Last March, David Swatzell, Blake Wimberly and David Brown were invited to the Alys Stephens Center to see a collaborative performance by indie rock group Wye Oak, New York composer William Brittelle and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. The invitation was meant to see if the trio’s band, Wray, might be interested in a similar collaboration as part of the ASO’s Classical EDGE series.
“We definitely were,” says Wimberly.
Now, just shy of a year later, Wray are preparing to perform their own collaboration with Brittelle and the ASO on Thursday, Jan. 7. The concert follows a months-long writing collaboration between the band and Brittelle, who rearranged several of the band’s songs (including tracks from their upcoming release, Hypatia, due out Jan. 15 on the Communicating Vessels label) and co-wrote two original songs with the group. The resulting compositions maintain common elements with the band’s existing sound — a guitar-driven blend of dream pop, shoegaze and krautrock — while pushing it into unfamiliar, classically inspired territory. “We didn’t really want to do the standard Wray formula,” says Swatzell, the band’s guitarist. “We wanted to do something different.”
The band communicated with the Brooklyn-based Brittelle entirely through email and conference call, resulting in a creative process that Wimberly says was occasionally “difficult” to coordinate: “We were on two different — well, really, four different schedules, but one of them was a thousand miles away.”
Brittelle likens the back-and-forth process to a relay race. “We’re not going after the same thing that you’d be going after if you’re just sitting in the same room jamming together. It’s not something where the very generative ideas are collaborative. It’s more like someone will run the race to a certain mile marker [and then pass it off]. You create a certain amount of the piece and then you send it back and they take the baton and create more of it.”
“I imagine that if we did this 300 years ago, we’d just be mailing the material back and forth instead of emailing, but I don’t know if the process itself would have been that different,” he adds.
That fragmented process, Brittelle says, was useful during the creation of the performance’s two original songs. “There’s a longer piece called ‘Color Drones’ that I created the structure for and did a full orchestra draft and sent it to them and tried to leave room for their voice,” he says. “They put stuff on top of it and sent it back to me. And there was another piece called ‘Hedron’ that Wray put together and sent to me. They made a little practice room mock-up of it and sent it to me and then I orchestrated around that, and then I sent that back to them and they put more stuff on top of it. That was a really good way to work since their music is so full.”
Brittelle also drastically retooled a few of Wray’s existing songs; Hypatia’s title track was slowed down for the ASO, while the three-piece’s densely layered sound was distributed throughout various orchestral instruments. “He stripped out any kind of remotely complex guitar thing I would do,” Swatzell says. “Parts where I might go into a solo, the symphony takes over and is crazy. He kind of switches it around like that.”
But for some songs, such as “Blood Moon” from the band’s debut album, Brittelle’s changes were minimal. “[That’s] a song of theirs I really love,” Brittelle says. “I kept trying to put other things on top or trying to take things out that they were doing and it just didn’t feel right. The song was so great as-is, so I decided to just basically add a prelude and a coda onto it, using material from the song but leaving the song itself as-is.”
Mostly, though, the band’s music will be fully integrated with the orchestra. “We’ll be up there performing with the orchestra, but we’ll be kind of in and out of the song,” says Wimberly, contrasting the compositions with more traditional rock-classical hybrids such as Symphony and Metallica (a comparison Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner also made in her interview with Weld discussing last year’s collaboration with Brittelle). “It won’t be us just playing the music and them just backing us. We’ll be very much inside of what they’re doing or below it.”
Brittelle and the members of Wray agree that what will make the performance unique is the tension between the two disparate genres that gives the Classical EDGE series its name. “Really, we’re kind of speaking different languages,” Brittelle says. “I wanted to create a situation where [Wray] could do what they did best and what they really felt comfortable in doing, and where their parts could be looser and more fluid. Obviously, the orchestra doesn’t really do well with loose and fluid, since everybody has to play together. So a lot of it was about finding the balance between that.”
Brown, the band’s bassist and vocalist, notes the differences between the band’s typical shoegaze sound and the collaboration’s reimagined songs. “I think that’s what sets this performance apart from what we typically do in a rock venue,” he says. “There’s not as much layering of effects. Our volume will be a lot lower, which is not typical for us. I would say it’s actually very opposite from how you would define shoegaze.”
“Which is kind of the point,” Swatzell adds. “You can see us do what we do anytime.”
But Brown says he expects symphony fans and rock fans will find common ground with the performance. “I think people who are into shoegaze appreciate classical music and vice versa,” he says. “I think they are kind of hand-in-hand.”
Wray will perform their collaboration with William Brittelle and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra at the Alys Stephens Center on Thursday, Jan. 7. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16. For more information, visit alabamasymphony.org.