Do classical music and techno have common DNA?
Saturday night in one of Europe’s big cities, and concertgoers pour out of underground stations and cabs, tickets and programs in hand, dressed to the nines—a star-spangled cavalcade of cultural exchange and high-brow entertainment. Some will trace what they hear with prepared anticipation, some might not know what will be played at all, but all will unite in the absolute circumstance of it all. A few hours later, usually in the post-industrial or warehouse districts, a different crowd flows in and out of underground clubs—cigarettes and beers in hand—usually a little younger on average, a little dirtier, a little more naked. The sounds here are more repetitive, harder, or more alien and experimental, almost certainly not the kind of thing you’d hear in the concert halls. It’s a tale of two cities that—on the surface—couldn’t seem further apart. Wider respect and recognition for the latter is often severely lacking—ask the government for a club licence in the UK for example, and you’d be lucky to get it, while Arts Council funding provides a lifeline for classical music institutions, albeit a thin one. It’s just one symptom of the ubiquitous and discussed-to-death conservatism that surrounds classical music, playing the same repertoire time and again to ensure ticket sales, or social and behavioral expectation—but despite appearances (and sounds), the apparent antithesis between these worlds has potential to be artistically productive.
The freedom and egalitarianism of the underground techno scene—though not without its own issues—renders dancefloors spaces for experimentation and for reveling in the unexpected. Pioneers like Derrick May were “interested in...educating you for the future,” and even 30 years later, producers have little interest in repeating the past—at least not verbatim—and while a crowd might lose it to a track everybody knows, most will be hearing much of the music in a club for the first (and sometimes the only) time. Now increasingly, the darker, more club-oriented side of the electronic music world is making waves (sawtooth ones, with low-pass filters and lots of resonance...) in the classical world. Festivals such as CTM and Atonal have been expanding the boundaries—and audiences—of electronic music for years now, and producers like Moritz von Oswald and Carl Craig, who cut their teeth pioneering techno in Berlin and Detroit, now form part of the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue. Last Friday saw “Parallax,” held by the team behind Atonal festival, where the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester played alongside electronic composers and performers. The event took place in Berlin’s Kraftwerk, a former power station that also houses Tresor, a club whose roots extend into the earliest days of Berlin techno, and which carried the sound from Detroit to Europe, changing the sound of the city in the process.
One of those in attendance was James Ginzburg, one half of production project Emptyset, and curator of Subtext Recordings. Ginzburg’s own work explores the intersect between space and sound, and the phenomena of the listening experience, while releases on his label bridge between classical instrumentation or backgrounds, and electronic compositional approaches. Artists such as Yair Elazar Glotman (who also produces under the alias Ketev) have a foot in both worlds, classically trained on the contrabass, but equally adept at producing dark, post-techno soundscapes. Also on the Subtext roster is Paul Jebanasam, whose “Cycλomorphia” was performed at Parallax. I caught up with Ginzburg a few days after the event—which along with our conversation, bookended one of Berlin’s notoriously long weekends—to talk about classical and techno’s unlikely relationship.
“Most people I know have much wider tastes in music now than they did 10 years ago,” he tells me. “The cross-pollination of audiences is certainly much more likely.” Parallax’s crowd reflected this kind of DNA exchange, as black-clad club kids sat or stood alongside well-dressed couples or music students who looked more likely to belong to the usual classical cohort. “Where there’s a bridge between all these worlds is the idea of music as a sonic experience.” It’s a simple but true notion, and hints at the democratizing essence of sound and music—no matter who listens, the experience should be the same. It’s been done before, but the absence of seats, and the ability to walk freely around the building’s two floors, as well as alternating performance locations at Parallax, undid the traditional concert-ticket hierarchy that permits the best seats in the house to just a few. The democracy of underground club culture, where cash and creed count for nothing, could be seen, and a few hesitant claps between movements during the DSO’s performance of Debussy’s “La Mer” was heartening evidence that old music was reaching new ears.
Contemporary classical music is, of course, no stranger to electronic methods and instrumentation—many have made the jump from the former to the latter. What figures such as Moritz von Oswald are doing however, is less common. Though classically trained as a percussionist, he made his name alongside Mark Ernestus under a number of different aliases, the best-know being Basic Channel. The project is credited with the invention of “dub-techno,” a sub-genre that implements the reverb and delay chains of dub within techno production processes. The distinction between the resulting tracks and contemporary classical music movements is one made in name only. Oswald’s reinterpretation of Debussy, which followed “La Mer” and closed the evening, is a less-heard example of the techno world exploring and expanding the possibilities of the classical.
“It’s far easier for somebody with a classical music background to come to electronic music and have everything they need, it’s very accessible,” Ginzburg tells me. “I think the other way round, the bar of entry is potentially considerably higher.” The number of self-taught electronic producers is something that corroborates this idea, although throughout the course of our discussion we agree that accessibility does not equate with ease when it comes to producing (or composing, depending on which side’s terms you want to use) good music. When it comes to the classical world’s forays into the electronic, we agree at some point in our conversation that the results can be embarrassing, but as Ginzburg suggests, it’s a “criticism that can be levied in reverse.” While there are plenty of examples of ill-advised electronic implementation in the classical world that have gone unchecked because of the names of the composers, there are countless hideous attempts at making techno remixes of classical music. This is usually the case when the desire to assert the connection between both worlds trumps the desire to make either sound very good. It’s also completely unnecessary—early rave’s sampling of orchestra hits was integral to its sound, but things were done in a suitably nuanced way, even if the resulting track is far from subtle. One fun example is T99’s “Anasthasia,” which opens with a sample of an orchestra tuning (from “Bring it on Up” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra), and the “a” sound from “statu variabilis,” the third line of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” right after the cymbal hit, back in 1991. On the topic of crossing boundaries, it might be said here that few other genres of music can juxtapose medieval Latin goliardic poetry with an orchestra formed by Barry White, and pull it off.
While the performance and reception of electronic music, especially techno, is founded in ritual, classical is implicated in ceremony. I saw no bouquets of flowers at Parallax, and although there was an attempt on behalf of the DSO to instigate a prolonged ovation by doing the usual walking-offstage-then-back-onstage routine, it went largely unnoticed by the crowd walking the opposite direction, down the stairs and toward the exit. Both the programming and the staging of performance, as well as the initial idea of electronically reworking or interpreting the likes of Debussy or Ives at Parallax, disregarded the sanctity that more conservative classical audiences might demand for certain pieces of music—this kind of untouchable reverence doesn’t really exist in the electronic world, of which an important element is extensive sampling. “By and large, electronic music is a folk music tradition,” Ginzburg points out. “That automatically differentiates it in terms of the question of class.” There are points where the lines blur, of course, and obviously not all electronic music is club music, but as far as underground clubs are concerned (distinctly not those with dress codes and VIP tables), the kind of hierarchies created by reverence or ceremony are largely absent.
This goes some way to explaining how an event like Parallax is able to command an audience that concert halls cannot. With almost no gap between performances, and only a five-minute intermission, the event was more about a sonic experience than a social one. Ironically, it was from those who had crossed from the classical side that I heard complaints about the electronic pieces being too long—but, understandably, if your usual experience of music in public spaces isn’t regularly that of 12 hours in a club, 20 minutes of nuanced electronic interpretation of a piece you know too well in its original form might seem a bit much. Similarly, plenty of those who looked more likely to have emerged from the underground techno scene than the classical world thought Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major an opportune moment to grab another beer. Either way, these kinds of events enable new experiences for a wide spectrum of people and their coming together can never be a bad thing. Hybridization facilitates longevity, and while questions about the future of classical music continue to bubble away at the back of our collective consciousness, perhaps here there are some answers. My discussion with Ginzburg turns to speculating about the future, and whether what constitutes classical music might change. “[Maybe] in 100 years we’ll have a kind of Jeff Mills foundation or something,” he tells me. “That’d be interesting to see, if that culture is given that same kind of weight.”¶