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Classical Conditioning: DJ Mag delves into dance music's orchestral revival

With Marc Romboy, Jules Buckley, Max Richter, Carl Craig and more...

At first glance, we’re led to believe that the worlds of classical and electronic music are galaxies apart. But there are more parallels and crossovers than you might think, and a new wave of electronic artists and composers are finding inspiration by reconnecting dance music with its classical past. DJ Mag talks to Marc Romboy, Jules Buckley, Max Richter, Carl Craig and others to check the score…

WORDS: Ben Osborne

If you’d asked anyone a year or two ago whether a classical LP was about to go to No.1 in the pop charts, it’s unlikely they’d have answered yes. If you'd then asked them which artist would be behind said LP, it’s even more unlikely they’d have named Pete Tong, BBC Radio 1’s iconic Lord Of Dance. But last November that is exactly what happened, when Pete Tong scored the first UK No.1 of his career, with an LP of classical music.

In recent years a new movement of composers. producers, musicians and DJs have been fusing the once-alien cultures of classical music and electronics. Sometimes this has seen familiar faces return. Carl Craig, for example, has released an album of his back catalogue re-arranged for orchestra. Drum & bass don Goldie performed his ‘Timeless’ opus at the Royal Festival Hall with the Heritage Orchestra, and has been showcasing his new album, ‘The Journey Man’, with them at festivals and concert halls. And the Manchester Camerata collaborated with Manchester DJ legends like Mike Pickering and Graeme Park to release ‘Hacienda Classical’. Pete Tong’s LP saw him collaborate with composer/conductor Jules Buckley and his Heritage Orchestra to release an LP of ‘Classic House’.

Pete Tong and his 65-piece orchestra

All these projects arrange electronic tracks into orchestral pieces, which is no small achievement. Even so, on their own they hardly signify a new movement. After all, the Balanescu Quartet re-worked Kraftwerk way back in 1992. But these cross-genre explorations are just the tip of a burgeoning movement that’s been developing, often unnoticed, for the last 15 years.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that the composer working with Pete Tong on ‘Classic House’ is Jules Buckley. His association with the electro-classical/non-classical/indie-classical movement (to coin a few of the genre’s names) goes back to the very start of the scene.

The Balanescu Quartet 

At first glance the electro-classical combination appears to be a clash between two contradictory worlds — the music of the stuffy upper-classes against the beat-driven liberation of the dancefloor. But delve a bit deeper and there are several parallels. 

James Heather has spent his professional life with a foot in both camps — working for pioneering label Ninja Tune, while also being a virtuoso pianist. “The classical world is a more elitist, posh, bow-tied world,” admits Heather. “People feel they aren’t part of it, even if they like the sounds. But the worlds are merging. Look at The Proms and how BBC 6Music and Mary-Anne Hobbs are involved.”

James Heather, photo by Fabrice Bourgelle

From a musical point of view, James says the genres have a lot in common. “Both genres are instrumental in their nature, relying on compositional techniques, rhythm and melody,” he tells DJ Mag. “Listen to Booka Shade’s ‘Outskirts’ and tell me classical and electronic music can’t work.”

“The gap between electronic and classical music has always been smaller than you’d think,” says Vanessa Reed, head of the PRS Foundation, a body that’s been pivotal in supporting many new artists. “People like Vares in the early 20th century were trying to invent new sounds. Then later, Stockhausen influenced The Beatles and other pop artists... there’s been a lot more meeting of minds than people think.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen

With artists currently dabbling in everything from niche techno to chart-topping tracks, the new movement covers a broad range of musical styles. And the artists involved seem unashamedly ready to get involved in any genre — which also makes them resistant to being branded with a genre themselves.

“There’s a new, really interesting generation of classically-trained artists who want to move into electronics,” says Reed. “Obvious examples are Anna Meredith, Floating Points and Mica Levi (aka Micachu), who all go back and forth across the divides.”

“Electronic music is a limitless open space and that’s very appealing to composers,” agrees Max Richter. “We’re always looking for new ways to tell stories, and new tools. Composers have always driven technological development, whether that’s with new instruments being incorporated into orchestras in the 19th century, or the 20th century growth of electronics.”

Max Richter, photo by Yulia Mahr

The breadth of genres involved is easily illustrated by the list of artists that Jules Buckley has collaborated with. These include Henrik Schwarz, Gregory Porter, Arctic Monkeys, Goldie, Emeli Sandé, Dizzee Rascal and many more. And this list is neither exhaustive nor unusual amongst his peers.

Although there’s a freshness in today’s electro-classical activity, it also fits a longer lineage that goes back to the start of electronic music. This history takes in artists such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and David Byrne, Steve Reich, John Cage and Philip Glass. And more recent crossover examples, such as William Orbit and Aphex Twin.

The historical connections go further back to the earliest electronic instruments, such as Cahill’s Telharmonium (1897), which were used to play classical music. And Luigi Russolo — who tried to create a new genre of music and effectively described techno in 1913 — found his most ardent supporters amongst the avant-garde classical composers of the early 20th century.

Thaddeus Cahill and his Telharmonium

The major developments in electronic music after World War Two all came from explorations in compositional techniques, through musique concrete pioneers such as Pierre Schaeffer and the elektronische musik of Stockhausen. In contrast, the new genres of popular music that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, with notable exceptions such as Jean Jacques Perrey, were largely uninterested in electronic techniques — until the dawn of psychedelia. From 1967 onwards, electronic music opened-up to popular music, principally because The Beatles adopted it as part of their psychedelic tool-kit.

Pierre Schaeffer 

From here, electronic music progressed gradually towards the dancefloor via progressive rock, glam, disco, Kraftwerk, electro, hip-hop, techno and house. But most practitioners lost interest in the historical connection with the classical world. However, over the last 15 years, knowingly or not, a growing number of artists have started to draw inspiration from electronic music’s classical roots.

“All the pioneers — Philip Glass, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich — enhanced my mind,” explains techno producer Marc Romboy, who has just released an album based on 19th century composer Debussy. “I had the honour of jamming with the ex-Kraftwerk member Eberhard Kranemann and the Ashra member Harald Grosskopf. This influenced me a lot — when it comes to being more risky and pushing limits.”

Phillip Glass

The roots of the current electro-classical movement go back to the early noughties and a period when dance music had hit a low. The Millennium New Year’s Eve had been an infamous debacle, and the public and media had tired of the predictable formulae of commercial clubbing. In this atmosphere, an underground club scene became more focused on creativity and experimentalism, with a new emphasis on the audience’s experience and the authenticity of smaller and unusual venues.

It was in this atmosphere that some of today’s electronic-classical practitioners emerged, finding a home in a more musically open era. For many, having grown up surrounded by dance music in the 1990s, it was a natural progression. “I love making music in different genres,” says Gabriel Prokofiev, the composer and grime producer behind the Nonclassical label. “Ideas of high and low art are really divisive and grounded in snobbery.”

Gabriel Prokofiev

Prokofiev began making his classical crossover music, while also making a name for himself on the electro and grime scenes — which were thriving in London then. “From 2003 until 2011, I was working a kind of triple career, juggling Spektrum (his live band), and producing as Medasyn for Lady Sovereign, Envy, Shystie and Caspa Codina,” he recalls. “And composing lots of classical music. It was a real buzz to be involved in such contrasting styles. Although I kept the projects separate, there was inevitably cross-pollination. Grime rhythms found their way into classical string quartets. And classical strings and avant-garde electronics would turn up in the beat-making.

“The conflict for me came when I didn’t have enough time to properly promote each project. Eventually I started getting more orchestral commissions, so I had to just focus on the classical side.”

Gabriel Prokofiev

The shift in his work not only saw Gabriel devote his energy to composing — he also turned towards promoting other like-minded artists by starting a classical nightclub. “The whole idea of the Nonclassical nights was to show a wider audience that classical music didn’t have to be presented in an old-fashioned way. That it could be enjoyed in a club environment. People I worked with from the dance world came to the nights and were blown away by some of the sounds and ideas.

“At the same time, the classical audiences were surprised that contemporary classical music could work in a club-setting, complete with classical-inspired DJ-sets,” Gabriel continues. “It could fit into modern urban life in a more natural way. When the two worlds came together, people were excited and inspired. Once they came through the door and actually listened, any preconceptions slipped away.”

The first ‘Nonclassical' club-event was held at Cargo nightclub in East London in March 2004 — soon after a young classically-trained in-house promoter called Chris Wheeler had joined the Cargo team. Chris was a long-term friend of Jules Buckley and the pair formed the Heritage Orchestra as a club-based classical project later in 2004. It also helped that leftfield music brand the Big Chill had recently merged with Cargo. The resulting team shared a passion for genres of music that flourished beyond the mainstream.

The willingness of venues such as the Big Chill and Cargo to experiment with music helped kick-start the new music. Others also started recognising the new movement, including independent record labels such as Brownswood, Warp, Lo, Ninja and Just Good Music, who signed pianist and composer Will Dutta, creator of the Concerto For Turntables with Prokofiev.

Will Dutta, photo by Howard Melnyczuk

The Nonclassical gig at Cargo was soon followed by the first release on the label. “Initially I called it ‘Nonstop Classical’, as I was already co-running an urban/electronic label called Nonstop,” says Prokofiev. “But the name was a bit of a mouthful. So I abbreviated it to ‘Nonclassical’. It had a stronger identity. It explained what it was: classical music presented in a non-classical way.”

“At that time there were few other alternative classical events happening — This Is Not For You was a more traditional classical club at Shoreditch Town Hall. There were classical nights at BarTok in Camden and an event called Rational-Rec.

“In the 13 years since, the scene has really grown,” Prokofiev continues. “Now there are regular alternative classical nights in London — KammerKlang, dd/mm/yyyy, 840, Filthy Lucre, LCMF, MultiStory Orchestra, The Night Shift, to name a few...”

Max Richter says that the growing accessibility of electronic instruments also helped to make the genre more open. “There’s been a democratisation of the tools available,” he says. “The reason I built synthesisers when I was 13 was because they cost as much as a house to buy. I didn’t have much choice. Now you get them free with your laptop!

“And music culture has grown to a point where there isn’t that high art/ popular art dichotomy. It just feels like everything is a shared resource for telling stories,” Max adds.

Another factor helping the new music develop was the digital music economy, which made substantial advances parallel to the developing electronic/classical movement. This offered an unexpected freedom to classical composers.

Anna Meredith

“It’s a lot to do with artists wanting more autonomy and control over music,” Vanessa Reed explains. “Anna Meredith has spoken a lot about composing for classical orchestras, who only perform her piece once, without having any involvement herself. She’s now developed a way of working where she’s in control of everything. It’s about her being an independent musician that creates and performs her own music.”

Reed says classical artists have also started finding new ways of reaching their audience and making music. “There is a rebellion against the traditional ways of doing things,” she says. “There is a hunger for experimentation, and a continuing interest in the sounds that electronic music can create.”

“Electronic music is always going to be ahead of the curve because it’s where technology is at,” Vanessa continues. “And I suppose you can see that with the work Imogen Heap is doing, and her interest in technology behind the scenes with block chain.”

Imogen Heap

Prokofiev says alternative performance spaces have also helped develop both new artists and audiences: “Firstly, there’s a generation of classical musicians and composers who have been exposed to less formal ways of presenting classical. They’re at home playing classical in non-traditional venues.

“Also, there’s a growing audience for new classical music. People are looking for music that is adventurous and creative. Audiences want inspiring and memorable live music experiences, and are bored of listening on their smart-phones. I guess new classical music is being seen as a genre of interest for the current generation of music-lovers. It offers an escape from the derivative music of the mainstream.”

Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra, photo by Tom D Morgan

While audiences are looking for new experiences, it is also true that classical orchestras are seeking new fans. “You can look at examples such as London Contemporary Orchestra performing with Actress,” says Reed. “There is an agenda trying to reach audiences from beyond the classical world. Performing with electronic artists helps reach a whole new audience and communities of future fans. So there’s a desire to reach new people and perform in new spaces that appeals to both sides.”

At the other end of the spectrum, projects such as the Classic House tour have been bringing hordes of dance music fans into the Royal Albert Hall and other conventional concert halls. But Jules Buckley’s career is also ingrained in the more underground moments of the movement.

Jules Buckley, photo by Chris Christodoulou

Buckley had first met Chris Wheeler when they were 19 year old undergraduates at Guildhall music college in London. “Chris was bang into dance music and we both brought different things to the table that connected,” recalls Buckley.

Guildhall had an established electronic course, but Chris and Jules enrolled to study trombone and trumpet respectively. “We had this hilarious time when we became a horn section and would just go and play in clubs with DJs,” recalls Jules. But it was from these beginnings that the seeds of the Heritage project began.

“I was looking for a way to get my music played and Chris was developing his career as a promoter for Cargo,” says Buckley. “Chris phoned me and said he’d been developing this club-night and asked if I wanted to put together an ensemble. So I pigeon-holed 35 of my mates and said, ‘Do you want to do something for no money?’. Then we crammed everyone onto the Cargo stage and somehow it really resonated. And that was it.”

The Heritage Orchestra

After setting up the Heritage Orchestra, Buckley’s career flourished. Gilles Peterson saw Heritage perform at Cargo and invited them to play at Maida Vale and record for his Brownswood label. They recorded ‘Concerto For Turntables’ with Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label, and in 2008 Buckley was invited to be principal guest conductor of the Dutch jazz big band/symphony ensemble Metropole Orkest. By 2013 he’d become their chief conductor.

He’s since been invited to perform non-classical concerts numerous times at The Proms, with both his Metropole and Heritage Orchestras, and in 2016 won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for the Snarky Puppy LP, ‘Sylva’.

Marc Romboy and the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra

While ‘Classic House’ recorded classical versions of electronic music, Marc Romboy and the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra’s new project, ‘Reconstructing Debussy’, approaches the subject from the opposite side of the field. Romboy’s jump-off is reconstructing Debussy’s music from the vantage point of a techno producer. The combination of a 19th Century composer and 21st Century techno artist might sound unlikely, but Romboy was attracted to Debussy’s search for a music beyond limits or boundaries.

“I studied a lot of different composers and Debussy really thrilled me with his use of parallel chords, bi-tonality and pentatonic scales,” says Romboy. “All this reminded me of contemporary electronic music, where you hardly find limits when it comes to traditional scale tone music. I think that composers like Bach, Stravinsky or Debussy are much closer to modern music than we think. The more I dealt with classical music, the more I realised we’re influenced by them because they influenced our influences.”

“Debussy never composed music based on a tonic keynote,” Tomboy continues. “When you study 'La Mer' you think, ‘Oh my god, is there any tone he does not use!?’. It reminds me of when I couldn’t play any instruments and just produced music, like a child playing for fun. This aspect became lost and I´m now exploring this spirit again — composing my music without thinking about rules.”

Marc Romboy

Carl Craig’s approach to his ‘Versus’ project was different again. Carl’s latest album is based on a concert performance from 2008, which recreated a selection of his back catalogue as orchestral pieces. “We then recorded it,” says Craig, “which took a very long time, and then it took a long time before it came back into my hands. I think I then did about 70 mixes.”

Having finished the LP, Craig then scaled the classical arrangements down and transposed them back into electronic versions to create the Versus Synthesisers Ensemble, which is currently on a global tour. “My history is doing music that isn’t locked into a box,” says Craig of his decision to delve into classical music. “It was doing ‘Bug In the Bass Bin, whatever that was. It was doing Detroit records that were jazz records. So doing an orchestra was a natural progression.

“I heard classical music when I was growing up, but I wasn’t a specialist,” Carl continues. “I played an upright bass, so I had minor experience. I mean, like, good lord, probably the most simple pieces for anyone. But there has always been a connection — no matter how much people want to reject it. Electronic music comes from classical music.”

James Heather has adopted yet another approach, and has stripped his music back to the humble piano. He says the other artists currently pushing things forward and bending electronic music and classical into new shapes include Johann Johannsson, Nils Frahm, Amon Tobin, Cinematic Orchestra and Hauschka. “But music doesn’t always have to be a multi-genre, post-modern assault to have gravitas,” he believes. “Pianists  like Dustin O’Halloran, Joep Beving, Gonzalez and Lubomyr Melnyk have connected by taking the emotional power of one instrument somewhere new.”

It’s this he is seeking to emulate. “I am a pianist first and foremost, but one who mostly listens to electronic and hip-hop music,” James says. “I worked on trying to combine my piano with more electronic sounds, but I don’t think my true self was coming out. I decided to focus on becoming as good on the piano as I could — and finding my sound. There are subtle influences of electronic music in my sound, but on first listen it’s more classical. But the classical world always felt a bit stuffy to me.”

Max Richter is similarly weary of classical’s tendency towards snobbishness. “My musical hinterland is embedded in classical music,” he says. “But since I was a teenager I’ve had an interest in electronic music, and these things flow together in my brain. Classical and electronic are about exploring ideas and finding ways to tell stories. Whether you’re standing in font of a blank piece of paper or a modular synth without any patches plugged in; you’ve got an empty space. And you’re trying to dig ideas out of this monster.”

“One of the very unfortunate things we’ve been struggling with is classical has held a moral superiority view,” Max continues. “That you have to be smart or middle class to participate in it. That’s a really destructive social attitude, and anything that gets rid of that is great. Anything that allows people to open the door and be involved is great!”