Beats and Violins: The Reasons Behind Classical Music’s Love Of Dance

Photographer - Charlie Hopkinson

With Gabriel Prokofiev making his Prom debut, Alex investigates the latest trend in contemporary classical music, one that has been inspired by modern dance music.

Seeing as this article will mention Gabriel Prokofiev I might as well get the formalities out the way first. It seems to be an unwritten rule that whenever anyone talks about the composer and founder of the record label, Nonclassical, they have to wheel out his impressive musical pedigree. So here goes: he is the grandson of the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev. This year he had his Prom debut with his Concerto For Turntables And Orchestra played by DJ Switch and the National Youth Orchestra.

Gabriel Prokofiev and his label are part of an expanding field of crossover between dance music and contemporary classical musicians and institutions. This crossover I’m describing isn’t just producers putting some strings on their tracks. Instead, those who might contentiously be called ‘serious art music’ composers and institutions, which includes Prokofiev, are drawing from and collaborating with dance musicians and the surrounding culture.

Nonclassical put on contemporary classical club nights and their CDs tend to take the format of original compositions followed by remixes of those pieces. The established and renowned classical music record label, Deutsche Grammophon have similarly had the remix treatment through the ‘Deutsche Grammophon Recomposed’ series. (Calling the process recomposition rather than remixing harks back to Stravinsky’s description of his process for the ballet Pulcinella, in which he reworked and reframed 17th and 18th century music). Tapes from Deutsche Grammophon’s back catalogue are given to producers and composers to rework, such as Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald’s reworking of Ravel and Mussorgsky. The excellent Brandt Brauer Frick, who I suspect may well be ex-music students, are expanding their own brand (see what I did there) of acoustic techno to chamber ensemble size for a new album out soon.

In a world of post-modernity and, perhaps more cynically, with low attendance rates at concerts, especially amongst young people, it’s hardly surprising that the classical music world would reach out towards more ‘popular’ music for inspiration. But why is it that dance music has proved to be such a fertile meeting grounds when other genres and styles, such as rock and hip-hop, have not? The answers, I believe, are partly musical, partly historical and partly aesthetic.

The relative lack of influence of rock in contemporary classical music (with notable exceptions, of course) is, I believe, due in no small part to the resounding awfulness of rock’s prior attempts to ‘do’ classical music. These have ranged from the sheer ridiculousness of a variety of prog bands to unbearably dull ‘classical’ pastiches (I’m looking at you, Macca). The tendency of rock bands drawing on classical music is to take the worst elements of (orchestral) classical music in an attempt to try to be, what might irritatingly be described as, epic. This tendency still lives on in bands such as the pompous Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Also rock music historically has a very anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional aesthetic which may well transform into a hostility towards ‘serious’ institutionally supported music.

Another important blocking point between rock and contemporary classical music is rock’s timbral and instrumental rigidity. Rock music has a very standard instrumental setup (drums, bass, guitar) which leads to broadly similar timbres and textures across songs, albums and even bands. Whilst classical music also traditionally had a very clearly defined set of instruments and timbres to choose from, the field tended to span a larger range than that of the standard rock band. In more recent times extended instrumental technique and the use of electronics has hugely increased the range of timbres available to composers. Through the use of similar technology, dance musicians have a similarly expansive field of timbres to utilise.

I’m not quite so sure as to why hip-hop hasn’t had the same level of crossover with contemporary classical music as dance music. The answer that I hope is not true is that the perceived racial and class character of hip-hop is a factor in composers’ and institutions’ lack of engagement with it. A (hopefully more likely) musical-aesthetic reason is the primacy given to text rather than the purely ‘musical’ factors in hip-hop.

Dance music, especially Germanic techno, is unique amongst pop musics for having at least some institutional engagement in its early history. Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, the two central members of Kraftwerk, met at music college and were originally part of the Stockhausen-influenced Krautrock scene. (Whilst this may well be an isolated example for all I know, it provides a good excuse for me to put a Kraftwerk video in).

Dance music probably wouldn’t be so prevalent in contemporary ‘serious art’ music were it not for the aesthetic (re)legitimisation of pulse driven, highly repetitive music, in the 70s. Minimalism’s rediscovery of a strong regular pulse, in pieces such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, paved the way for the thumping bass drum in the remixes on any Nonclassical CD. Brandt Brauer Frick’s description of their writing style in the following video could almost be a minimalist manifesto. ‘Always the same but always a bit different’.

Finally, dance music, through its highly repetitive and pulsating nature, embodies the alternative, more meditative and trance-like, models of listening suggested by minimalism. Perhaps by embracing it composers are embracing this reversal of George Clinton’s immortal maxim: ‘Free your ass… and your mind will follow’.

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