Long before I ever knew what techno was, even before I bought my first punk record, or went through the soul obsession of my early teenage years, I was in love with classical music. I was tiny when my Grandfather passed away, but amongst the things left behind was a box set of Readers Digest classical selections – a dozen or so records within an ancient looking case which contained perhaps thirty well-known pieces of classical music. Of course, I was far too young to properly appreciate the contents, but I gradually grew into it and something in it attached itself to my brain.
There were the early affairs with the usual suspects – Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss – and the later dalliances with the likes of Stockhausen, Shostakovich, and Debussy which led into brief flings with the likes Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and countless others. As with all music it takes time to begin to understand what it is you are looking for, to find the sounds which seem to reflect something of yourself, or open doors to new experiences. All of these composers are fantastic, and the ones I return to more than the rest – Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Gorecki for instance – always draw me into sonic worlds where daily life has little impact.
Classical music often seems to be a difficult sell to people who haven’t experienced it. I’ve always thought that there is a natural link between classical music and electronica which is far more overt than it is with other genres, other styles. Producers working with sequencers, with machine capable of bringing together dozens – hundreds – of distinct sounds, moods, and textures under the direction of a single person has always felt a very modern, if not futuristic, way of doing what composers have always strived to do over the centuries. And although it’s probably foolish to say that if Mozart were alive today he would be pumping out tunes of brain-addling complexity with the aid of a Sequentix Cirklon, you have to wonder whether the possibilities would spark something great.
There have of course been cross overs which move in the other direction, the most well-known being Jeff Mills’ dalliances with various orchestras and composers. As a piece of art, as music, it works well. You sometimes have to wonder, though, whether it might be time for him to go the whole hog. Mills has a long history of taking his music beyond the framework and constraints of techno. He has sound tracked silent movies, the best known of which was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; he’s created pieces for art installations and exhibitions, and you suspect perhaps his next step is to dump the 808s and try his hand at truly composing for orchestras.
But away from Mills, traditional techno producers have perhaps been reluctant to move between the spheres. There may be cultural bumps in the road which must be navigated, or it might be as simple as a disinterest in a music which is still seen as the preserve of the elite (I’ve certainly been present for more than one of those conversations). Moving from the dancefloor to the concert hall might be a leap to far.
Ambient music has perhaps leaned closer to classical over the years. In many ways it looks an obvious enough relationship. Both are interested primarily in something other than physical movement – and although a lot of straighter techno these days certainly (or pretends to) strives to escape such a glib trap, ambient has had far more success. And yet, so much ambient feels insufficiently interested in the outside world, its grand sweeps tend towards the internal, the impressionistic rather than classical’s more literal themes.
Those are generalities. Of course they are. There is far more to it than we have time to go into here and I’m not trying to do either genre a disservice by being so abrupt, and in both there are pieces of music which do what you expect of the other.
One of my favourite tracks here is Theme From It’s All Gone Pearshaped by Digital Justice. At first glance it seems like a very strange choice. Neither really what we would ordinarily consider ambient, nor does it feel as if it has any connection with classical. But beyond the obvious, the similarities are there.
It has always felt a more literal interpretation of a time and place than you would normally find with ambient techno, and it still feels very much linked to the club based, dance orientated world which birthed it. It’s lively, and the way it builds as if it is a breakdown lost from the tune that it belongs to, deceives you into thinking that, at any moment, a snare roll or the clash of a cymbal will propel it home towards the beats and the bass.
They never come. And what lingers isn’t the sensation of being without but the complexity of the interplay between pads, and melody, and how they create a rhythmic fabric out of the way the notes fall. It’s the orchestration, the space and the distance between the elements, which hold the tune up there in the clouds, and keeps you enraptured. And in that, its as close to the magic of long gone masters as it is to tomorrow.