Between rock and a hard piece

If you tuned in to Radio One sometime between seven and eight pm on the 6th June 2011 you might have been surprised to hear something from the more artistic end of the electronic dance music spectrum – dubstep, replete, as is still the fashion, with synthesised orchestral soundscapes and atonal, sci-fi dissonances. What if someone then told you that the synthesised sounds were actually the live orchestral forces of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra performing Nero’s Dubstep Symphony, and the result was being touted as a development in contemporary music – would it have changed the way you listened to it? I doubt it. Fast-forward a few months to the 2011 Proms and a performance of Gabriel Prokofiev’s new Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra – a case of the tail wagging the dog? At the beginning of the Second Movement one of the performers is instructed to ‘yawn luxuriantly’ – a gilt-edged example of the way in which works of art so often contain their own criticism.

Serious fans of electronic and classical music didn’t regard either attempt to fuse the two extremes with particular interest – Nero’s effort failed to exploit any of the symphony orchestra’s unique qualities – they might as well have stuck to synths – while Prokofiev’s Concerto was simply dull.

Pioneering electronic composer Aphex Twin’s sold out show at the Barbican with the Heritage Orchestra and Choir on 10th October is generating much more interest. The performance will feature his Remote Orchestra concept. The novelty of the idea appeals to me – a large group of classical instrumentalists and vocalists controlled and manipulated, machinelike, via a mixing desk and some electronic visual cues by a kind of autocratic operative… What, like a conductor or a composer? And therein lies the problem – as ingenious as Aphex Twin is as a composer of electronic music, the work is something of a gimmick adding nothing to the orchestra’s established repertoire of sounds – the result is little different from effects achieved 50 years previously by composers such as Xenakis (Metastasis) and Penderecki (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima). The live experience, however, should be extraordinary.

I have no doubt that there is a piece that waits to be written exploiting the nuances of a live orchestra with the possibilities of electronic dance music. Contemporary culture will always impact on orchestral composition with fascinating results, but because of its transience few such works stand the test of time – only those where the relationship captures the very best of multiple worlds; successful cross-genre projects are those we don’t consider cross-genre at all, just music.

Will’s Weekly Recommendation

My suggested listening for last week was James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood for ‘cello and piano. Thankfully one doesn’t need to appreciate the religious overtones of this work to enjoy the wonderful contrasts of violence, suspense and lyricism. It also dispels some popular stereotypes of contemporary music – that it never has a tune, that the pleasure is intellectual and that the concept or process is more important than the result. My recommendation for today: Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit for String Quartet.

PHOTO / James at Uni