There’s been a long history of classical samples in hip-hop, ranging from the masterful (Nas’ subtle interpolation of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on “I Can”) to the insufferable (Busdriver’s near unlistenable refix of Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca”). But few artists have combined the two genres like Triptyq, an up-and-coming urban-classical trio led by Antoniette Costa, GS ’12.
The group, comprised of lead vocalist Costa, pianist and violinist Tara Kamangar, and cellist and beatboxer Kevin Olusola, is a multitalented bunch. During her time at Columbia, Costa organized a concert series that invited the general public into her recording studio, and has worked closely with fellow Philadelphians in The Roots. Kamangar is a composer in her own right, while Olusola is best known as a member of the a cappella group Pentatonix.
Triptyq’s recent single, “Mr. Right,” entered the iTunes classical chart at No. 2 and gained over 44,000 YouTube views in less than a day. Produced by James Poyser of The Roots and featuring “The Wolf of Wall Street” actress Margot Robbie in the video, the track is a soulful independence anthem propelled by Costa’s powerful pipes. Spectator chatted with the group members about songwriting, forging new genres, and where they got their distinctive name.
Noah Jackson: How did Triptyq form?
Antoniette Costa: I met Kevin through a mutual friend at Yale, and I had this song that I’d written, “Void of a Legend.” Our friend [LCD Soundsystem frontman] James Murphy played me Kevin’s work and as soon as I heard it I was blown away and thought that we could collaborate together, particularly with “Void of a Legend” in mind. As soon as we met, we had a jam session and had this musical chemistry and friendship right off the bat. That was the first song that we released independently. It went to No. 4 on the iTunes classical chart and got over 600,000 views on YouTube. Then we teamed up with Tara and looped her in with piano on our second release, “Stranded.” After not too long we were asked to perform live at the Grammy Headquarters in front of the entire staff. After the performance, Neil Portnow, the Grammy president, came up to us and told us we would work well as a trio. We decided that this was a project we wanted to pursue.
NJ: Your music is unlike anything in the mainstream sphere right now. How did you develop such a distinctive sound?
Tara Kamangar: We all play several different instruments in several different styles. Kevin and I both have a classical training. I play classical piano and violin, and Kevin plays cello and also beatboxes. Antoniette sings and plays piano and harp. Unlike most classical musicians, we can all play from ear and are comfortable improvising. As a result, we can play in many different styles and sound like a larger ensemble or pare it down to a more intimate sound.
Kevin Olusola: We wanted to make music people hadn’t heard before. Together, we had that vibe, mixing pop, hip-hop, and various styles. The organic instrumentation was really different. We used classical instrumentation but pop lyrics and melodies, which I think creates this very different sound that people aren’t used to. It took us a while to figure out that sound, but I think as we collaborate more, we’ll be able to hone in on that.
NJ: Antoniette’s vocals are very reminiscent of big ’90s divas. Have you always performed in that style or was that something new that you took to the group?
AC: I’ve always been influenced by soul singers vocal singers. I sang in gospel choir. That influenced me to learn a lot by ear. My vocal melodies drive my compositions and I choose chords according to where my voice leads me. Similarly, when Kevin writes a cello solo, he’ll sometimes hum or sing it first, then play. We’re definitely influenced by the soul, R&B and jazz world.
NJ: “Mr. Right” is No. 2 on the iTunes classical charts and has racked up over 70,000 views in less than two weeks. After this success, what’s next for Triptyq?
AC: We are shooting a music video for our next single, “Murphy,” in March. It’s inspired by Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Following that, we will release an album. All songs feature strictly voice, piano, violin, cello, beatboxing—all percussion is done by Kevin’s beatboxing, so everything that sounds like drums in “Mr. Right” is Kevin—and I will play harp on one of the ballads, “Bridge of Sighs” (“Ponte Dei Sospiri”), a song that includes some Italian lyrics.
NJ: Finally, where did the band name come from?
AC: Like the three-panel artwork, we’re three solo artists coming together to collaborate.
KO: We don’t want people to think we’re performing as a new band. We’re all busy with other projects, like my band Pentatonix, but we always find time to get together, because Triptyq is so much fun.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.