orchestral manoeuvres in the dark: the rising trend of dance and classical crossovers

More and more artists are fusing dance with orchestral arrangements – and the club can’t even Handel it right now.

by Matthew Whitehouse
17 August 2017, 4:02pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Neither side rarely comes out well from a crossover. Think Lou Reed and Metallica. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Phil Collins. Think The Simpsons and Family Guy, for goodness sake (actually maybe don't think about that). The prevailing school of thought tells you that fusing two loved artist or genres together takes the kick out of both. But over in the classical world, things are going Pete Tong -- and it couldn't be better for it.

Ever since Pete, the voice of Radio 1's dance programming and all round general ambassador for electronic music -- took his Ibiza Classics show to the BBC Proms in 2015, the world has gone mad for dance and classical crossovers. There's Carl Craig's Versus project, a re-working of Detroit techno classics in an orchestral setting. Haçienda Classical, a reworking of acid house classics in an orchestral setting. Hell, even arguably Britain's biggest pop group, Clean Bandit, made their name peddling a mix of classical strings with glossy, chart-friendly sounds ("I don't think it's our fault," says cellist Grace Chatto over the phone to i-D, "but I'll be pleased if it was!").

For Pete, it's the gravitas that an orchestral rendering can lend a piece which makes the idea of crossovers so appealing to dance artists: "I've always had a slight chip on my shoulder about dance culture not adding up to as much significance as rock and roll or hip-hop."

While Pete has spent an entire career championing cutting-edge electronic sounds -- most notably on his long-running Radio 1 Essential Mix show -- he's well aware of the perception of dance as a genre perhaps more for the body than the mind. "For those people who lived through the late 80s and 90s though, that clubbing phenomenon, it changed people's lives," he says. "It was a magical moment, so reinterpreting the songs with an orchestra and performing them on that scale -- it's just captured people's imagination."

And captured is somewhat of an understatement. Pete recently returned from performing his sold-out show -- complete with the Jules Buckley-helmed, 65-piece Heritage Orchestra, at Destino in Ibiza, with a slot at this weekend's V Festival and five arena shows scheduled for later in the year. The project has, in the words of Edward Blakeman, Head of Content Commissioning for Radio 3, been "an example of something the BBC Proms can do so well, creating a coming-together of musical genres" -- and, what's more, the trend has gone far beyond simple nostalgia trip.

Gabriel Szatan has been a long-standing booker at underground bellwether Boiler Room for several years now and has witnessed an upturn in interest towards the site's more classically leaning programming: "People come to expect it now and, if anything, the proliferation of our dance music coverage means that the intrigue of a classical anything is there every time we do it," he says.

Gabriel cites "the cornerstone of minimalism and repetition, big swooping and cresting moments and staccato leads" as just a few of the reasons why electronic music lends itself so well to classical interpretation. He describes Boiler Room's audience as "open to new things" be it Hauschka & Múm collaborating with Leipzig's MDR Symphony Orchestra or Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra -- and that hunger for the new still stands -- even when those new things are, in fact, "super fucking old".

"I wouldn't want to overegg the pudding," he caveats. "Dance and classical are not particularly alike most of the time. But when a clever blogger takes apart the intricacies of a Oneohtrix Point Never or AFX track, and sets it against a classical piece in re-rendered sheet music, you get an appreciation for how they can sit side-by-side, and why overlap is more commonplace."

It's that idea of seeing things in a different light, which first gave Detroit techno pioneer, Jeff Mills, the impetus to perform his own back catalog with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005. Jeff recalls discussions about orchestral arrangements taking place within the Detroit techno scene "all the way back in the late 1980s", and describes the general consensus around the turn of the century as the time having come "to try and move on to find ways to use electronic music other than dancing".

"I did not fully understand what electronic music was about until I began to look to other genres and then began to compare," says Jeff, who recently released a crossover album, inspired by the 1918 classical score of Gustav Holst's The Planets. "Then I began to realise just how special electronic music is. Making music for people to dance to and music for clubs, really didn't show me that much. It was only when I began to try and use this music in a different way that I really began to understand why this genre is so much more unique than any other."

Perhaps the answer was staring dance artist such as Jeff in the face the whole time. You only have to listen to Derrick May's 1987 classic Strings of Life, for example, to hear the explicit influence of classical arrangement on electronic styles such as Detroit techno. Add to that the fact that much of the scene sought influence from the avant-garde experimentalism of Europeans such as Kraftwerk (a band helmed by classical music students Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider) and you begin to see that orchestral interpretations are less of an ill-advised mash-up and more a returning to the genre's classically influenced roots -- whether subconsciously or not.

"A lot of those producers and DJs were using the new technology, the new keyboards, and one thing they all had were string settings," agrees Pete. "They all had pads, they all had horn sounds. Out of the box software got very complex very quickly and it allowed you to create orchestras, to create orchestra sounds, by layering stuff. Now were able to deconstruct that and it just flips it, adding a weight that you can't get with just pure electronics.

"It's like stepping into a Formula 1 car for the first time," he continues. "You can't contemplate the shift on power to being up there, surrounded by all these great players and how powerful a noise they make. It's just on another level." Roll over Beethoven -- classical is hitting the clubs.

Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra perform at V Festival's Weston Park leg this Saturday and Hylands' Park leg this Sunday. London Contemporary Orchestra & Guests Present GABA-analogue takes place at London's Printworks on Friday 18 August.

pete tong
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dance music
Classical Music
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