Following the release of Max Richter’s ‘Recomposed’ version of Vivaldi’s Baroque classic, The Four Seasons, Liam Cagney explores the seemingly unlikely marriage between classical and techno.
As musical genres go, techno and classical seem like polar opposites. Techno springs from electronic circuits; classical, from wood, brass and catgut. Techno is defined by nightclubs and repetitive beats; classical by concert halls and resounding orchestras. And yet when the two meet, as occasionally they do, they can complement each other well.
This month, British composer Max Richter, who in a previous life was a floating member of legendary electronica group Future Sound of London, launches his ‘Recomposed’ version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Stores in London such as Selfridges and the Apple Store on Regent Street will have their sound systems taken over by Richter’s remixes of these Baroque violin concerto classics. Here’s his delicate, hypnotic treatment of the first, ‘Spring’.
But for those looking for a more purist techno experience – that is, music with beats – will find plenty more variety in other releases in Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposed’ series. The highlight so far for me here is Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s ‘Recomposed’ version of Ravel’s Boléro. Using original recordings by the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, Craig and von Oswald, two giants in the field of techno, have produced an understated, slow-building remix of Ravel’s classic. Being built on a looping, repetitive phrase in the first place, Boléro is ideal for this kind of treatment:
The 70s German electronic group Kraftwerk are credited with being the originators of techno, and their album Trans-Europe Express features a piece called ‘Franz Schubert’:
It’s obviously meant as a nod to their German musical heritage, but it doesn’t particularly recall the lyrical genius of Schubert. In fact, with its rising melodic lines swirling around one chord, it’s musically closer to Wagner’s Prelude for Das Rheingold (see what you think by comparing here, building from around 0’50″), though obviously on a matchbox-model scale to Wagner’s orchestral colossus.
In the 80s, American artists turned the beats up a notch and invented the genre of techno as we know it today – one of the musical phenomena of recent decades. An early work, ‘The Final Frontier’, by the Detroit collective Underground Resistance brings to mind the 19th-century symphonists:
After an opening that has all the familiar hallmarks of 80s techno – drum-machine beats, bubbling bass – an electronic string section kicks in, bathing the piece with melancholic gravitas. Avoid the cheesiness of William Orbit’s effort at a classical-techno hybrid; Underground Resistance here combine a string section and beats to powerful effect; an ideal that is also realised in Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’.
Continuing further down this path, Germany’s Wolfgang Voigt, with his project GAS, explores dense electronic soundscapes, propelled through auditory forests by throbbing beats. Again here, in GAS’s Königsforst, there is a hint of Wagner in the lush, static harmony and horn and string sounds:
According to Voigt, much of GAS’s music is in fact built from samples from old classical recordings: of works by Wagner, Schoenberg, and other composers in the classical Austro-Germanic tradition. So if the last example sounds a bit like an orchestra, it’s because it is a sample of one (though the particular orchestra and recording that Voigt sampled are uncredited).
Things have come a long way, then, since Wendy Carlos’s classic Switched-On Bach, which back in the 60s saw Baroque works channelled through the knobs and buttons of the newly invented synthesiser. That said, few electronica-classical crossovers since have achieved the brilliance of Carlos’s reimagining of Henry Purcell, so memorably used here by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange.
Want to explore further?
The website for DG’s ‘Recomposed’ series (in German):
An article on Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach:
An interview with Wolfgang Voigt of GAS:
An article by Jon Savage on the origins of techno:
Where to buy:
Recomposed: Vivaldi/Max Richter:
Recomposed: Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald/Music by Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky:
Wendy Carlos, Switched-On Bach:
Underground Resistance, Final Frontier:
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express:
Do make sure you have a look at the first two in our Classical Connections series: Classical Connections #1: Minimalism meets Pop, and Classical Connections #2: the guitar that rocked classical music.
Liam Cagney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Telegraph, Village Magazine, The Journal of Music and elsewhere. He is a doctoral candidate in Music at City University of London, where he also lectures.