Soothing The Savage Beat: When Electronic Artists Conjure Classical

By Tom Huizenga  |  NPR

Electronic artists such as Mason Bates (pictured above), Aphex Twin and Tiësto have blended classical music into their dance beats.
Electronic artists such as Mason Bates (pictured above), Aphex Twin and Tiësto have blended classical music into their dance beats. Courtesy of the artist

The divide between classical and popular music is often narrower than we might think. In 1795, Joseph Haydn blended a toe-tapping Croatian folk tune into the finale of his Symphony No. 104. Two hundred years later, we find the electronic dance music artist known as Aphex Twin, overhauling one of his pulsating tracks with composer Philip Glass.

Electronic artists, be they traffickers in trance, techno, ambient or house, have turned to classical music for inspiration. Here are a few extraordinary examples of what can happen when those two worlds meet on the dance floor or chill out room.

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Soothing The Savage Beat: When Electronic Artists Conjure Classical

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Tiësto: 'Adagio for Strings' (After Samuel Barber)

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Tiësto: 'Adagio for Strings' (After Samuel Barber)

If only Samuel Barber could have imagined the millions of glowstick-twirling dance rats swaying to the head-splitting decibels of his somber Adagio for Strings transformed by mega-star Dutch DJ, producer and remixer Tiësto. Here, Tiesto actually savages a soothing beat. Sturdily built for maximum club appeal, this man-handled makeover of Barber begins with a persistent throbbing. The warmth of Barber's long-lined theme is nowhere in sight until over two minutes in, when the pounding breaks to reveal the drowsy melody, oscillating alone, followed by icy string synths. The beat, subdued momentarily, returns to the spotlight, this time dressed in variations on the Barber theme. This isn't subtle music making, but it'll surely get you pumping up and down with the rest of the sweat-drenched crowd.

William Orbit: 'Triple Concerto' (after Beethoven)

This is Beethoven with a woozy beat. After making dance remixes of pop songs and producing for Madonna (Ray of Light), William Orbit released Pieces in a Modern Style in 2000, in which he embraced a broad range of classical music from Handel to Satie, Cage and Gorecki. Some pieces, like Barber's Adagio, are straightforward synth arrangements. Others, like the intoxicating Beethoven Triple Concerto, are barely recognizable. Here, Orbit brilliantly transforms Beethoven's sublime cello melody, from the slow movement of his Triple Concerto, Op. 56, into a delirious, swirling pulsation introduced by shimmering guitars, gentle thunder and tinkling bells. When the beat finally drops, and the theme gets transformed again, Orbit's phase-shifting arrangement induces a kind of musical dizzy spell.

Aphex Twin: 'Icct Hedral' (Philip Glass Orchestration)

It makes perfect sense that Richard D. James, the pioneering electronic dance music artist known as Aphex Twin, and Philip Glass, the veteran minimalist composer, would collide. In the mid-1990s, after James wrote to Glass with an introduction to his unique world of ambient techno, the two met and collaborated on a version of James' "Icct Hedral," an eerie, pulsing groove richly ornamented with cavernous groans and muffled melodies. The Aphex/Glass revamp is mesmerizing — a musical offspring that resembles the best sides of both its parents. Palpitating layers of strings, augmented with ghostly voices, are topped with lovely brass and wind figures. There's also a new arc of drama to the piece, punctuated with tension and release. Plus, you can dance to it!

Stimming: 'November Morning' (Dave Canto refix)

Last year, the German DJ and producer Martin Stimming — sometimes classified as a deep house artist — released two versions of the same lovely song called "November Morning." The original is anchored by a compact pulse, bobbing along at an easy 112 beats per minute, trimmed with cool effects and a wistful little countermelody. Stimming arranged the alternate version for the Brandenburg State Orchestra, where synth beats are swapped for delicately plucked strings, interrupted by growls of brass. The rendition we have here is by DJ Dave Canto, who deftly combined Stimming's two versions in his own "refix."

Apotheosis: 'O Fortuna' (After Carl Orff's Carmina Burana)

This is just crazy. Take the opening bars of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, one of the most recognizable blasts of classical music, twist it around a classic, hard-edged techno beat and you have a raging dance hit in the 1990s for the now defunct Belgian duo Apotheosis. The pair was sued by the composer's estate (and lost) but there's no stopping this outrageous collision of Burana and the beat.

Brian Eno: 3 Variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D - 'French Catalogues'

Brian Eno, a pioneer of ambient music, forged his own sound in 1975 after a hospital stay in which he couldn't raise the low volume of the LP he was listening to. He realized the music was merging with his surroundings. That year he released Discreet Music, an album including a 30-minute electronic landscape and a three-panel chamber orchestra take on the Canon in D by 18th-century composer Johann Pachelbel. The baroque original, with its gently repeating bass line and dovetailing melodies, is deconstructed by Eno into slowly evolving, hypnotic shards of Pachelbel's music conducted by Gavin Bryars. Eno said "It's intended as music you don't have to concentrate on. It's like adding to your ambience, changing the condition of the room a little bit."