At the mention of ‘classical music remixes’, one can’t be blamed for immediately thinking of William Orbit’s clonking club-reworking of Samuel Barber’s sublime ‘Adagio for Strings’, or perhaps Walter Murphy’s ‘A Fifth Of Beethoven’. Hits these may be, but (and call me cynical), ultimately, they remain little more than unbecoming and heavy-handed attempts to take something apparently antiquated like traditional classical music and make it somehow ‘relevant’, or ‘cool.’
I bristle at the word ‘remix’, when applied to music of this sort, but was able to dismiss my baggage before breaking the seal on a watermarked copy of Max Richter’s collection of Sleep Remixes, out next month (on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon imprint, no less)that flopped through my letterbox not long ago.
According to the accompanying press release, the remix project – featuring contributions by Mogwai and Jürgen Müller, among others – ‘was born out of Max’s passion for and immersion in contemporary sounds, which he views as of equal importance to the classical world’. I felt it therefore vital to see this record not as another half-baked lump of b-sides, but as one in a series of signposts gesturing toward a musical territory whose landscape has undergone seismic changes over the last decade, even beckoning a redefinition of what the term ‘classical music’ connotes.
In the words of Jóhann Jóhannsson (A&M issue 30): ‘I don’t know if you can call anything ‘classical music’ anymore.’ It’s when previously rigid generic boundaries begin to soften like this that the implications of the word ‘remix’ excitingly (and thankfully) begin to change as new questions are opened up. Does, for example, the fact that synthesisers are now more or less a staple in the ensembles of both Richter and Jóhansson, just as they are for composers like Nico Muhly and Nils Frahm, mean that it’s now possible to manipulate and remix their compositions in a way that is not only more user friendly (what with the endless malleability of synthetic sound) but – and perhaps more importantly– more credible?
Not that there’s anything startlingly new here – consider Gavin Bryars’ rendering of his seminal The Sinking of the Titanic, featuring Philip Jeck’s manipulated turntablism, or Philip Glass’s deployment of electronic organs and synthesisers. Indeed, it goes without saying that technological advancements in musical production and composition play a key role here, but if an uninitiated listener was to hear the original version of Richter’s ‘Untitled (Figures)’ from Memoryhouse next to Jürgen Müller’s zoetropic remix of ‘Dream 3 (In The Midst Of My Life)’, suffice to say there would be almost no way to tell which is an original and which is a remix. In fact, so gradual is the continuum linking the likes of Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Winged Victory For The Sullen with composers like Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm et al, that incorporating inventive and forward-thinking reworks into such a boundary-blurring cluster of genres should hardly make a splash – it’s just a matter of shirking the connotations of the word ‘remix’ and permitting it the respect as a form of composition in its own right. In this latest offering to bear his imprimatur, it would seem Max Richter has confronted the word head on, and in so doing has helped to chart another credible avenue of exploration in the world of contemporary composition.