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Beat Construction: Antony and the Johnsons

photographer Marije Kuiper

This story will appear in FADER #81, on stands later this month. Antony and the Johnsons' Cut the World is out today via Secretly Canadian and Ruff Trade.

From otherworldly to orchestral.

It’s a little surprising—given that he’s just collaborated with world-renowned composers and released a lush, exquisitely arranged live album with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra—to hear Antony Hegarty confess that he can’t read music. Raised “on a diet of pop, jazz and a little bit of blues,” he taught himself keyboard by playing along with the radio as a kid, and when he moved to New York in the late ’90s, his live performances contained little more than his spine-tingling, otherworldly voice accompanied by a cassette player blaring pre-recorded tracks. But after the release of Antony and the Johnsons’ Mercury Prize-winning 2005 record I Am A Bird Now, Nico Muhly, a well-regarded straddler of the pop and classical worlds, propositioned Hegarty to arrange his band’s work for symphony. Phoning from Amsterdam, Hegarty recalls, “suddenly these songs, though they’re still basically pop songs, they got to have these classical chops to them.”

Featuring work from all four Antony and the Johnsons LPs, Cut the World documents a series of live symphony performances the band played last year in Copenhagen and possesses an evocative grace that belies the challenge posed by putting it together. “In my twenties, when I started needing to describe music to other people, I started using the imagery I’d learned from my dance studies,” Hegarty explains, citing the avant-garde Japanese form Butoh as particular inspiration. This method served him well during the Cut the World sessions. “It’s really abstract and sometimes probably infuriating for classical musicians to understand what I’m talking about,” he says. “Because you’re trying to get people to play like a flock of flamingos or whatever.” Luckily, Muhly took the reins when the going got tough: “Nico just grabbed some songs and ran with them.” His elegant, flutteringly detailed arrangements for “Cripple and the Starfish” and “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” inflate the songs’ haunting macabre on an epic scale. “I was kind of blown away by it,” says Hegarty. “I could have never imagined the songs like that before.” But it was his work with longtime bandmates Maxim Moston and Rob Moose that felt most collaborative; Hegarty cites Moston’s arrangement of the “The Crying Light” as particularly noteworthy, falling back into that familiar, Butoh-esque lyricism when describing it: “It’s what I call the most ‘feral’ of all the arrangements. We had this idea to make it something akin to a cacophony of animals in the jungle.”

For Hegarty and longtime fans alike, the thrill of Cut the World is hearing the way the classical arrangements transform these familiar songs, some of which have survived the two-decade journey from their humble, cassette-player beginnings. “It’s really strange. I never thought when I wrote some of them that I would encounter them in so many different ways,” he says. “It’s been so touching to walk through my life with some of these songs.”

Stream: Antony and the Johnsons, Cut the World (via Life + Times)

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Beat Construction: Antony and the Johnsons