Out of the Concert Hall, Into the Night Club

>This is the fifth in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Catch up on the first four parts of the series here, here, here, and here.

If you squint your eyes a bit, you could mistake the furthest fringes of classical music for electronica. Partly, this is historical: the wires crossed in the second half of the 20th century, when artsy composers like Milton Babbitt and crossover musicians like Wendy Carlos scored pieces for synthesizers. Minimalist composers such as Steve Reich explicitly straddled the line, blending quartets with train samples and voice recordings. But there are other congruities.

For starters, in my life, both have been sources of embarrassment. I picked up a taste for trance-style techno in high school. This habit survived all of two hours in college, until my roommate glowered and the Paul van Dyk disappeared. Same with Brahms, for a while. Both had a social stigma: the thumping rave beats implied a life of waving glow-sticks, while violins, of course, sang of ascot-wearing snobs.

But that's not the real parallel. Beneath the stigma, broad qualities of the two musics connect. In electronica, DJs hunt obsessively for scarce sounds, just as modern master George Crumb asks violinists to scrape goblets. Techno sets run, by necessity, up to and over the length of Mahler symphonies, tracing seamless hours. Like fugues, good tracks have short themes that loop, return, iterate, and scale into climaxes. Musicians write beats like scores: with mathematical precision. And beyond driving nightclub crowds, electronica seeks to capture peculiar atmospheres and textures.

Take a look:

Rhythmic Complexity
Prokofiev 6th Sonata, 4th Movement

Though short, this clip shows my favorite pianist dismembering the final movement of Prokofiev's 6th Sonata. The composer is known for tough, percussive acrobatics., and this movement gives a particularly techno-like sample. To see the whole movement, watch Yuja Wang.

Aphex Twin's "4"

No one does wild, stuttering figurations like Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James). Here he matches a sweet violin melody with crisp and beady syncopations. For a more disturbing—and dazzling—sample of his frenetic beats, see here.

Evocative Atmosphere

Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

One of the French composer's best-known works, this piece lulls the listener into thinking he's in a forest glade. You may not know what the "afternoon of a faun" looks like (I don't), but you will feel like part of one.

Röyksopp's "In Space"

A mellow, tuneful Norwegian duo, this group paints relaxed scenes. Listen and be sucked underwater, or into space, by the echoing synths.

Sonic Experimentation

George Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children"

Still working today, Crumb is known for embracing odd sounds. This piece, one of his most famous, employs toy piano. It's more atmospheric than melodic.

Aphex Twin's "Logon Rock Witch"

Aphex Twin wrote this song using children's toys. In later albums he branched out to prepared pianos. To me, this pretty amalgam sounds like the ballad of a jack-in-the-box.

Drama Through Insistent Repetition

Finale of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite

This gorgeous, angular, rising theme comes at the end of a long ballet. It inches its way upward by insistent repetition. When it breaks down, it's transcendent.

Paul Van Dyk's "For an Angel"

A club hit in Europe, this song may seem odd to compare to Stravinsky. Laugh if you will, but bear with me. Paul Van Dyk knows how to build an irresistible climax out of tiny, repeating bits.

As always, questions, comments and suggestions are welcome. Next week, I plan to wrap up the series with a post on transcendent feelings and classical music.