Classical music, for some, is burdened with various odd stigmas – that it’s somehow posh, academic or too expensive to watch live. In my experience none of these are true – I have the stub of an £8 ticket for a five hour Messiaen opera attended by a musically self-taught scumbag (myself) that will attest to that. And, as purse-strings constrict further day-by-day, the classical music world will episodically fret about bringing in fresh blood. This sometimes leads to pretty ill-advised ventures – Paul McCartney‘s Liverpool Oratorio, for instance being the single most hideous piece of ‘classical’ music I’ve had the misfortune to be assaulted with; more irritating is that it grossed massively.
Phillipe Petit and Nonclassical‘s CDs fall under these ‘making classical appealing to the kids‘ auspices because, in different ways, they’re engaging with the classical world while using external musical developments – turntablism, digital manipulation, remixes and so on. I’d tar neither with the brush marked “execrable, vainglorious tosh” though (stand up Paul McCartney, I have a brush with your name on it).
Philippe Petit’s Off to Titan first then, in which he uses Gustav Mahler‘s first symphony as the basis for a sort-of remix. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s not a remix in terms of sticking a 404 under the bassoon, looping it and having some lass sing thinly-veiled metaphors for drugs/sex over the top. I’m not massively familiar with Mahler’s first – I always passed it over in favour of the 3rd, 8th and 9th – but it sounds very much like Petit is letting the record play and superimposing his music over the top. It’s an interesting idea, certainly – treating Mahler’s symphony as a sort of palimpsest, a base structure to be accentuated and emphasised.Petit is sometimes careful not to take enormous liberties with the original: there are sections where he carefully pitches sine-like tones just an octave above the highest string, so as not to fundamentally alter the melodies. Or a really smart section in the third movement where he intensifies Mahler’s dense strings with some even denser microtonal electronic chords – a bit like letting György Ligeti have a crack editing the final manuscripts. There’s also sections which seem like he’s having fun with the original – a kind of snuff electronica, disingenuous Theremin swoops floating over Mahler’s drama.
Petit professes to not being leaden with theory, and unfortunately this can sometimes appear as an insensitivity to Mahler’s work – quiet, drawn-out, dramatic string sections are overlaid with dense electronic sounds or spacey ‘lift-off’ type sounds while I’m straining to hear Mahler’s agonising tension. While I think it’s entirely necessary that musicians engage with classical music in a sometimes irreverent fashion, I feel that Mahler in particular is a poor choice of composer for Off to Titan – there’s so little space within the music to add or subtract anything, I ended up yearning for Mahler’s original. But to emphasise – this isn’t a juvenile, V/VM-esque slaying of holy cows. Petit’s a great musician making a great and conceptually interesting piece of music here, so I’d recommend this to anyone – provided they’re not a Mahler fan (though I’d probably recommend playing it to any stuffy Mahler fans who need deflating a smidge).Petit is subordinating the source material – be it surf records, sax motifs, slurring, warped piano records – into his own vision. Bits of it reminded me of Otomo Yoshihide‘s Ground Zero in a more plaintive mode, or a Phillip Jeck with a clean needle. Petit has an exquisite choice of source material – track 3 brilliantly mutates what seem to be a Grand Prix recording into lush, melodic tones. And generally this feels like someone who’s listened to the greats of musique concrète, had a crack at Nurse with Wound and, most importantly, listened very carefully to his sonic material. With Off to Titan I had a faint feeling of not knowing who was the master of the record, Philippe Petit or Mahler, but with this it’s clear that Petit is in the driving seat, plundering records from all and sundry (ethnic instruments, Toshi Kondo-esque sax tones, post-rock-esque guitars…) into his own beautiful, and sometimes unsettling, vision.
Onto nonclassical‘s remixes and originals: I have to confess that there’s a lot about this that sounds alarms for me – the idea of remixing classical quartets brings to mind some tacky Handbag House beats spraytanned onto lifeless strings. Luckily, this is far from being the case.CD1’s first track sets out the collection’s intention pretty comprehensively, not least with the track’s title – Heritage Orchestra feat. DJ Yoda – “G Prokofiev’s Concert for turntables and Orchestra, II movement.” For the resolute cynic, the title likely says enough – luckily though, Prokofiev the younger’s writing is solid enough to incorporate subtle, playful scratches and Yoda is a decknician of the very highest order. This isn’t an orchestra with a DJ stapled on as an afterthought, but a fully-realised incorporation and consolidation of both medium’s strengths. Punchy ostinatos fuse gorgeously with the deck’s textures, rhythms hang around but not so much to be fully metrical and Yoda punctuates brilliantly. Heritage Orchestra and Yoda re-appear later on CD1, and the lines between orchestra and deck are so fully elided that I found it impossible to follow which was which.
Elsewhere on CD1 we get a nice resumé for Nonclassical‘s output in general: Powerplant forge some lost genealogy between Einstürzende Neubauten and Iannis Xenakis‘ percussion work; Mercury Quartet somehow manage to bring to mind Alfred Schnittke, klezmer and distant music boxes with their reeds and strings; Elysian Quartet and Matthias/ Ryan show some more ‘orthodox’ classical moves; Azalea Ensemble manage to incorporate electronics so deftly into their Grind Show that it was my 5th listen before I realised that those sounds weren’t acoustic instruments. At each point there’s a sense that the composers haven’t spent a lifetime in score libraries but have been to more than a few raves in their days. CD1 does what all good compilations should: whetted my appetite and made my wallet do a pained, anticipatory whimper.CD2 is where remixers are given free licence with the tracks; and it’s much like a lot of remix CDs – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For my money, while I quite like what Hot Chip make from the Elysian Quartet playing G Prokofiev, it feels too much like a Hot Chip track. Which begs the question as to whether the use of this material in particular is important. Elsewhere there’s a sense that some of the remixers are stuck on the horns of a dilemma: whether to isolate and loop sections of their source material into a conventional remix (as Vex’d does with Prokofiev/ Elysian quartet) or to follow the contours of the original (as Max de Wardener does with his brilliant remix of John Richards’ Suite ). There are a few surprises – while I’ve never really been a fan of his electronic explorations, Thom Yorke‘s remix of Matthias/ Ryan’s Cortical Songs shows a great deal of cautious affection for the original; perhaps most surprising is G Prokofiev’s own hip-hop remix of his “Quartet no. 1,” showing the sort of disregard for the original that only its author could pull off successfully.
A remix CD is what it is, unfortunately, and while there’s a modicum of smart, engaging and occasionally funny remixes, I suspect it’ll appeal more on the basis of the names involved (Andy Prior, Murcof, Paul Conboy…). But most importantly, I think Nonclassical should be applauded for sending out the olive branch to the non-classical world; Petit, in turn, kindly returns the favour. And all without any oar-sticking-in of overpaid ex-Beatles. Hearty claps on backs all round gentlemen.