In a studio in northeast Minneapolis, Channy Leaneagh balanced a microphone on her fingertips.
To her right: members of her band Poliça, surrounded by winding cords. To her left: musicians with violins, a flute and a French horn, surrounded by sheet music.
“Can we try that outro again?” someone asked.
The Tuesday afternoon rehearsal hinted at the answer to a question posed two years ago: What would happen if Minneapolis synthpop band Poliça met Stargaze, a daring orchestral group from Berlin?
In its fifth year, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music concert series has become known for risk-taking and genre-mashing. But this match — spanning two years and continents — might be its most ambitious yet. It culminates Friday with a concert at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and marks the first Stargaze performance in the United States.
No one knew whether these two groups would get along. But Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music’s curator, “had a feeling they would see eye to eye somehow.”
Two years and several visits to Berlin later, Poliça and Stargaze can’t seem to stop writing, even to prepare for Friday’s show.
“We were just arguing at the dinner table about what music we’re going to add,” Leaneagh said by phone Monday. “It’s this feeling of wanting to make more music with these people … who are not just down the street.
“When we’re both in the same city, we want to take advantage of it.”
In the beginning, the musicians knew they were embarking on a “virtual residency,” with most back-and-forth occurring online.
Leaneagh worried that they’d be writing via e-mail, rehearsing via Skype. And there was some of that. In the early months, Poliça producer Ryan Olson sent demos and ideas to André de Ridder, Stargaze’s leader and a European conductor.
But the groups got together, too, creating most of their material in person over long, intense sessions. Last spring, De Ridder spent time at Leaneagh and Olson’s home in Minneapolis, and “there was a connection that was personal and comfortable,” Leaneagh said. When Poliça toured Europe, they paused in Berlin, hashing out ideas.
“They wanted us to be equal partners — in other words, not just an ensemble who might deliver beautiful string quartet arrangements to go with one of their songs,” De Ridder said in a Liquid Music podcast. “They have a sound, and we have a sound, so we’re trying to now approach each other to see how there might be an amalgam of those sounds.
“Or actually, what might happen is that we might create a completely new sound together.”
Then, in late September, the two groups reconnected during a nameless musical festival in the former East Berlin dreamed up by Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver, Olson and Stargaze, among others. For a week, dozens of musicians wrote, recorded and performed at Funkhaus, a huge, formerly state-owned radio studio complex, staying together at the nearby Michelberger Hotel.
Poliça and Stargaze rehearsed each day, with Olson and De Ridder trading leadership roles. They played a handful of songs for an audience, testing vocal effects and arrangements.
“It really did feel like band camp,” Leaneagh said, “where you presented what you learned over the week to a group of people who also didn’t know what they were getting into.”
By the end, the festival had an unofficial name: Nameless, Endless. And Poliça and Stargaze had their own: Poligaze.
The project is an experiment, the first “virtual residency” Liquid Music has ever done. Nordstrum, the series’ curator, had worked with Leaneagh and met with De Ridder, who is known for conducting international orchestras, including the London Sinfonietta. Once a concert date was set, the musicians agreed to report back, allowing Liquid Music’s audience to peek in at the process.
“The early agreement was that they’d allow as much to be seen as possible,” said Nordstrum, the SPCO’s executive producer of special projects. “That vulnerability is really admirable, especially when work is not in its perfect form.”
Leaneagh and De Ridder shared their hopes for the project on podcasts. They played snippets of new work at the Fitzgerald Theater last spring. Drew Christopherson, one of Poliça’s two drummers, wrote about their first week together in Berlin in July.
“The way the members of Stargaze discuss music is totally foreign to me,” he said then, “and I loved to hear them talk through an idea, section or whole song, discuss a few changes, and then execute those changes effortlessly and flawlessly.” They ended the week with a cookout, Christopherson wrote, “listening to records deep into the night.”
The experience, he said, was thrilling.
With De Ridder leading on violin, Stargaze varies its size and makeup from project to project, from “The Revenant” soundtrack to a record with the experimental rock band Deerhoof. With Poliça, strings and flutes sing alongside Leaneagh, whose flitting but forceful voice is coated in effects.
“Melodically, [the songs] are very sweet,” Leaneagh said. Some lyrics are less so.
The project’s title, “Music for the Long Emergency,” refers to a book by James Howard Kunstler, “The Long Emergency,” which predicts that the world’s dependence on cheap oil will lead to a future of starvation and civil unrest. “Anyone who is awake on this earth can feel the days and nights are full of emergencies,” Leaneagh explained by email.
At one point, she sings: “No bridges over water. Talking on sadness. Seeped in deep, my madness.”
In a backroom of the studio Tuesday, Nordstrum and Stargaze’s production manager, Merle Scheske, talked about what it was like to witness the two groups coming together. Scheske, who has been with Stargaze since its start in 2013, admitted that on that first day in July, she had no idea what would result.
But when she returned four days later, she thought “Omigod, it really turned into something,” Scheske said. Months later, after the Funkhaus show, she witnessed both musicians and crowd members crying, she said. “Afterward, I knew that we’re going to take over the world with this project.”
Scheske and Nordstrum laughed, heads tilted toward each other.
“It’s not Poliça, and it’s not Stargaze,” Scheske continued. “It’s like a new band.”
She turned back to Nordstrum: “You formed a new band!”