer fatigue go away easily.
What were the most daunting practical elements of recording an album in a cathedral?
A cathedral is something that we would describe as the most impractical place to record an album in. There is nothing. Only power sockets. And tables and chairs. Everything else had to be brought by us there. And since we decided we want to use a various amount of microphones, some of them at a height of twenty meters, some of them in the very last corner of the room, we knew that it would also take a lot of time to set everything up and down every night. Because the cathedral was opened for visitors during the day. We could only work there at night, so we had to somehow adapt our night-day-rhythm. Also we brought a grand piano there which needed regular tuning as such an instrument always needs some time to acclimate in a new room. Luckily it wasn’t as bad as we expected so the tuning was really reliable. But there were no real downsides, everything worked out perfectly in the end. Really, really good times!
Besides the space, did recording Late Reflections differ from your usual process in any other ways?
Not really – before we would finish writing all the songs and then record them at a studio. And we did the same thing here except for we couldn’t really expect that everything would work out so smoothely in the end. What definitely helped a lot that we had a bigger team than usual. We worked with Francesco Donadello (has worked with Hildur Guðnadóttir or Jóhann Jóhannsson on several soundtracks) who was of great, great help and Paul Corley (who works a lot with Sigur Ros or Ben Frost) who mixed the album and has brought a lot of ideas into this project. Also Jannis Carbotta who is a student from the same institute that we studied at and was really important to have all these people around us. It made things much easier!
In the announcement of this album, you mentioned that there were challenges when it came to writing music to be recorded at Cologne Cathedral?
Yeah. We noticed that we had to adapt to the size of the place. It has a reverberation time of approximately 13 seconds and we knew that we had to dial down the tempo/bpm and couldn’t just to 4 to the floor bass drums or make things too dense.We had to take into account that things could get too washy and blurry when the chords change too quickly or if we have basslines that are too fast. And at some point we realized that we would have to change our approach a bit. Because originally we thought we would go there for a few nights and perform the songs and record them. And after several talks with Paul and Francesco we decided that we do it in a rather produced way, recording all the elements that we wanted separately, not at once so that in the mix we would have the opportunity to treat each sound individually and see how much of reverb we want to put onto it.
Were there specific parts of the cathedral that turned out to be better acoustically for different elements of the album?
It was definitely important for example where we would put the piano. The initial plan, placing it around the altar, had to be changed as we noticed that at this very point there was a first reflection, some kind of slapback echo coming from the ceiling that would ruin the recordings. So we moved it it to one of the side aisles where it worked perfectly. Then it was a huge question where to put the microphones for that. Unfortunately, but also luckily, we didn’t have all the time in the world and needed quick decisions. It would have taken too long if we would have walked accross the whole room and hear what it sounded like there so we trusted our and especially Francesco’s guts and placed them where we thought they would sound nice. As this place is soooo (!) huge, there would have been millions of possibilities to do it. Looking back, we can say that we are really happy with the choices we made.
Has the process of writing this album had an impact on the music you’ve written since then?
Indeed! We now have the impulse response of the room, meaning that we can use the Cathedral as a Plugin. It’s not the real thing, but it gets really, really close and just sounds … heavenly 🙂 Directly after the concert we started working on a series for french television and have used this Plugin as our go-to-reverb preset. Works perfectly every time!
Photo: Dan Medhurst