It’s music that stirs the soul, brings a lump to the throat and a tremble to even the stiffest upper lip. For a whole generation, ‘Strings Of Life’, ‘Go’ and ‘You Got The Love’ are our equivalent of ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Land Of Hope and Glory’ and the national anthem the classical standards unfurled every year during the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. A place, you might assume, where house music would go down as well as Ben Klock dropping Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Berghain.
Yet a few weeks before the Proms reached its climax, the world’s oldest classical music festival featured those and other rave anthems played by a full orchestra during an evening where glow sticks were swung instead of Union Jacks, and for which Beethoven – if he wasn’t rolling over – would have been reaching for the lasers strafing the ceiling of this most venerable of concert halls.
“I thought a few people might be dancing – but not like that!,” laughs Jules Buckley, conductor and musical director of the Heritage Orchestra, who masterminded the Radio 1 Ibiza Prom with Pete Tong. “I assumed it would be mainly an older crowd sans kids chilling out to Eric Prydz but every time I turned around they were going nuts!”
With moments like the orchestral flourishes on Robert Miles’ ‘Children’ brought out of the sampler, and the synths on Faithless’ ‘Insomnia’ played as a barrage of strings, Jules says the idea “wasn’t to reimagine them in a classical way — because that’s a horrible term — but more to turbocharge them. We wanted to stick a spoiler on this music and show it off basically!”
He admits to worrying it could have been a car crash, however. “I felt a lot of pressure because I didn’t want to score an own goal at such a high profile event. But once we sat down with Pete we realised there was so much dance music that really lent itself to this.
We tried to ignore all the external factors — like the fact it was the Proms and ‘The Times’ were reviewing it — to just focus on all this great dance music from the last 20 years. I think the success was that people understood that it was a really honest interpretation of the music and we weren’t trying to be too clever.”
Heard by millions during the live broadcast on Radio 1 and subsequently on BBC iPlayer, as well as by the full capacity crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, the Ibiza Prom was probably the Heritage Orchestra’s biggest gig to date, but it was far from the first time they had performed classical renditions of contemporary music.
A few weeks earlier saw them interpret Goldie’s ‘Timeless’ at the Southbank Centre, the same venue where they have performed versions of Joy Division, as well as Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack. Their vocal guests have included Dizzee Rascal and Beardyman, alongside other collaborators including James Lavelle, SBTRKT and Plaid.
Jules explains that collaboration has always been the driving force behind Heritage Orchestra ever since he — then a music student equally enthused by Richard D James as Richard Strauss — put together a group of musicians for the orchestra’s creative director’s Chris Wheeler’s Heritage club night at London’s Cargo in 2004.
“We’ve worked with artists we feel haven’t compromised their musical integrity,” Jules replies, when asked what binds such a diverse range of collaborators together, before stressing that the meeting ground between the classical and electronic worlds is fecund for both.
“If an electronic artist has always done everything ‘in the box’ it can be a really rewarding process for them to see their music being realised in a different way by human players. We get to think about using analogue instruments in ways apart from the stereotypical ‘the violin always has the beautiful romantic line’. By the very nature of how the music’s produced electronic producers are right on the edge of what’s going on.”
Meaning Jules quickly dismisses any notion that classical is more “highbrow” and “valid” than electronic music: that an orchestra are lowering themselves by playing electronic music, or collaborating with an orchestra is simply a way for dance producers to seek a prestige they don’t really deserve.
“You look at an orchestra and see all these different parts — what can be up to 100 string players alone and all these other different instruments and you think, ‘That is so daunting’. But the work that some producers put into their work over the years is just as daunting.
I can understand that some producers might be over-awed by it but the breakdown of an orchestra is simpler than you think. Anyone who collaborates with us should think we’re as awed by them as they are by the orchestra.’
RESPECT THE RAVE
It’s not a respect everyone in the classical world accords electronic music however, with Jules claiming that “lots of people wanted us to fail”. But orchestras sharing a stage with DJs is something they’re going to have to get used to, if a recent wave of such collaborations is any indication that the ivory towers of the classical world are crumbling.
Jules has also conducted the Metropole Orkest through versions of Basement Jaxx, Henrik Schwarz has just released the ‘Instruments’ album of orchestral interpretations of his oeuvre, artists such as Derrick May, Paul Van Dyk and BT have appeared with orchestras recently, and the Sunday headliner at this year’s Tomorrowland festival wasn’t some EDM superstar, but the National Orchestra of Belgium.
“A lot of orchestras could be more open-minded but a lot of them are dealing with a conservative classical music establishment,” he believes. “There’s this idea that all orchestras are in crisis because their audiences are getting older but the audience has always been old. What’s changing now is financial support for orchestras is diminishing so they need to find new avenues.”
To Graeme Park’s mind however, certain parts of clubland can be as conservative and protective of their ‘classics’ as any orchestra. Resident DJ at Manchester’s Hacienda — probably clubland’s equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall, in legendary if not luxury terms — until it closed in 1997, Graeme has been playing nights where there’s sometimes “the old crowd there who just want to hear the same tunes played by the same DJs. I can’t do that — I need to do something with a twist!”
That’s why he’s currently working on the forthcoming ‘Hacienda Classics’ concert with fellow Hacienda resident Mike Pickering and the Camerata Orchestra, which will feature orchestral renditions of the tunes that made the club the epicentre of acid house in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Get tickets.
As a work-in-progress, Graeme’s loathe to reveal more aside from saying “it will be more DJ-based” than other collaborations, although secrecy hasn’t stopped them selling out two nights at Manchester’s esteemed Bridgwater Hall in minutes.
Graeme says he’s overjoyed to be performing there “because this is a classical not a club event”, but also disputes the charge that — just as the Hacienda itself was knocked down to build pricey flats — transporting its music to such a venue is the equivalent of gentrifying it and cleaning up what made it great.
“For a lot of people who grew up in the ‘80s house music was their punk rock.,” he says. “They’re older and they’ve got kids and still like to party but they look ruined at 5am. They love music but they’re looking for a new way of experiencing it.”
The idea of orchestras playing dance music isn’t entirely new. The two have long been intertwined: back through classically-trained producers like Arthur Russell or ensembles like The Salsoul Orchestra who reigned during ‘70s disco, to avant-garde composers like John Cage and Steve Reich in the ‘60s, who experimented with getting orchestras to play mimimalist repetitive rhythms that — whilst not explicitly designed to dance to — later influenced techno.
Not least Jeff Mills, who has been collaborating with orchestras for over 10 years, recently performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for his ‘Light From The Outside World’ concert at the Barbican in London. It’s something he sees as imperative to his drive to see techno considered as an artform on a par with classical, rather than just functional ‘dance’ music.
“I'm convinced that any significant advancement in electronic dance music won't be achieved by one person, so my objective is to create as many working examples so that others can see and understand how it could work so that they might want to try it,” he says, and also considers the differences between DJing and performing in a concert hall.
“With standing audiences, I realise that I have the ability to make people move to the point of dancing, which would direct me in the way I would react my instrument,” he elaborates. “For a seated audience, I know that everyone is giving me their attention and listening to everything I produce, so attention would be on the aspect of using each and every movement to say something relevant.”
But, as Jeff points out, both classical music and techno are both “directed at generating a response for the listener. There is a certain practical, almost instrumentality to how the genre functions.
Classical music is defined as formal or serious because it encompasses musicology of advance structural patterns and understanding. Dance music — also an advanced form — focuses in the area of communication through physical means. Considering the idea that music will be first heard, then physically reinforced to emphasise one's character or openness. Almost a therapeutic process.”
For Emika, penning a classical symphony was literally a therapeutic process. The protean Berlin-based Anglo-Czech musician best-known for her dubstep and techno — but who has also released an album of solo piano pieces — is raising money on Kickstarter for the Prague Metropolitan Orchestra to record a symphony she wrote after being dropped by her record label.
“I was totally free to do whatever I wanted but I didn’t anticipate how terrifying it would be,” she reveals. “The idea I had about freedom turned out to be really dark and lonely. But I’d always wanted to write a symphony and — compared to everything else going on in my life — that suddenly didn’t seem so scary any more. Now I feel calm again I can write nice smooth grooves but I could not write a symphony because I’m not in that place.”
She believes classical music has an emotional resonance electronic music doesn’t because ‘you can’t synthesise the feeling of people making music in one moment together.’ But as the feelings came tumbling out easily enough, Emika found it challenging to translate them ‘into notes on paper.
I got into electronic music because you could play a synthesiser and record it and it’s this immediate way of making music without knowing all the theory. But here I had to work out how to compose and edit it before I’d even listened to it. You can’t just see how something goes because classical players don’t jam. They read traditional music notes so you have to put your ideas into their world.’
Kate Simko is another electronic artist finding her way into that world. A DJ and producer with tech house releases for labels like Spectral Sound and Get Physical under her belt, Kate was originally a classically-trained pianist, and moved to London from her Chicago home to study Composition For Screen at the Royal College of Music in 2013 because “I wanted to learn how to write for an orchestra”.
Since then she’s formed the London Electronic Orchestra, who have performed Kate’s own compositions alongside versions of tracks like ‘Voodoo Ray’ at clubs like HEART in Ibiza and festivals such as Bestival, whilst Kate has also kept her hand in with house music, and will soon be releasing the ‘Polyrhythmic’ album with Tevo Howard.
“Since learning how to write for other instruments I definitely use them in a way influenced by electronic music,” she ponders. “There’s lots of riffs and repetition in LEO and it has the atmospheric sensibility of electronic music. The harpist says I write for the harp in a very different way than classical — doing rhythmic things where it cuts through against the beats.
And I’m definitely not writing typical classical basslines! A lot of times I’ve handed orchestras the sheet music and they’ve been like ‘Whoa! This is weird!’ But I’m not trying to write classical music that sounds like it comes from a different era — I’m trying to write an expression of what I do now.
My electronic music has also been influenced. We put the LEO on the last thing I did with Jamie Jones because it was such a pretty melodic track and I knew they could take it to another place. I feel like I’m addicted to using live instruments in my music now and they’re coming together as one genre rather than two separate things.”
However, whilst Kate’s dance music pedigree might have helped her with her compositions at music college, it was a hindrance when it came to getting accepted in the first place. “I moved to London because universities I spoke to in The States really looked down on electronic music as a gimmick — I would have been starting at zero with them,” she explains.
“Whereas in London when I told them I was DJing at Fabric and they said that was very prestigious then I knew this was where I needed to be! I think there is a change — not everywhere — but when I did the Britten Theatre some older very conservative professors turned up and they seemed pretty excited.
They want these instruments to live on and they don’t want young enthusiastic players to have nowhere to perform or that people stop writing for them because there’s one way or no way.”
But if electronic musicians can give classical music a shot in the arm, could the same happen in reverse? Gabriel Prokofiev certainly thinks so.
The grandson of renowned Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel has continued the family tradition by penning cello concertos for traditional orchestras like the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, yet also composed a ‘Concerto For Turntables and Orchestra’ which has been performed by DJ Yoda and The Heritage Orchestra. He’s also dropped his famous surname to produce grime as Medasyn, and electro as Caspa Codina.
His Nonclassical club nights, which have brought contemporary classical musicians and DJs to clubs across the UK and Europe were originally set up “because even though I knew young classical musicians who were really passionate about their music none of their mates ever came to their gigs! They’d always be playing to people twice their age.”
Nonclassical was also inspired by his time studying electroacoustic music in Birmingham in the ‘90s, where he’d be poring over composers like Stockhausen during the week, then sweating out in clubs like House Of God at the weekend.
“Some of those nights were pretty relentless but it was just incredible to see people getting totally immersed in sound,” Gabriel recalls. “I knew a lot of them would love electroacoustic music but would never go to an electroacoustic night because they weren’t promoted properly.
“Dance music’s meant to be more rebellious but if you analyse it it’s actually quite conservative,” he continues. “It needs to be played in clubs, and one thing I find frustrating is that you often need to fit into whatever style is popular at the time, so anything really off the wall probably won’t get played.
In classical music there’s more encouragement to be structurally adventurous and if your music doesn’t develop enough you get criticised. You really try to go on a longer journey and make some really exciting sounds.”
That’s the ethos behind the releases on the Nonclassical label, such as Tansy Davies or Klavikon, whose recent eponymous album Gabriel calls “amplified prepared piano that goes into techno and leftfield electronica territory. You can’t be sure if it’s classical music or not.”
The label has also commissioned remixes from the likes of Hot Chip, Vex’d and Thom Yorke, with Gabriel explaining that “we’ve got this house rule that you can’t bring in any of your own sounds so you’ve got to make the remix from the original recordings.
That means you don’t get any standard drum patterns or synth sounds — you just get completely new sounds that have been created out of an orchestral piece. Hot Chip did a remix were they made a kick-drum out of a cello and it sounded like a minimal techno tune.”
As well as getting producers to “think outside the box”, these remixes also fill Gabriel’s own box when he DJs. “It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable being called a DJ because I grew up in the ‘90s when there were these massive DJ heroes who I always felt were overhyped when they’re just playing other people’s tunes.
When I do some DJ sets I really try and get deep in. I use Ableton and the remixes and I try and do some live processing on the tracks and put in samples from different pieces of music from different eras to try to be a bit more creative. I’d really like to hook up with some more established nights because I think a lot of our projects would work really well in a club.”
True, Carl Cox might not have to worry about string quartets taking all his bookings just yet, but Gabriel points towards artists like Franceso Tristano — a concert pianist who has collaborated with Carl Craig and has also joined the ranks of Dixon and M.A.N.D.Y in helming an edition of the ‘Body Language’ mix series — as an example of a new generation “who’ve grown up more exposed to electronic music but were playing classical music as well.
I think that’s really healthy because people from a contemporary classical background always try to really challenge and be as innovative as they can. Things are really being pushed forwards now.”
It might be getting louder, but this classical movement has yet to reach its crescendo.
Words: Paul Clarke