Kate Simko: ‘What classical music taught me about the dancefloor’ [Op-Ed]
Kate Simko is one of the more sophisticated figures you’ll find in the world of underground dance music. Chicago-born and now London-based, Simko’s accomplishments span the gamut of everything from remixing Phillip Glass to composing the score for PBS’ ‘The Atom Smashers.’ On top of this, Simko has maintained her foothold in the underground, releasing on top notch labels like Get Physical and Last Night on Earth.
In 2014, Kate earned a masters degree in Composition for Screen at the Royal College of Music, consequently launching her groundbreaking symphonic project, London Electronic Orchestra. Comprised of an all-female string ensemble, LEO released their self-titled debut album earlier this year to critical acclaim.
In order to further delve into the background of the project, Simko has penned an extensive narrative about her journey through the music world. From falling in love with Chicago house, to triumphing the rigors of classical education, Simko’s story is both informative and engrossing. It’s well worth the read, trust us.
Check out Kate Simko and London Electronic Orchestra’s album here.
What Classical Music Taught me About the Dance Floor
Like most of us, my path wasn’t set out in a straightforward way. Only in the past couple of years have two formerly separate parts of my life, classical and electronic music, become interlaced. To be honest, I never thought that would happen, and this is this story of how it came to be.
My background in classical music started at the age of five studying piano and music theory. My grandmother was an organist at church (until the age of 90!), and my dad’s side of the family has a few other pianists. But growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, it didn’t seem like taking piano lessons was by any means going to be affect my life in the future. Chicago is a hard-working blue-collar city, and let’s just say music wasn’t laid out as one of the career options in high school. Part of any society’s legacy is its cultural productivity and creativeness. But somehow that memo of the importance of music as art as culture didn’t make it to me or the others growing up in Crystal Lake, IL. The only pro pianists I’d seen were school music teachers, piano teachers, and that lucky one pianist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But I really enjoyed playing the piano, and so I stuck with it throughout high school. It was my release and my outlet. If I have any advice on that, it would be to stick with what you love.
Then, when I was fifteen I went to my first rave. There was one girl (literally one!) who was a part of the underground Midwest scene at my high school, and she gave my friend and me all of her mix tapes as a part of going to rehab. Knowing that she had been mixed up with hard drugs at raves, I was pretty terrified. But my other friend convinced me to check it out with her. I liked the mix tapes so gave it a go. Not to be cheesy, but the rest is basically history..
The underground rave scene in the Midwest was at it’s heydey at that time. Richie Hawtin was playing 6-hour sets, Jeff Mills, Claude Young, and Derrick May made regular appearances in Chicago. And then of course we had all of the Chicago legends every weekend – Mystic Bill, Traxx, Gene Farris, Derrick Carter, etc etc. The subculture and people I met inspired me, allowed me to be different, proved it was fine that I didn’t want to be a cheerleader, and didn’t fit in or connect with what was going on at my high school. I was just starting to figure out who I was as an individual, and electronic music opened my mind and passion for life and self-discovery. It was through dancing til dawn at raves that I started absorbing new music and ways of thinking.
Musically, it was a big change from virtuosity and linear stories in classical music (which I love, by the way!). I started getting lost in cyclical loops, stripped-back raw drum programming, Chicago diva vocals, disco (I’ll never forget hearing Derrick May mix in Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’ at a rave), and Detroit 303 acid. I became absolutely hooked on the music, and dancing til dawn literally every single weekend. Those experiences taught me about the power of music to connect and inspire people, and it changed my life. It made me appreciate my background in music and changed my perspective.
When I was accepted into the University of Miami, they required a major chosen in advance. I couldn’t think of anything I was more passionate about, so I decided to study music. So the dancefloor taught me to appreciate music, not to take it for granted as a “hobby”—which is all it was given credit for in my practical, hard-working hometown.
When I got to the university, studying classical music and practicing classical piano 4-6 hours a day taught me to be introspective, to focus, and hone my skills. I never had an expensive piano teacher or fancy pedigree on the classical side, and felt like a black sheep when I first arrived at college. It was full of NYC and East Coast students with famous piano teachers who went to expensive music summer camps and spoke about Mahler symphonies in the hallway. I felt brain-dead and inadequate, but determined to catch up with the piano repertoire. But they had been practicing six hours a day while I had been out dancing to Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin in the Midwest for the past three years… oops!
When I studied classical music, it kicked my ass so hard. There’s no faking, no bedroom bullshitters, no smoke and mirrors. They are cutthroat, and do not play. I liked that, though. I don’t like sloppiness, and it was good to be pushed hard to better myself and my skills. I was 18- years-old and the only girl in my dorm not drinking and smoking weed. Somehow the order and “right-and-wrong” of classical music was like a personal bootcamp. It whipped me back into shape! And it was in that clear headspace that I discovered IDM.
Discovering IDM taught me to find myself; to dig deep and figure out how to make my own music. I joined the University of Miami WVUM radio station the day I arrived on campus and was paired with the Schematic label’s radio show. They had an album out as Soul Oddity on Astralwerks and had been signed to Warp as Phoenicia (one of the very first artists from the states). They played a lot of music from Warp, Skam, Beta Bodega, Chocolate Industries, etc. on their show, and it opened my eyes to electronic listening music for the first time, as well as Logic Audio and music production.
IDM songs were a game changer for me because they are linear compositions, much like classical music. Some Aphex Twin and Plaid songs are like electronic movements of symphonies. When I was going to raves in Chicago I never thought I’d be a DJ or produce house or techno. Almost all of the DJs were big black men (although DJ Heather and Superjane were a big inspiration as female DJs in Chicago at the time), and the music was just totally different structurally, and based off disco samples, more percussion than melody/harmony, etc etc. So yeah, hearing IDM brought it all full circle.
A few months into living in Miami I went on a road trip with the Soul Oddity guys to Gainesville, Florida. Listening to music and daydreaming out the window during the trip, I had a life epiphany; I realized I had a security blanket playing complex classical piano music. People were impressed by the virtuosity, but the music compositions weren’t mine. I was interpreting the classical masters’ music but too scared to make my own. I had a lucid vision of an incomplete half-rainbow and being afraid to allow it to come full circle. And I had a vision of climbing a mountain with so much ahead of me. This was life epiphany number one. If you get one of these, make a move!
Anyhow, this back-and-forth of classical-electronic-classical-electronic influencing me and each other… it’s happened to me a few times in my life.
After that life epiphany, I moved back to Chicago and started taking jazz piano lessons and learning how to improvise. That might almost sound pathetic (‘learning to improvise’…), but classically-trained musicians will vouch that we are trained to play off the printed page, not spontaneously come up with melodic and rhythmic ideas of our own. So my first jams on the piano were terrible. I could play you a Beethoven Sonata, or sound like your six-year-old younger sibling. Eek! I transferred to Northwestern University, where I eventually studied Music Technology, and continued with theory and classical piano. Alongside that, I had a radio show on WNUR, where I became Music Director of the dance and hip-hop formats within a year. Looking back, I can’t believe I was 19 then! Man, I thought I knew everything. I wish I could find a photo of me with my thick black hipster glasses. It was a great time in my life, but classical and electronic music were both still totally compartmentalized.
Next I moved to Santiago, Chile for nine months as a fifth year study abroad program. There I met Andres Bucci (Pier’s brother) and we recorded a full-length album as ‘Detalles’ that was released on Traum Records. On that album I have a song called ‘Melancholy Satie’ which is a piano piece in the style of Eric Satie. And there’s a track where I recorded cello. But besides that it’s mainly a melodic electronic music album. Making this album with Andres was the first time I finished songs and earned the self-belief that I was capable of producing and composing music!
After graduating Northwestern I moved to LA for an entry level composer job that fell through. I interned for an Academy Award winning sound designer and quickly ran out of money. So then I started selling cars at Volkswagen Santa Monica. Why not?! In some twisted way it gave me character. One thing I’ve learned is that you’re best off hustling to get the resources you need. If that means working hard at something you don’t love in the short-term, you might need to suck it up and do it. Once you have resources then you have freedom. After selling cars for 6 months I saved up and moved back to Chicago, determined to focus on honing my skills rather than chasing ‘opportunities’ in LA. Before LA, I thought that a music degree was a ticket to a job in music, and meant that I was somehow at an advantage. It’s just not like that.
If you want to really touch people, you need to create quality engaging art. That takes time, devotion, and a creative vision. You can’t jump from point A to Z without living life, seeing things, making mistakes, having adventures, taking lots of risks, and sometimes failing (but getting back up again). Anyhow, I’m so glad I decided to not make coffee for composers in LA all of my 20’s, climbing a ladder!
Back in Chicago, in 2005 I was asked to do my first remix – for Philip Glass. Yeah, I thought it was a joke! I asked them to please send his full catalog on CD to decide on the song. A few days later the box of CDs arrived! I spent about 3 months on this remix. That moment linked my classical background with electronic music.
In 2012, I moved to London to get a Masters in Composition for Film and Orchestra at the Royal College of Music. My experiences DJing informed my classical compositions more than I’d ever expected! Through DJing I learned an intuition for what people want to hear, and how to connect with people (which we all feel on a good club night). I fought to bring that spirit to my recording sessions, live shows, and compositions. It’s not easy when you’re dealing with 70+ people in an orchestra and it’s all sheet music! But at the end of the day, it’s all about transmitting a feeling through music, and my background in electronic music made me fight for that in a genre that can sometimes be more conceptual and head-driven, rather than heart-driven.
So then finally, while learning to write for the full orchestra, I started combining classical elements into my productions and spent my two years at college trying to find my own sound using orchestral instruments. I put this first and foremost before the technical skills of film scoring. I spent many sleepless nights listening to YouTube videos of orchestral techniques, and reading an orchestration textbook most of my classmates had finished years ago. Somehow I think the DIY spirit of electronic music, and knowing so many amazing producers with no musical training, helped me hold my head up.
Thanks for your interest in my story. It’s been fun to rewind and recount how things unfolded, and I hope my story sheds light on your paths as well. The main lessons I’ve learned are to take risks, do what you love, keep believing in yourself, and don’t underestimate the worth of art and culture.