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In Writing

Collateral Damage: Dance music and orchestras don’t mix. By Chal Ravens

April 2018

The trend for classical and orchestral reinterpretations of dance music comes with strings attached

“DJ Spoony, one of the original pioneers of the UK garage scene,” read the email from London’s Barbican centre, “has joined forces with the 36 piece Ignition Orchestra to present a night of the biggest UK garage hits.” Not for the first time, a genre rooted in DJs, dancefloors, smoke and lasers is receiving a classical makeover; ex-raggamuffin ravers infiltrate the hallowed halls of culture on a special dispensation, tuxedos buttoned, hair slicked down, like hyperactive kids at a wedding.

These coerced cultural meldings have become frequent fodder for arts institutions, particularly in the UK, where rave culture has always mingled with the mainstream. Over time, it’s a concept that has lost its novelty as each dance music niche has been mined, one by one: Pete Tong & The Heritage Orchestra playing Ibiza classics, Nero’s “dubstep symphony” for Radio 1, a “grime symphony” for Radio 1Xtra, acid house nostalgia at Manchester’s Hacienda Classical, and countless demonstrations of techno but with violins from Detroit pioneers like Derrick May, Carl Craig and Jeff Mills.

The trend began with The Balanescu Quartet’s cursed reworkings of Kraftwerk – their 1992 covers album Possessed showed how, by breathing life into the man machine, you can inadvertently kill off its robot soul. No longer “so stiff, they’re funky”, as Carl Craig admired, Kraftwerk’s blocky melodies began to quiver with vibrato, an expression that’s equally as artificial. Playing electronic music on acoustic instruments is a denial of what made this music fascinating in the first place: the mysterious power of mechanical repetition and the futuristic allusions of synthetic sound.

The underlying premise of these versions is the validation of a popular (by which we mean working class) musical style by the elite establishment. It doesn’t matter if it’s the knowingly ridiculous pomp and circumstance of Radio 1’s Ibiza Proms, where Robert Miles and Fatboy Slim anthems bounce off the gilded balconies of London’s Royal Albert Hall, or straight-faced symphonies tackling the austere works of Mills and May at the Barbican, a hierarchy remains in place. To be invited into the headquarters of high culture is a pat on the head for clever children, to adapt the title of a feature on Karlheinz Stockhausen in The Wire 141, where he denounced the “permanent repetitive language” of his techno spawn like Richie Hawtin and Aphex Twin.

A broader trend in recent years for electronic meets classical projects has produced some thoughtful and innovative records: Deutsche Grammophon’s ReComposed series springs to mind, with Max Richter, Matthew Herbert and Carl Craig with Moritz von Oswald putting their own spin on classical pieces, or London Sinfonietta’s Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters, recorded across two concerts which sequenced Aphex Twin and Squarepusher next to György Ligeti, Edgard Varèse and, naturally, Stockhausen.

But while an album can be a democratic presentation of this cultural meeting, taking club music into the concert hall is something else – rather than a collaboration, a reframing. Most importantly, bar a few exceptions, like Actress’s recent collaboration with The London Contemporary Orchestra – a bespoke composition which barely strayed into dance territory – most of these events just... aren’t very good. Audiences know they’re paying a steep price for a nostalgic gimmick, and while they might like the novelty of hearing club classics in a high culture setting the first time around, it’s not a sustainable direction for either the artists or the institutions.

So why does the trend continue? No doubt classical institutions are struggling to secure their finances; these collaborations must seem like a way of accessing a younger audience and getting bums on seats, all while ticking boxes to prove that they’re broadening their appeal to those who’d not usually go to upmarket venues. Rather than recognising club music as a cultural force with its own mores and milieus that have evolved over several decades (the club, the sound system, the smoke machines, the intoxicants, the emphasis on communal experience) institutions try to take the music as music without context. The classical venue is actually a curiously context-free locale – it offers silence and semi-darkness (though not enough to forget where or who you are) in order for you to experience the music as a solo ticket buyer, trapped in your fold-down seat, no talking, dancing or shady imbibing allowed. The stultified atmosphere can even be off-putting to the people who book them: “A thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness,” in the words of Richard Dare, one-time chief executive of The Brooklyn Philharmonic. It’s a long way from the raucous classical audiences of a hundred years ago, who sometimes clapped and screamed during performances, stood on their chairs and strung banners over the orchestra pit.

The classical concert venue prevents dancing and communing, and thwarts the accepted functionality of dance music. By functionality, I’m referring to a communal possibility that the music has a social function, not a one-to-one experience between music and listener, but between listeners. The sounds are a social lubricant, just like the booze, pills, the bright lights: part of a matrix of elements that make a night out. Stripping away the rest makes it seem as if the music is the only important element – something the producers and DJs are only too happy to believe. The DJ gets his pat on the head (and it is always a he – the canonising of club music perpetuates the sense that this is a boys’ club).

Maybe UK garage, in its late 1990s aspirational mode, was always destined for the concert hall, a venue where champagne and loafers are de rigueur. And who cares if a few thousand retired ravers fancy hearing Frankie Knuckles classics blasting from the orchestra pit on a school night? But if the establishment is really interested in taking club music seriously, it might consider throwing some money at the culture rather than airlifting it to the safety of publicly funded arts organisations.

In recent years, 85 per cent of the UK Arts Council’s music budget went on opera and classical music – meanwhile, clubs across Europe are shutting their doors.

The article original appeared in The Wire 411. You can grab a copy of the issue via our online shop.

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