Friend or foe?

Electronic music is not the enemy of classical music
January 25, 2012
Floating above the crowd: pianist and DJ Francesco Tristano

When Dave Taylor, aka DJ Switch, made his way onto the Royal Albert Hall stage for a Proms concert last summer, it wasn’t just his T-shirt and stubble that set him apart. This was the first time that Taylor’s instrument—the turntables—had featured in the world’s largest classical music festival. Decades after electronic music first conquered dance-floors, it has infiltrated the heart of the classical establishment.

Computer music; electro-acoustic music; stochastic music; tape music: the terminology of electronic music is as forbidding as some of the sounds themselves. Encompassing everything from the avant garde innovations of Stockhausen and Varese in the 1950s through to today’s mainstream dance genres of house, techno and of course electronica, it’s a field of unlikely alliances and of innovation. It’s also one with a close relationship to the classical tradition.

“It’s strange that we separate electronica from classical electro-acoustic music so completely,” says pianist and DJ Francesco Tristano, “because their root is the same. Electronic music was invented by classical composers.” It’s an oft-rehearsed argument, based on everything from the influence of Stockhausen on Beatles’ producer George Martin to legendary techno producer Moritz von Oswald’s second career as a classical percussionist. Tristano, who applies techniques of compression and distortion to the music of Bach, and is one of the most progressive artists currently recording on the ultra-conservative Deutsche Grammophon label, himself makes a persuasive case for the piano as a “proto-synthesiser.”

These two traditions of classical and popular electronic styles are coming back together—a trend some have hailed as the saving of classical music, others as its death knell. It is neither. Electronic music can become part of modern classical without rotting it from within. But its growing influence does not herald a golden age where electronic classical vies with Rihanna for chart success.

There’s no denying that electronic techniques offer classical composers the chance to expand their musical vocabulary—a responsibility composer Richard Lannoy sees as too important to ignore. “There’s this idea that the orchestra reached its peak in the 19th century and has since stagnated. Thanks to technology we have the opportunity to change this, to develop sounds not available to us acoustically. This isn’t about electronic music replacing the acoustic orchestra, it’s the sound of the orchestra reimagined in ways we’ve never heard before.”

A new musical vocabulary demands a new musical grammar, something Tansy Davies—one of Britain’s most distinctive young composers—is currently developing. “I have a very tactile relationship with the sounds I use; recorded sounds become like just another instrument for me, an extension of my musical palette.” It’s an approach that has already yielded a marvel in the shape of 2005’s Salt Box, an evocative and melancholic musical landscape for chamber ensemble and electronics.

Yet for every composer like Davies or Lannoy for whom integrating two musical worlds is a creative and considered process, there are many for whom thrusting a beat on top of a Debussy string quartet or hacking Bach into bleeding melodic chunks to sample on a dance track (the music of DJ Kissy Sell Out offers some choice examples) is an end in itself.

Misuse and abuse aside, there are real problems with electronics in the classical arena that go beyond ideology, as composer Anna Meredith acknowledges. “[Live performance] is something I really wrestle with; you can be sweating behind your laptop doing incredibly difficult and spontaneous things and to the audience it can look as though you’re just playing Solitaire.”

How can composers preserve the unique energy of the live acoustic performance, while still incorporating new electronic sounds? “I’m realising increasingly that the music can’t all happen behind the Wizard of Oz curtain,” admits Meredith. “My solution has been to take elements that could be electronic and make them happen live instead. I would much rather have something slightly flawed that allowed the audience to see how it is being made.” It’s a philosophy shared by Lannoy. “What’s most exciting for me as a composer is to use electronics to explore new sonic possibilities then to re-translate those sounds back into acoustic forces, and ultimately to make the computer redundant.”

All of which seems to take us full circle, restoring electronic music to its classical origins. Rather than a rivalry, or even a dialogue, the relationship between acoustic music and electronica seems to be one of cyclical growth and influence. We have travelled via technology to arrive once again at gut and wood; we have jettisoned the classical constraints of sonata form only to achieve the rigid structural patterning of a techno track.

At the end of 2011 Gabriel Prokofiev’s pioneering classical club night Nonclassical took a journey into the past, abandoning its signature remixes and instead bringing medieval music ensemble Mediva into a Hoxton bar. If he and his fellow electronic innovators are truly sounding the death-knell of musical tradition, then it’s a remarkably tuneful one. Classical music is dead. Long live classical music.