Leah Kardos, Tony Visconti and Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra

(First published in Electronic Sound Magazine #85, January 2022)

THE STYLE COUNCIL

Take legendary producer Tony Visconti, Bowie-obsessed academic Dr Leah Kardos, and a car boot filled with vintage Stylophones. The result? The Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra, and an album bursting with buzzy delights


Words: Bob Fischer

“I am an early Stylophone nerd!” confesses Tony Visconti, with a wry smile. “I went out and bought one immediately, and so did David. We just looked at each other and said ‘We gotta get it’…”

The legendary producer is positively glowing with bonhomie, even at 9.35pm on a Monday. He is effortlessly urbane, a one-man anecdote machine. In the five minutes since his Zoom window popped into life, he has regaled me with a story about his late 1960s mission to retrieve his wandering cat, ultimately being mistaken for a burglar by his disgruntled neighbour: fruity-voiced thespian, Derek Nimmo. He has enthused about a recent foray to the home of Samuel Pepys, and tells me wistfully about the luncheon he has attended that very afternoon: a gathering at the Heddon Street pop-up shop dedicated to the work of his most celebrated musical collaborator, David Bowie.

Who is, of course, the aforementioned “David”. His comrade in early Stylophone fandom.

Oh yeah, Stylophones…

“I was so surprised when I first plugged it into the studio console and listened to it on big speakers,” he continues. “It was really quite a fat sound. And then, as soon they invented the big Stylophone…”

“The 350S?” chips in Leah Kardos, from the adjacent Zoom window. 

“Yeah, the 350S. With multiple octaves and vibratos and different waveforms. That was really a turn-on. It’s a fun toy, and yet it’s very musical. If you don’t have much inclination to practice, it’s the perfect instrument. I don’t know if there are any Stylophone virtuosos yet, or if there are any concertos for Stylophone… but Leah will probably write one.”

Funny he should mention that. We’re here to discuss Stylophonika, an album recorded by the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra. Australian-born Kardos – a senior music lecturer at London’s leafiest academic outpost – founded this unlikely ensemble in 2019. Three years earlier, she had persuaded her favourite producer to lend his name and considerable expertise to the university’s expansive new recording facility. Unsurprisingly, the Visconti Studio has become the orchestra’s spiritual home.

“We met on BowieNet!” says Kardos, a self-confessed Bowie obsessive. Not many rock superstars were launching their own Internet Provider in 1998, but – as ever – her idol was ahead of the curve. The service became a hub for his tech-savvy fanbase.

“I would travel around with the fans, and Tony would be so gracious to hang with us in New York and London,” she continues. “I was a kid… 19 or 20. And I recall saying ‘One day, if I become a music lecturer, I’ll invite you to be a guest speaker at my school’. I’d always had that in mind, so to actually have Tony working at the university, and to be able to call him a colleague, is really quite mind-blowing and surreal.”

I’ll bet. Don’t you have to reign yourself in from saying “TELL ME ABOUT THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD!!!” every ten minutes? I would.

“She doesn’t reign herself in!” chuckles Visconti. “She’s what David would call a ‘Superfan’. When I met her, she and her friends from BowieNet were standing on a street corner in New York. I made a few good friends, and Leah was one of the bright ones who was nice to talk to.”

Bowie, of course, was a high-profile exponent of the Stylophone’s fizzy charms. 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, recorded only a year after the instrument’s launch, featured gloriously buzzy glissandos. 33 years later, he used it again: on ‘Slip Away’, a tribute to US kids’ entertainer Uncle Floyd, included on his acclaimed 2002 album Heathen. Visconti beams at the memory.

“I said ‘David… if you play this over the first violin part, it’s going to be a lovely sound’,” he recalls. “And if you listen to the chorus of that song, that’s him playing the Stylophone. Who could know that it would mix with a professional string section, with instruments that are 300 years old? So the Stylophone has great potential, you just have to be creative with it. It’s capable of doing many extraordinary things if you put your mind to it.”  

It’s so easy to get sucked down a delirious Bowie wormhole. We’re all huge fans. Not least the man lucky enough to be his friend and confidante for over five decades. Focus, I tell myself. Talk about The Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra. An ensemble formed when Stylophone manufacturers Dubreq arranged an interview with Visconti at the studio that bears his name.

“They came to Kingston to interview him, and I was invited to say hello,” remembers Kardos. “They rocked up with a car boot full of Stylophones, and I was just enraptured. I’d played one in the past, but I’d never seriously thought about them. But seeing so many of them in one place… I just thought ‘We should start an orchestra’. It surprised me that it hadn’t been done before.”

She recruited students to perform buzzy arrangements of popular chart hits in extra-curricular rehearsals, and the Orchestra’s breakthrough moment came with a 2019 recording session to re-create ‘Space Oddity’ for full Stylophone ensemble. Visconti – who famously declined to produce the 1969 original – this time agreed to oversee proceedings.  

I like to think I helped…” he smiles, modestly. Kardos is more effusive about his contribution.

“We didn’t really know what our sound was,” she admits. “I’d tried to massage it, so I was feeding the orchestra into a row of pre-amps and it all became very ambient and spatial. We did a few gigs like that and it was fine, but then… we did the ‘Space Oddity’ session with Tony in September that year, for the 50th anniversary of the song. And Tony got us to perform acoustically, with microphones above us. So we weren’t plugged into anything, and we weren’t changing our sound.”

“Moving the microphones was essential,” adds Visconti. “There were so many people, we had to get a big sound”.

Kardos nods in agreement.

“I remember you really putting us through our paces,” she says. “I don’t think some of them had been used to that kind of discipline before, so it was really great for us.

“That day was pivotal. I realised that the sound of the Stylophone wasn’t something to be masked, it was quite beautiful in its own right.”

The ensuing album began as a lockdown project, with orchestra members – now dotted around the globe – recording remotely, and Kardos herself assuming the producer’s chair. Initially, it was a covers exercise: ‘Oxygene, Pt 4’ is there, along with Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’. There’s a crack at Vangelis’ closing theme from Blade Runner, and a version of Purcell’s ‘Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary’ that comes – of course – via Wendy Carlos and A Clockwork Orange.

But the lifting of COVID restrictions seemed to infuse the ensemble with the confidence to expand in bolder directions. Regrouping in the Visconti Studio in March 2021, the covers were augmented by original compositions of tantalising potential. Polish MA student Zuzanna Wężyk contributes the hypnotic ‘Akoustiki’. Kardos herself brings the anthemic ‘Brundle Beat’ (named after Dr Seth Brundle, hapless protagonist of horror flick The Fly) and ‘Olancha Goodbye’, a haunting, choral tribute to Harold Budd.

“A lot of students drawn to the orchestra are really into early electronica,” she explains. “In a historical sense, because most of them were born in the 1990s! So when Harold Budd died, it was a big deal for them.

“Also… Budd’s legacy has a lot to do with the piano, and the Visconti Studio has so many pianos. We recorded the voices and Stylophones together, so they’d hold the Stylophones to their chests, then sing into the microphone while playing the same note. Once we’d put that together, we opened up the Steinway piano, played those recordings through a speaker underneath it, and got someone from the orchestra to hold down the sustain pedal so all the strings resonated. It just felt ghostly…”

In the days following our chat, I listen to the album repeatedly. And it begins to take on new depth, new resonance. What initially felt like a charming novelty becomes something more profound. It’s beautifully arranged and performed. And the inventiveness of both Visconti and Kardos – and the analogue ambience of the Visconti Studio – lends the recordings a genuine warmth; a touching throwback to the days of eggbox-clad walls and the gentle clank of rotating reels. There’s a legacy here. Kardos talks of her intent to preserve these ancient folk rituals, and the same clearly applies to her enthusiasm for the Stylophone. Inheriting her passion for this most primitive of synths from her mentor Visconti, she’s passing it onto a generation born in the era of Britpop and Blair.

I want to hear from them, and I ask if she can hook me up with a handful of orchestra stalwarts. The resulting volunteers weave a delightful tapestry of memories: snapshots of genuinely transformative moments with both producers. Before studying Music Technology at Kingston, Ershad Alamgir had a background as a singer of Indian classical music, and drew on this experience as principal vocalist on ‘Space Oddity’. 

“I was never into electronic music myself,” he admits. “But then two things happened. One was David Bowie… Leah’s interest! She’s fanatical about him, and that’s really infectious. She said she was planning something connected to Stylophones, because Bowie had used one. Before that, I hadn’t even seen the instrument.

“Secondly, I went to a rehearsal and she attached it to some effects units. Before that, I’d been thinking ‘Can I really see myself doing this? What might people think?’ But that changed totally…”

Cian Ryan-Morgan was also there from the start.

“Leah was one of my favourite lecturers,” he explains. “And, at the end of one lecture, she said ‘We’re going to meet in an hour and talk about this thing’. And it was just wacky enough to make me curious.”

Temporarily eschewing an alarming passion for death metal, he eventually mixed the resulting album.  

“In the beginning, there were very few of us. But she taught us to perform with the Stylophone. It’s meant to be a kids’ toy, but she said ‘If you hold it this way, you can put a finger on the volume button and ride it expressively.’ So we worked as a group to get the polyphony across. The chorus and the swelling. When everyone got it right for the first time, it was ‘Oh wow – this kind of works’. That emotionless buzz suddenly became pretty cool.”

Zuzanna Wężyk is with us, too – and is equally effusive.

“When the orchestra started, I didn’t have time to join,” she admits. “But a few months later, I saw them in concert and thought ‘I want to be a member!’ I was inspired.”

Inspired enough to compose the album’s opener? She nods.

“Leah asked if anyone had ideas for original tracks. And I was playing at the organ… like the Stylophone, it’s a quirky instrument in a positive way! I started to play the main motif of ‘Akoustiki’, and was singing along. It was just a one-minute recording on my phone, but I sent it to the group, and they liked it. So I transcribed it, actually putting the notation down as a musical score. Like Mozart would have done! Then Leah arranged and produced it, and created amazing sounds and vibes.”

Louis Bartell, meanwhile, is the aforementioned Harold Budd aficionado.  

“I dabbled with synthesizers as a kid,” he explains. “My Dad was massively into Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, and I fiddled around with a crappy little Yamaha. I knew of Harold Budd through Brian Eno… and I’m a big Cocteau Twins fan too, so I’d heard his work through his collaborations with them, and I fell in love with it.”  

Like all his fellow orchestra members, he is fulsome in his praise for Kardos’ drive.  

“She doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” he insists. “She’s really underrated as an artist. I’m bewildered as to how she can have so many things on the go… and still put on a smile! I’ve never known anyone work so hard.”

As during 2020 lockdown, they are scattered. Bartell speaks to me from Charing Cross station, dashing to buy a birthday card for his grandmother. Wężyk is back home in Gdańsk, performing as a classical guitarist. Ryan-Morgan is in Brighton, with a stack of Marshall amps behind him. Only Alamgir remains in Kingston, in a home studio festooned with vintage guitars. But they remain united by their passion for the Stylophone Orchestra, and all express their determination to contribute to a mooted follow-up album.

And Kardos? Underrated? Criminally so. In the last decade she has recorded five albums. They’re an immaculate pot pourri of electronic, classical and modern jazz influences, a cocktail at its most potent on 2019’s beguiling Rococochet and its 2020 companion piece, Bird Rib. In addition, 2022 sees the publication of Blackstar Theory, her book about her musical hero’s final salvo of recordings. I return to our Zoom chat, and its constant Bowie-related sidetracks. Did she ever swap notes with the man himself?

“I did once get an e-mail from him,” she admits, bashfully. “When I did my PhD, I was making lots of experimental music, including a project that used Bowie samples. His press agent Mark Adams sent it to him, and there was… some feedback.”

Go on, then. Don’t hold back on my account. 

“It was ‘This is really interesting… she’s one to watch’,” she blushes. “Which was forwarded to me, to make my life complete. Everyone was very kind to the Superfan.”

She sounds incredibly embarrassed, but Visconti has gone even further. In a Facebook post dated December 2019, he described Kardos as “a visionary in the Bowie tradition”. An extraordinary tribute, made in the immediate afterglow of the Stylophone Orchestra’s contribution to his still-forthcoming solo album.

“It sounded so good,” he enthuses, at the end of our conversation. “Let there be Stylophones!”

The legacy continues… with an unmistakable buzz.

Stylophonika is available here:

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/stylophonika

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” –is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Support the Haunted Generation website with a Ko-fi donation… thanks!

https://ko-fi.com/hauntedgen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s