Itâs music that stirs the soul, brings a lump to the throat and a tremble to even the stiffest upper lip. For a whole generation, âStrings Of Lifeâ, âGoâ and âYou Got The Loveâ are our equivalent of âJerusalemâ, âLand Of Hope and Gloryâ and the national anthemÂ 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 Handelâs âMessiahâ at Berghain.
Yet a few weeks before the Proms reached its climax, the worldâs 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 â if he wasnât rolling over â would have been reaching for the lasers strafing the ceiling of this most venerable of concert halls.
âI thought a few people might be dancing â but not like that!,â laughs Jules Buckley, conductor and musical director of the Heritage Orchestra, who masterminded the Radio 1 Ibiza Prom with Pete Tong. âI 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!â
With moments like the orchestral flourishes on Robert Milesâ âChildrenâ brought out of the sampler, and the synths on Faithlessâ âInsomniaâ played as a barrage of strings, Jules says the idea âwasnât to reimagine them in a classical way â because thatâs a horrible term â but more to turbocharge them. We wanted to stick a spoiler on this music and show it off basically!â
He admits to worrying it could have been a car crash, however. âI felt a lot of pressure because I didnât 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 â like the fact it was the Proms and âThe Timesâ were reviewing it â 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 werenât trying to be too clever.â
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 Orchestraâs 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 Goldieâs âTimelessâ at the Southbank Centre, the same venue where they have performed versions of Joy Division, as well as Vangelisâ 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 â then a music student equally enthused by Richard D James as Richard Strauss â put together a group of musicians for the orchestraâs creative directorâs Chris Wheelerâs Heritage club night at Londonâs Cargo in 2004.
âWeâve worked with artists we feel havenât compromised their musical integrity,â 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.
âIf an electronic artist has always done everything âin the boxâ 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 âthe violin always has the beautiful romantic lineâ. By the very nature of how the musicâs produced electronic producers are right on the edge of whatâs going on.â
Meaning Jules quickly dismisses any notion that classical is more âhighbrowâ and âvalidâ 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 donât really deserve.
âYou look at an orchestra and see all these different parts â what can be up to 100 string players alone and all these other different instruments and you think, âThat is so dauntingâ. 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 weâre as awed by them as they are by the orchestra.â
RESPECT THE RAVE
Itâs not a respect everyone in the classical world accords electronic music however, with Jules claiming that âlots of people wanted us to failâ. But orchestras sharing a stage with DJs is something theyâre 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 âInstrumentsâ 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 yearâs Tomorrowland festival wasnât some EDM superstar, but the National Orchestra of Belgium.
âA lot of orchestras could be more open-minded but a lot of them are dealing with a conservative classical music establishment,â he believes. âThereâs this idea that all orchestras are in crisis because their audiences are getting older but the audience has always been old. Whatâs changing now is financial support for orchestras is diminishing so they need to find new avenues.â
To Graeme Parkâs mind however, certain parts of clubland can be as conservative and protective of their âclassicsâ as any orchestra. Resident DJ at Manchesterâs Hacienda â probably clublandâs equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall, in legendary if not luxury terms â until it closed in 1997, Graeme has been playing nights where thereâs sometimes âthe old crowd there who just want to hear the same tunes played by the same DJs. I canât do that â I need to do something with a twist!â
Thatâs why heâs currently working on the forthcoming âHacienda Classicsâ 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 â80s and â90s. Get tickets.
As a work-in-progress, Graemeâs loathe to reveal more aside from saying âit will be more DJ-basedâ than other collaborations, although secrecy hasnât stopped them selling out two nights at Manchesterâs esteemed Bridgwater Hall in minutes.
Graeme says heâs overjoyed to be performing there âbecause this is a classical not a club eventâ, but also disputes the charge that â just as the Hacienda itself was knocked down to build pricey flats â transporting its music to such a venue is the equivalent of gentrifying it and cleaning up what made it great.
âFor a lot of people who grew up in the â80s house music was their punk rock.,â he says. âTheyâre older and theyâve got kids and still like to party but they look ruined at 5am. They love music but theyâre looking for a new way of experiencing it.â
The idea of orchestras playing dance music isnât 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 â70s disco, to avant-garde composers like John Cage and Steve Reich in the â60s, who experimented with getting orchestras to play mimimalist repetitive rhythms that â whilst not explicitly designed to dance to â 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 âLight From The Outside Worldâ concert at the Barbican in London. Itâs something he sees as imperative to his drive to see techno considered as an artform on a par with classical, rather than just functional âdanceâ music.
âI'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,â he says, and also considers the differences between DJing and performing in a concert hall.
âWith 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,â he elaborates. âFor 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.â
But, as Jeff points out, both classical music and techno are both âdirected 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 â also an advanced form â 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.â
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 â but who has also released an album of solo piano pieces â is raising money on Kickstarter for the Prague Metropolitan Orchestra to record a symphony she wrote after being dropped by her record label.
âI was totally free to do whatever I wanted but I didnât anticipate how terrifying it would be,â she reveals. âThe idea I had about freedom turned out to be really dark and lonely. But Iâd always wanted to write a symphony and â compared to everything else going on in my life â that suddenly didnât seem so scary any more. Now I feel calm again I can write nice smooth grooves but I could not write a symphony because Iâm not in that place.â
She believes classical music has an emotional resonance electronic music doesnât because âyou canât synthesise the feeling of people making music in one moment together.â But as the feelings came tumbling out easily enough, Emika found it challenging to translate them âinto notes on paper.
I got into electronic music because you could play a synthesiser and record it and itâs 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 Iâd even listened to it. You canât just see how something goes because classical players donât jam. They read traditional music notes so you have to put your ideas into their world.â
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 âI wanted to learn how to write for an orchestraâ.
Since then sheâs formed the London Electronic Orchestra, who have performed Kateâs own compositions alongside versions of tracks like âVoodoo Rayâ 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 âPolyrhythmicâ album with Tevo Howard.
âSince learning how to write for other instruments I definitely use them in a way influenced by electronic music,â she ponders. âThereâs 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 â doing rhythmic things where it cuts through against the beats.
And Iâm definitely not writing typical classical basslines! A lot of times Iâve handed orchestras the sheet music and theyâve been like âWhoa! This is weird!â But Iâm not trying to write classical music that sounds like it comes from a different era â Iâm 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 Iâm addicted to using live instruments in my music now and theyâre coming together as one genre rather than two separate things.â
However, whilst Kateâs 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. âI moved to London because universities I spoke to in The States really looked down on electronic music as a gimmick â I would have been starting at zero with them,â she explains.
âWhereas 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 â not everywhere â 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 donât want young enthusiastic players to have nowhere to perform or that people stop writing for them because thereâs one way or no way.â
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 âConcerto For Turntables and Orchestraâ which has been performed by DJ Yoda and The Heritage Orchestra. Heâs 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 âbecause even though I knew young classical musicians who were really passionate about their music none of their mates ever came to their gigs! Theyâd always be playing to people twice their age.â
Nonclassical was also inspired by his time studying electroacoustic music in Birmingham in the â90s, where heâd be poring over composers like Stockhausen during the week, then sweating out in clubs like House Of God at the weekend.
âSome of those nights were pretty relentless but it was just incredible to see people getting totally immersed in sound,â Gabriel recalls. âI knew a lot of them would love electroacoustic music but would never go to an electroacoustic night because they werenât promoted properly.
âDance musicâs meant to be more rebellious but if you analyse it itâs actually quite conservative,â he continues. âIt 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 wonât get played.
In classical music thereâs more encouragement to be structurally adventurous and if your music doesnât develop enough you get criticised. You really try to go on a longer journey and make some really exciting sounds.â
Thatâs the ethos behind the releases on the Nonclassical label, such as Tansy Davies or Klavikon, whose recent eponymous album Gabriel calls âamplified prepared piano that goes into techno and leftfield electronica territory. You canât be sure if itâs classical music or not.â
The label has also commissioned remixes from the likes of Hot Chip, Vexâd and Thom Yorke, with Gabriel explaining that âweâve got this house rule that you canât bring in any of your own sounds so youâve got to make the remix from the original recordings.
That means you donât get any standard drum patterns or synth sounds â 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.â
As well as getting producers to âthink outside the boxâ, these remixes also fill Gabrielâs own box when he DJs. âItâs taken me a while to feel comfortable being called a DJ because I grew up in the â90s when there were these massive DJ heroes who I always felt were overhyped when theyâre just playing other peopleâs 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. Iâd 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.â
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 â 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 âBody Languageâ mix series â as an example of a new generation âwhoâve grown up more exposed to electronic music but were playing classical music as well.
I think thatâs 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.â
It might be getting louder, but this classical movement has yet to reach its crescendo.
Words: Paul Clarke