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

“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 late on a Monday evening. Effortlessly urbane, he is a one-man anecdote machine. In the five minutes since he appeared on my screen, he has regaled me with a story about a late 1960s mission to retrieve his wandering cat, which led to him being mistaken for a burglar by his disgruntled neighbour, the fruity-voiced thespian Derek Nimmo. He has raved about a recent foray to the home of Samuel Pepys, and told me wistfully about the luncheon he has attended that very afternoon at the Heddon Street pop-up shop dedicated to the work of David Bowie, his most celebrated musical collaborator. 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 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 practise, 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 gathered here online today to discuss ‘Stylophonika’, an album by the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra – the unlikely ensemble founded in 2019 by Australian-born Kardos, who is a senior music lecturer at London’s leafiest academic outpost. 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 service provider in 1998 but, as ever, her idol was ahead of the curve, and 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 rein yourself in from saying, “TELL ME ABOUT ‘THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD’!!!” every 10 minutes? I would. 

“She doesn’t rein herself in!” chuckles Visconti. “She’s what David would call a ‘superfan’. When I met her, she and her mates 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 was a high-profile exponent of the Stylophone’s charms. ‘Space Oddity’, which landed only a year after the instrument’s launch, featured gloriously buzzy glissandos. Some 33 years later, he used it again on ‘Slip Away’, a tribute to US entertainer Uncle Floyd, from his 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, that’s him playing the Stylophone. Who could know it would mix with a professional string section, with 300-year-old instruments? 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 confidant for over five decades. But no, we’re here to talk about The Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra, the 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 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 arrangements of popular chart hits in extracurricular rehearsals, and the orchestra’s breakthrough moment came with a 2019 recording session to re-create ‘Space Oddity’ for a full Stylophone ensemble. Visconti, who famously declined to produce the original 1969 track, 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 concedes. “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 the September for the 50th anniversary of the song. Tony got us to perform acoustically, with microphones above us, so we weren’t plugged into anything.” 

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

Kardos nods in agreement.

“I remember you putting us through our paces,” she says. “Some of the students hadn’t been used to that kind of discipline before, so it was really great for us. That day was pivotal. I realised 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. Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygène (Part IV)’ 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 obviously comes via Wendy Carlos and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. 

The lifting of lockdown 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 Seth Brundle, hapless protagonist of horror flick classic ‘The Fly’) and a haunting, choral tribute ‘Olancha Goodbye (For Harold Budd)’. 

“Many of the students drawn to the orchestra are really into early electronica,” she explains. “And in a historical sense, because most of them were only born in the 1990s! So when Harold Budd died, it was a big deal for them. Budd’s practice had 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 is beautifully arranged and performed. The inventiveness of both Visconti and Kardos and the analogue ambience of the Visconti Studio lend the recordings a genuine warmth – a touching throwback to the days of eggbox-clad walls and the gentle clanking of rotating reels. 

There’s a legacy here. Kardos talks of her intent to preserve 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 some of the orchestra stalwarts. She duly obliges, and the volunteers weave a delightful tapestry of memories, snapshots of genuinely transformative moments with both producers. 

Take Ershad Alamgir. Before studying Music Technology at Kingston, he had a background in singing 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 Leah’s interest in David Bowie. She’s fanatical about him and it’s really infectious. She said she was planning something connected to Stylophones because Bowie had used one. Before that, I hadn’t even seen one. Secondly, I went to a rehearsal and she attached it to some effects units. I’d been thinking, ‘Can I actually 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 drone suddenly became pretty cool.” 

Zuzanna Wężyk is equally animated. 

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

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 with 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 is the Harold Budd aficionado.

“I dabbled with synthesisers 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 unreserved in his praise for Kardos’ drive.

“She doesn’t get the credit that 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 be smiling! I’ve never known anyone work so hard.” 

As they were during the 2020 lockdown, the group are scattered once again. 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 has stayed in Kingston, where he has 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 proposed follow-up. 

And Leah Kardos? Underrated? Criminally so. In the last decade she’s recorded five long-players. They’re an immaculate potpourri of electronic, classical and modern jazz influences, a cocktail at its most potent on 2017’s beguiling ‘Rococochet’ and its 2020 companion piece, ‘Bird Rib’. In addition, 2022 sees the publication of ‘Blackstar Theory: The Last Works Of David Bowie’, her book about her musical hero’s final salvo. I revisit our chat and its constant Bowie-related detours. Did she ever swap notes with the man himself? 

“I did once get an email from him,” she discloses 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 Tony Visconti has gone even further. In a Facebook post from December 2019, he described Kardos as “a visionary in the Bowie tradition”. An exceptional tribute, which was made in the immediate afterglow of the Stylophone Orchestra’s contribution to his forthcoming solo album, the follow-up to 2019’s ‘It’s A Selfie’. 

“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 out on Spun Out Of Control

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