Some would consider electronica and contemporary classical music as two very different types of torture. These are genres that people in the industry politely term “niche” and everyone else calls plain weird – polar opposites in the musical hinterlands, caricatured by saucer-eyed ravers on the one hand and nerdy academics on the other, with pop sprawling somewhere in between. Until now, neither has enjoyed the crowd-pulling appeal of the mainstream, and the idea of the two collaborating has sounded far-fetched, if not downright hilarious.
So when the Aldeburgh Festival proposed a one-off electro-classical event in 2006 there were understandable jitters. Was there artistic value in the project? Was there an audience for this kind of gig? And how would the festival’s eminent founder, Benjamin Britten, have felt about welcoming a breakcore artist named Shitmat into the fold? As Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, now admits: “It seemed like a real shot in the dark and, like all the best ventures, I’m not sure we totally knew what we were doing.”
Entitled Faster Than Sound (FTS), the event took place one heady, midsummer evening at Bentwaters airbase in rural Suffolk, an eerie collection of cold war bunkers, and a UFO-watching hotspot. Performances from cellist Zoë Martlew and ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar were interspersed by experimental sets from the likes of techno artist Solar X and “noise musician” DJ Scotch Egg.
Such was the event’s success that FTS became a fixture at Bentwaters for the next two festivals but last year, six years after its initial conception, it was given its own permanent base in the Hoffmann Building, one of Aldeburgh Music’s new renovations at Snape Maltings. It is now an ongoing, year-round venture with substantial funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Joana Seguro, creative producer of FTS, explains the new format: “Faster Than Sound now comprises five public events throughout the year, each preceded by a week-long residency at Snape. Some are song-based, some are abstract electronic sets, some are visual art crossovers – each residency stands alone.”
Furthermore, the scheme has now been offered a showcase slot at the Latitude Festival, just down the road in Suffolk, alongside an imposing pop/rock line-up that includes Florence + the Machine, The Temper Trap and Corinne Bailey Rae. For one event, FTS will team up with Belle and Sebastian, indie luminaries known for their catchy tunes and cutesy lyrics.
One artist who has been involved with FTS from the start, and who will feature prominently at the Latitude showcase, is Suffolk-based DJ Mira Calix, aka Chantal Passamonte. Born and brought up in South Africa, Passamonte moved to London in the early 1990s and quickly established herself on the electronica scene through her association with Ambient Soho, the once iconic but now defunct record shop on London’s Berwick Street. In 1996 she was signed to Warp Records, an independent record label established in Sheffield in 1989 that defined electronica throughout the 1990s. A few years later, having been introduced by chance to Reekie, she was invited to Aldeburgh, firstly for a one-off residency and then for FTS.
“Aldeburgh Music made it really easy – we just talked and they recognised that I came from a different musical landscape and the relationship developed,” she says.
Since then, Mira Calix has not only worked alongside numerous classical musicians but has been invited to write new pieces for the London Sinfonietta and for Opera North. Like many electronic artists, she cannot read music in the conventional sense but was last year awarded a grant from the Arts Council for a project titled “Exchange and Return” that has paired her with two classical “buddies”, Larry Goves and Tansy Davies. It has introduced her to different working practices. “In my background you decided to do something a week ahead and you just bunged a few flyers out,” Passamonte explains.
Of course, electronic music is not new to classical composers – they were its first pioneers. Although Leonard Theremin’s eponymous instrument with its distinctive “waaa-woo-waa” was the first to produce electronic music in 1917, electronic composition was not properly explored until Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work of the early 1950s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, composers such as John Cage, Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xanakis took electronic music in exciting directions, but the equipment was so expensive and difficult to operate that creativity in this field was largely confined to universities – and it was these circumstances that resulted in the long-standing schism between academic and commercial production.
That is not to say it was completely isolated during this period – a few bands were receptive to the work of these avant-garde artists. It’s hard to listen to the robotic regurgitations of Kraftwerk (the German electronic group regarded by many as the godfathers of techno), for example, without thinking of the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich or Philip Glass; Stockhausen was so (in)famous by then The Beatles included him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and Brian Eno parted from Roxy Music in order to explore his own sonic doodlings. The influence remained one-way, however, and it is only in recent years that classical composers, musicians and institutions have shown an interest in electronica, and encouraged DJs and electronic artists out of the nightclub and into the concert hall.
In an upcoming book titled Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, Joanna Demers makes one of the first attempts to analyse both the “high” and “popular” factions of electronic music. The author argues that 1980 was a pivotal year, when commercial electronic music found sudden independence and splintered into its own dazzling array of genres and subgenres. Not only had synthesisers suddenly become cheaper and more popular since the death of disco at the close of the 1970s but, as Demers explains, the launch of MTV in 1981 and its sudden exposure of groups like Talking Heads and Duran Duran “gave lie to the notion that it took an electric guitar and a drum set to make a proper band”.
Since then technology has fuelled the democratisation of electronic music. Digital files can now be cut and spliced with ease – gone are the days of scalpel and cassette tape – and software like GarageBand (now standard on Mac computers) allows the amateur to mix tracks and create podcasts.
In 1997 Thomas Adès startled audiences with a new orchestral work titled Asyla, whose third “Ecstasio” movement mimicked the thudding bass and frenzied crescendos of techno music in order – in Adès’s words – “to evoke the atmosphere of a massive nightclub, people dancing and taking drugs”. Many more composers have sought inspiration in the structures, sounds and techniques of electronica. London’s annual Ether Festival, another initiative Seguro helped to establish, has regularly premiered work by composers that is directly inspired by DJs and electronic artists, including Kenneth Hesketh’s orchestral arrangement of “Polygon Windows” by Aphex Twin and David Horne’s interpretation of tracks by electro outfits Boards of Canada and Squarepusher.
Traditionally, electronica has been synonymous with urban culture: live performances have generally been in nightclubs, and the idea of aliases comes from graffiti tags and sign-offs. Kraftwerk set something of a precedent (the name itself means “power plant”) with tracks like “Radioactivity” and “The Man Machine” that were seen as paeans to industrialisation – and their characteristic froideur was much imitated. “People often say that electronic music can sound very cold and artificial, and they have a point,” Passamonte says. “I’ve always been interested in making it sound earthy, I want an element of imperfection.” For years she has used field recordings of natural sounds, such as ice melting or the movement of insects, but it is notable that as many of her Warp contemporaries start to explore the contemporary classical scene their own sounds are becoming more experimental.
At Latitude Mira Calix will be performing Natures, a work she devised with video artist Quayola and cellist Oliver Coates that couples five cello and electronic pastorals with high-definition visuals of morphing plants. In addition, she will premiere a new piece titled Pedocin that was written with Larry Goves as part of their “Exchange and Return” project. Other FTS performances will come from composer Emily Hall and the sound artist Simon Fisher Turner and the London Contemporary Orchestra. This autumn, Mira Calix will premiere a piece she is writing in collaboration with the young classical composer Anna Meredith. In the past composers have, almost without exception, worked alone whereas electronic artists often create together, and Passamonte enthuses about the opportunity to share different skills and experiences.
“We laugh because we’re almost going in opposite directions,” she says. “Anna has embraced electronics and has written some purely electronic stuff, and I come from that background but have become really interested in instrumentation.”
Clearly, the interest of Aldeburgh Music and funding bodies suggests faith in the future of electro-classical composition, and there is no doubt that some of the work being produced is tremendously exciting. I ask Reekie about the implications. “On the one hand it’s very exciting because it’s breaking down some of the traditional barriers and it means that music is becoming much more democratic,” he replies. “The flip side is I think it’s now very confusing for young composers because the aesthetic choices are just so enormous. We’ll have to see what happens but it’s becoming much harder to catagorise music now and that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, it’s just a fact.”