In an age of electronic instruments composer Glen Austin is breathing new life into popular hits with his ensemble aptly named ‘New Airs.’ From the beginning, Glen was raised in a home “where everyone listened to different types of music and I soaked it all up.” It developed a real eclectic taste in him that has continued to this day. “I grew up loving guitar music as a kid so I connected with groups like The Beatles and Thin Lizzy. When I started learning guitar Oasis was big at the time so I learned to play a lot of their songs. I discovered Led Zeppelin in my teens so they took up quite a lot of my listening and practice time! All that music is still with me and I enjoy listening to it now. As I became more interested in music I wanted to understand it more and through my music studies that led me to classical and orchestral music.”

Glen’s interests quickly developed beyond solo playing to arranging. “Once I learned how to play guitar I was improvising with everything I learned so I was writing songs and little riffs and instrumental pieces from my early teenage years. As I got more interested in music as a career I studied composition and arrangement together.” Some of Glen’s first compositions and arrangements were written as exercises for study but as he says, “It’s all a process of learning. I consider my version of the traditional Irish air ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ for string quartet, as being the first arrangement I wrote that is true to my own personal style. I wrote this for The Mountain Ash in Connemara which was collaboration with the Irish Poet Joan McBreen.” Listeners can hear the arrangement on the first New Airs album, a collection of instrumental arrangements of Irish popular and folk songs played by the RTE Contempo String Quartet. “At the time I felt that Irish rock and pop music had not been shown reimagined in a classical chamber ensemble setting so that’s why I focused on Irish artists and groups for the first CD collection,” Glen shares. “I also wanted to include a more contemporary element with the electronics and a traditional Irish element with the bodhran (a traditional Irish drum).  So the idea of setting new and old Irish airs in a different way led to the name New Airs.”

The idea was so intriguing that even after the album was completed, Glen looked for ways to continue the production experimenting with different instruments and a vocalist. He knew many of the instrumentalists already from other gigs and had met singer Rachel Voloczi in college. “Rachel Voloczi was the only choice as she is an incredible singer with the talent, skill, and consistency to record in a live recording setting. I also wanted the style to blur the lines between the classical and rock/pop genres further so I wanted a singer that could sing in a rock/folk style rather than the classical soprano type sound. Rachel is classically trained but she is also one of those rare singers that can sing in both styles exceptionally well so as an arranger and producer I am very happy to work with her.” As the group emerged their repertoire expanded to include music written by international artists and helped him form new relationships.  “One of the great joys of the production is working with such great musicians and getting to know new musicians also as the project grows.” Thanks to suggestions from the other musicians their list of suggested songs is “Quite long at this stage!”  Glen’s personal favorites are classic rock and pop from the 80’s “These songs are top of my list.”

One of the unique qualities about New Airs is that each track is recorded live in a different venue.  “The pop-up studio idea grew organically from the first New Airs album. I realized as I was editing it after the recording sessions that a lot of the sessions had their own magic and individual quality about them and choosing one take for each song was difficult. I had the idea about capturing the studio live experience outside of the room but with all the equipment. I wanted to turn the recording process on its head; take the equipment out of the studio, set up in a beautiful venue, get the musicians together and capture what they can do anywhere anytime.”

“One of the things I feel that is lost today with a lot of the new performers is the ability to play to a high standard in a live setting; to just do it and go with it. Classical musicians are trained to a very high level, with live performance being the ultimate showcase. Their performances are always very consistent and a lot of times the spark can be lost with the recording session. I find that sometimes more takes and rehearsals lose the character of the music, even in a show. I felt that one of the elements that is unique to classically trained musicians is the standard of performance; the difference between a live concert and studio recording can be minimal so I wanted to showcase this.”

Of course, preparing for one of these pop-up sessions takes time and commitment. “Firstly, there is the musical element; the arrangement itself is the most important thing. I like to spend a lot of time with the music and focus on the melody and setting for a long time. In addition to this, there is the scheduling with the musicians, logistical element and communication with the venue, it’s a pretty big task!”

When working on an arrangement, Glen tries to “reimagine the song and focus on what the melody is communicating both musically and lyrically” so that it’s more than just playing a popular piece with stringed instruments. “I like to completely change or include extra elements within the music. I approach it as a composition, where the melody is completed and now you have to turn it into a dialogue or develop it within the group.”

Glen is often also hired to create arrangements for other projects. “If I’m being hired I first ask what they are looking for from the arrangement and what it will be for, just so I have a context and idea what the music is for. After this, the arrangement process begins with simply listening to the song a lot and holding back on getting into the process of analyzing the melody, harmony etc. I think to arrange or produce a song properly you have to connect with it and get it on an emotional level and understand what is being communicated. After the listening process, I then choose instrumentation if that is not already decided upon by the group.”

As far as new music Glen teases us that there are “exciting collaborations on the way” but remains tight-lipped saying “I generally don’t like talking about things until they are done but what I can say is that we are very excited about the new recordings so watch this space!”

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