there’s a stargaze waiting in the sky: meet the man taking bowie to the proms
We speak to André de Ridder, the man behind the contemporary classical collective reinterpreting David Bowie's music for the BBC Proms.
It was Bowie's "spirit of constant reinvention" that first attracted conductor André de Ridder to the idea of a tribute concert at this year's BBC Proms. Leader of the avant-garde s t a r g a z e collective - a contemporary classical ensemble based in Bowie's former home of Berlin - de Ridder took the chance to "bring new aspects out or spin certain elements further" at the event taking place at the Royal Albert Hall later this year. And the end result - a lineup including Jherek Bischoff, Anna Calvi and Amanda Palmer, with others to be announced - is something you can't help but feel the late performer would be only too encouraging of. Perhaps more than any other artist, Bowie moved pop music to its outer limits and beyond, receptive to outside influence while remaining, above all else, an artist immune to your consultations and quite aware what he was going through. With a growing profile at the vanguard of contemporary collaborative practice, de Ridder's s t a r g a z e make for the perfect vehicle to explore his back-catalogue. We spoke to the artistic director about his own memories of Bowie and the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes he has in store.
Hello André. How did you come to be involved in the project?
We were approached by the BBC. I've directed a few concert projects at the Proms before and, when they called and we discussed it, s t a r g a z e seemed to be the perfect band/ensemble/orchestra for the challenge.
How do you even begin to pick which Bowie songs to perform?
We've picked the songs in consultation with the invited singers, and also with the Proms and BBC, but I'd drawn up a list of songs that we felt would really lend themselves to a treatment/re-imagining within classical-contemporary arrangements. One that has a good balance between the favourites and less widely familiar but utterly gorgeous songs.
How much did you feel compelled to stick to the original compositions and how much did you feel able to experiment with them?
We want people to recognise the songs! But there will be different levels of experimentation and sophistication, due to a variety of arrangers and composers we're inviting to collaborate with us.
Is there something in particular about Bowie's music that lends itself to reinterpretation?
It's classy-ness and timelessness! These songs already are compositionally really interesting, there are so many facets to them, harmonically and melodically and in the extreme variety of arrangements already existing, original ones and transformations over the years. He was always keen to work with new groups, musicians and ensembles. In my dreams he would have lived and some day come round to s t a r g a z e anyway... We can only play on this theme and pay debt to it and celebrate the songs from our point of view.
What makes the songs great is that, even though Bowie was the inimitable, original and mesmerising performer, they have this transcendent quality, they shine as timeless songs themselves. I'd find it much harder to interpret Prince songs in this way, without the man, and that's not saying that his songs are any less genius than Bowie's… It's just a bit different. There are some quite orchestral elements already, for example in the Brian Eno collaborations on Low and Heroes. What "orchestration" adds is, after all, live analogue synthesis.
As a Berliner, do you feel Bowie's impact on the city? What is it about the place that made it such a perfect for fit?
Berliners are very proud that Bowie spent time in the city, and such a productive one at that! I live around the corner from his former apartment on Haupstrasse, where flowers lined the streets for months after his death, which tells you about the locals affection and awareness. Opposite was a club called Ecstasy where I saw my first alternative/punk-rock gigs in the 90s. But we weren't aware that he'd lived there! The thing about Berlin is that still you can be anonymous, do your own thing and be left alone mostly, even though it is a very creatively fertile environment. Moreover, while the Wall was up, in the 70s and 80s, Berlin was an island, kind of it's own state, with its own rules, almost cast out of or frozen in time, like in a science-fiction noir novel. That may have appealed to him.
Can you tell us a little about the aim of s t a r g a z e as a collective?
We usually create new music and collaborations with experimentally minded artists from the fields of pop/indie/electronic/folk as well as classical contemporary music (like an upcoming co-composed project with Minneapolis band Poliça). But we have also taken to perform classical works to alternative rock festival audiences, as well as putting our own spin on music by the likes of Deerhoof, Boards of Canada and… the Grateful Dead! We're on the Red Hot tribute album Day of the Dead released this month, which was curated by The National.
And can you tell us a little about the collaborators involved in this project?
That's partly still a secret! But we already announced Jherek Bischoff with Amanda Palmer and Anna Calvi, whose tribute EP Strung Out in Heaven was a great inspiration for us. They will be doing a couple of different, new ones, not on this EP, and together we'll be expanding some arrangements from the original string quartet line-up Jherek used.
Finally... what is it about Bowie's music that's so enduring?
For me there is an almost classic, "song book" like canonical quality about it. And in terms of the emotional content, just something very, very humanly deep, and exuberantly joyful, comforting in its melancholy.
David Bowie Prom takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 29 July.
Text Matthew Whitehouse