Orchestrating History: Selling The Canon
I’ve always hated that thing that so many orchestra’s are currently doing; taking dance music canon pieces and performing/interpreting/massacring them live. My objections are usually based around an incompatibility between the musicians performing them and the subject matter. The recent rush to create classical performances of dance music needs to be addressed before it goes any further. They’re almost always unsuccessful musically. But there are deeper reasons why this should be questioned and hopefully stopped.
A few producers have performed their work with orchestras in recent years, providing specific scores and working in tandem with conductors (Nero, Jeff Mills, BT etc.) and these work more or less well enough. Pete Tong’s Heritage Orchestra, Haçienda Classiçal with the Manchester Camerata, Miss Moneypenny’s Proms with the Birmingham Gay Symphony Orchestra, Lush! Classical with the Ulster Orchestra, have all attempted to reinterpret dance music for classical orchestras in recent years. However, those larger, more amorphous blogs like Hacienda Classical need to stop. Immediately. They’re poorly done, inappropriately rendered, and performed without integrity.
Often, the performances simply do not ‘work’. The version of Voodoo Ray from Haçienda Classical shows an absolutely astonishing lack of comprehension and appreciation of the material. Voodoo Ray is minimal, sparse, fairly atonal in places, and reliant on very specific technologies that simply can’t be replicated with acoustic instrumentation. Pacific State from the same recording is equally pointless, sounding like a GCSE music technology cover of the original track. Apparently there are real instruments in there, however they’re so sparse and mixed so low the piece feels like a waste of 3 minutes.
It is easy to accuse (and often rightly) an orchestra of lacking a crucial component of dance music: groove. The result is usually starchy, solid, inflexible and, frankly, lifeless, mainly due to the rhythmic entrainment of orchestras working in musical genres that do not employ groove. Furthermore, the conductor can often be blamed for such interpretation and performance issue. Ignoring the often-invoked ‘power’ of a string section to bring excitement to a piece or performance (something I personally don’t believe as a blanket statement), the resultant performances and releases almost always lack something indefinable also. That magic aura that the original records are somehow imbued with is always missing.
Conversely, on those occasions where the material fits the orchestra, there can be moments where the performance flourishes. Gatecrasher Classical’s attempt to reinterpret trance with huge strings is far more successful in this regard. This is not surprising given the hugely important role dense harmony has in trance music. Who wouldn’t want to hear Rank 1’s Airwave or Solarstone’s Seven Cities done with huge orchestral strings?
The reasons both of these pieces were included in each orchestra’s performance is not haphazard. Voodoo Ray links directly back to Manchester’s misnamed ‘acid house’ scene, the Haçienda, and A Guy Called Gerald as Manc musical royalty. The same for Sheffield’s Gatecrasher as the driving force and epitome of UK trance in the late 90s and early 00s before the sad demise of Nation.
However, if we put the issue of orchestration and performance aside, there is a larger problem here. The reason these performances do not work is simply because these musical materials are not within the purview of an orchestra. It is disingenuous in the extreme. An orchestra, the most high-brow, rarified culture still remaining in the Western world, is no place for dance music. Dance music is, by its very definition, low art. It is degenerate, queer, subversive, anti-establishment, DIY, punk, dirty, and done in the dark. Classical music is the very opposite: hierarchical, structured, codified, monitored, restrictive (you can’t even cough without people tutting), and the most fully realised example of the “establishment” still remaining [Please check out Musicking if you don’t believe me]. So, my question is, what on earth gives an orchestra the right and the knowledge to deal with dance music?
Dance music has been accused of many political, social and musical ills. It is often referred to as simplistic and primitive, and not rarefied or complex enough to warrant real scrutiny. Yet, with the dwindling attendance at classic music events, orchestras are resorting to populist and poorly executed reinterpretations of dance music to fill their dusty halls. Perhaps we should be calling out orchestras for co-opting cultural materials that are not their own? The phrase ‘cultural appropriate’ is far too loaded a term to throw around lightly, and I don’t intend to invoke it here. But at the very least we can accuse them of insincerity. N.B Yes, I’m aware these concerts are generally organised by DJs and defunct clubs, but it doesn’t change the fact they’re still being performed by people who have no right to perform them.
I’d suggest the issue that overshadows this entire debate most prominently is that of knowledge. DJs and producers hone their craft over years of dedication and practice, just like any orchestral musician. However, suggesting a DJ knows the intricacies of violin articulation is as unlikely as a violinist knowing the difference between filter poles. More importantly, I’d wager most producers of dance music do not know the opus numbers of Scriabin, and most classical musicians do not know the importance of the Nervous label. Why would we assume that an orchestral musician, and especially a conductor, is even capable of appropriately interpreting a piece of dance music with all it’s encoded meaning, samples, historical references and socio-historical resonances? And why would we assume a dance producer is capable of scoring for an orchestra simply because they have a copy of Cubase? As I said, it is disingenuous. The cultures of the club and the concert hall are, by definition and history, absolutely incompatible. The fields owe very little to one another, and they rarely encounter each other. When they do, we end up with monstrosities like Hacienda Classical.
But wait? Isn’t dance music universal? Isn’t it for everyone? Well, yes it is. But simply because you can hum Insomnia, you’re not a DJ, and because you can count to four doesn’t mean you can programme a drum machine. I can have a subjective response to Elgar, however, I couldn’t perform it accurately or even begin to critique it’s composition. If we do desire to merge these worlds we need a greater appreciation of each field and find a space that is not filled with drugs and bouncers, but also not so restrictive you can’t cough without complaints. High and low art meeting needs a middle ground. I do not know where that is, or who the people are who should oversee such an endeavour. I’d say that finding someone with a true appreciation for both musics and a deep knowledge of the resonances and dissonances between the two fields is the only way to perform such a crossover. We have certainly not achieved that yet.
Finally, there is a wider point to raise. Dance music is the preserve of the underdog, the minority, or the oppressed. Wagner isn’t. Originally these musics were created to give voice to gay, queer, Black and Hispanic minorities. Yet, please skip through some of the video’s above. If you can spot a single Person of Colour in those orchestras, performing the music that was created explicitly by those people for those people, I’ll buy you a pint (there are a few Black vocalists thankfully). According to recent research, only 1.7% of orchestral players come from the BME community in the UK. There are no figures available for dance music, but I’d suggest the number for dance music is at least 10 times higher. Some of the best producers in the field have always come from minority communities, indeed the music came from those communities in the beginning. Saying that classical music is a whitewashed field isn’t stating anything new. Yet, we see exclusively white performers, in the most “establishment” venues, feeding watered down, insincere performances of music they do not understand or appreciate, to audiences who are, frankly, daft enough to pay for an experience stripped of all validity and representation. The orchestras should be ashamed of their lack of comprehension, and the clubbers should be ashamed of their desire to engage with musical forms that are stripped of all their meaning. (I will put in a slight word in support of the Miss Moneypenny’s performers. Although the performance is poor and generally unremarkable, at least the minority is represented by the Gay Birmingham Symphony, and slightly more obviously gay references like the Mardi Gras dancers.)
What are we doing? Are we that devoid of cultural appreciation that we’ll let it be used by the hallmarks of the establishment to manipulate and deceive? As clubbers, where did our self-respect go? We have forgotten our history.