Have you ever played on a Stylophone? Hell, do you know what a Stylophone even is? If you don’t, it’s this small, black bar with a stylus attached to it that acts as a sort of pocket keyboard. Its sound is that of a micro theremin; ghostly, but lo fi. I imagine that if I’d asked for a keyboard when I was 8-years old my dad would have wrapped up a Stylophone and put it under the Christmas tree for me. Just for laughs.
But Dr. Leah Kardos, a lecturer in the Performing Arts Program at Kingston University found nothing funny about the Stylophone, so much so that she put together the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra. After Visconti Studio(located at Kingston University) was gifted new and vintage instruments from Dubreq(the maker of the Stylophone) Kardos got the idea to put together an ensemble. This ensemble is made up of students at the University, and Kardos wanted to see if they could make something of all these Stylophones.
The new album Stylophonika is proof that they indeed did make something of it.
Produced by Kardos, along with legendary producer Tony Visconti producing one track, Stylophonika is a mixture of original compositions as well as some classic covers. It’s an imaginative and joyous collection of songs and sounds that prove one Stylophone may be a toy, but an orchestra of Stylophones is, well, inspiring.
The Stylophone brings a sci fi quality to whatever it compliments, and in the wrong hands might come off as cheeky. But on Stylophonika it becomes joyous, melancholy, and incredibly emotive. On the Orchestra’s cover of Wendy Carlos’ “Music For The Funeral of Queen Mary(A Clockwork Orange)” it’s apparent this instrument is not a child’s toy. It brings as much emotional depth and baroque quality as Klaus Schulze and Carlos herself. It’s quite stunning, honestly. With Bowie’s “Space Oddity”(produced by Tony Visconti), voices add a depth and emotional heft to the proceedings that honestly gave me chills. The Stylophone works well as a stand-in mellotron. And really, if Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra hadn’t coverd Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene(Part 4)” I think a great opportunity would have been lost. They did cover it and it’s absolutely breath taking.
The covers here are amazing, and I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention that Vangelis’ “Blade Runner Theme(End Titles)” gets the Stylophone treatment. It’s as if Blade Runner were originally a classic NES game; a compact, epic 8-bit symphony of sound. But there are some truly incredible original compositions composed by Leah Kardos. There’s the slinky “Brundle Beat” that sounds like a cross between early Moody Blues and a Disasterpeace video game score. Then there’s the exquisite and masterful “Olancha Goodbye(For Harold Budd)”, an ode to the avante garde and one of a kind composer Harold Budd who passed away in 2020. About this musical tribute, label Spun Out Of Control explained, “Reacting to the passing of ambient music legend Harold Budd in December 2020, the orchestra created its tribute ‘Olancha Farewell’, blending voices and synthesisers within the long acoustics and plate reverbs of Visconti Studio – and re-amplifying the music through the resonant soundboards of the studio’s concert grand pianos – to create something fittingly elegiac.”
I’ve not heard anything quite like Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra’s Stylophonika. There’s something quite emotional and overwhelming in this selection of tracks – both in the interpretations of Carlos, Vangelis, Jarre, Eno, and Bowie – as well as the masterfully-composed original pieces. This album is a stunning display of imagination, community, and open-hearted musical art.
8.6 out of 10
Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra’s ‘Stylophonika’ will be released 1/28/22. Preorder it digtally or on Cosmic Swirl vinyl here.