Orbiting Human Circus’ new album is called Quartet Plus Two. What is Orbiting Human Circus? It is the continuing evolution of Julian Koster (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Music Tapes), whose music and storytelling under this moniker have encompassed immersive theatre and a Night Vale Presents podcast, as well as more traditional albums.
Central to the album are the “two” referenced in the title: North and Romika, the singing saws, whom Koster doesn’t “play” so much as encourage. “I think saws sing like angels,” says Koster. “I always have. Since I was a little boy. When you encourage them to sing, they do so earnestly and beautifully. It’s an honest and real sound.”
The origins of Quartet Plus Two are as magical and seemingly unlikely as everything else in Koster’s career. While walking through New York’s Central Park, he stumbled upon Gauvain Gamon and Kolja Gjoni—a standup bass player and drummer, respectively—playing Gershwin and Mingus, and a musical partnership was born.
Pianist Benji Miller rounds out the titular quartet, with Koster’s longtime collaborators Robbie Cucchiaro (horns) and Thomas Hughes (orchestral arranging and chimes) of The Music Tapes also contributing to the record.
The music they make together is at once familiar and unrecognizable, as Koster and Orbiting Human Circus interpret jazz compositions by Irving Berlin, Duke Jordan, George and Ira Gershwin, and others, alongside Koster’s three originals. The use of the term “composition” is intentional and speaks to Koster’s relationship with the music of Quartet Plus Two in far more evocative terms than “cover” or “standard.”
“To me it was always magical that there were these people called ‘composers’ who created symphonies and popular songs for other people to breathe into life and existence all over the world and throughout time,” he explains. “They traveled into our homes as sheet music, endless recorded interpretations, or were passed from hand to hand, village to village, like folk tales, changed by every hand that touched them. That music was something that came to life in our own living rooms and lives, songs that our grandmothers might have sung in a choir that we might sing just as earnestly. I just think it’s nice, and I would love to share that feeling in any way we can.”