The influence of classical music upon “popular” music is often forgotten, perhaps as the evolution through what became jazz and blues into rock and beyond is a complex one that took quite some time – indeed it took most of the twentieth century, as the exceptional The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross explains in great detail (seriously, it’s one of the best music books I’ve ever read).
Links back to classical music in the “popular” music – be that rock, electronic, techno, industrial, goth, or however you want to classify your particular listening at the moment – are all over the place, and sometimes occur in the strangest places, and in the most surprising ways. In addition, they can add a sense of the dramatic or add gravitas in a way the artist may be unable to otherwise.
Indeed, the links between the two have even begun to be recognised by the likes of The Proms, which in more recent years has opened its repertoire to some really quite imaginative crossovers (perhaps in a bid to stay relevant in the modern age, perhaps because they just thought it was a good idea. I’ve never been sure which it was), or over in Germany, with the Gothic meets Klassik series continuing this year – where prominent gothic/industrial acts team up with an orchestra for a set of shows in Leipzig (it has already included VNV Nation and Covenant, among others). And then there was Mercury Rev doing a show with the Royal Northern Sinfonia last month. But, I wanted to look at recorded examples in this post.
This is one of those posts, too, that I’ve had on the backburner for ages. I think it went onto the “potential Tuesday Ten” file that I keep, which has all kinds of notes for future use, before I left Sheffield (which is over seven years ago), and was resurrected just recently after a conversation about music went down this route one evening. It is by no means an exhaustive list, either, and I’d love to hear about other ones that I may have missed.
So, this week, I look at uses of classical music within the realms that I cover.
Pretty When You Cry
Visual Audio Sensory Theatre
This was the song that got me revisiting and updating, and it got me thinking about when I first heard the album. Jon Crosby’s use of choirs in particular – from as far afield as Bulgaria (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares), Tibet (the voices of Tibetan Buddhist Rites) and Switzerland/Luxembourg (The Benedictine Monks of the Abby Saint-Maurice and Saint-Maur) – but also rich string arrangements, immediately set apart his gothic-tinged industrial rock and caused a minor sensation in alternative circles when that first album arrived.
There is no doubting that the songs that made best use of such additional elements were the ones that made the most impact. Opener Here has mournful strings building gently for well beyond a minute before the rest of the band even get started (and it’s a hell of an impact when they do), while the two singles from the album both make spectacular use of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. Touched erupts into life (from just a voice and acoustic guitar, to suddenly these plus the Bulgarian choir and thundering drums, and the result is an awesome, stadium-sized song), and Pretty When You Cry is little more than an electronic pulse and whispered vocals until the choir sweep the song up into the stars.
The problem, of course, is how you follow something quite so different, and it’s been an issue Jon Crosby has rather fought with for the two decades since – conscious perhaps of not being a one-trick pony, use of such choirs have been conspicuous by their absence on many of his releases since.
Sadeness (Part I)
Jon Crosby was hardly the first artist to use obscure choral works, and neither were Enigma (it had begun to be used in world music releases by 1990 already), but they hit paydirt with this song – an absolutely monstrous hit worldwide that sold millions, with a deeply pious Gregorian Chant at the heart of the track that was made otherwise of slow-beats and breathy female vocals in french, and I could really do without the bloody pan-pipes.
As was so often the case at the time, though, the samples of the choir (Capella Antiqua München, apparently, from their album Paschale Mysterium) were of course uncleared, a case of less-than-Christian charity that ended up in court a few years later, and I would suspect cost Enigma a pretty penny.
Adagio for Strings
One of the best-known (and arguably over-used) pieces of twentieth century classical music, it has become a “go-to” piece for major death announcements, funerals and commemorations – and it is, admittedly, a moving piece.
So why on earth so many trance artists have decided to put a “banging beat” underneath it is absolutely beyond me, it’s as if Tiesto (and many, many others) thought “this’ll be a real hands in the air moment, this” without actually ever stopping to think about its history. I could only imagine Samuel Barber’s reaction to it – thankfully perhaps he didn’t live long enough to endure the endless trance beats and exhortations to “make some noise!” that pepper such takes on it.
Love Never Dies (Part 1)
Unsurprisingly, other classical samples have hit legal issues, too, as Apop and KMFDM (among others!) found out by choosing to use O Fortuna from Carl Orff‘s Carmina Burana. It has been used so many times in popular culture that just those other uses have their own Wiki page to list them all, and I guess the spectacularly dramatic piece that it is lends itself to many occasions.
Ministry used it for one of the best of their later songs (No W), and KMFDM ripped the heart out of their early landmark Leibesleid when they had to remove the sample (here it is with it included. Intriguingly they still hadn’t managed to get clearance when Naïve was remastered and re-released in 2006.
Apoptygma Berzerk, though, really suffered when their early breakthrough Love Never Dies Pt. 1 also fell foul of the Orff estate, as the use of O Fortuna was so integral to the spectacular rush of the song as it burst into life – effectively it worked as the chorus and the song sounds really quite lifeless without it. There has always been something of a bitter irony in the litigious nature of Orff’s estate – after all, he freely adapted medieval poems into the music in the first place!
Bitter Sweet Symphony
Yet another band to fall foul of legal issues were The Verve, whose (admittedly inspired) use of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s rework of The Last Time – the Rolling Stones hit, that I’ve never been able to match them up particularly, apparently it’s the vocal melody I should be listening for among the strings – perhaps might have gone unnoticed had they a) not ended up with a massive hit and b) been a little less blatant about it. I mean, seriously. They took the whole Andrew Oldham version and covered it in it’s entirety, and Richard Ashcroft sang over it. What did they really expect?
For their second album, Mansun expanded on the already complex sound by throwing everything at it. Six was a dizzying, overwhelming album that was stuffed with literary and cultural references, and seemed at points to be trying to nod at all of twentieth century music at once. Fallout – one of the shorter songs on the album – managed to fit in six distinct sections within four minutes and for at least the first half, prominent use of Tchaikovsky‘s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy literally dances around the band to brilliant effect. Paul Draper has of course returned just recently (at last!) with a very good solo album, that at least in part nods back to his time in Mansun.
Amid the manic experimentation of Angel Dust, one song in particular stood out as even more “out there” than the rest. Placed at the heart of the album, closing side one, this was a riot of thrashing rhythms, stabbing synths, chattering voices, and almost gleeful experimentation, as if the band couldn’t wait to see what else they might get away with. In the middle of the controlled chaos, the song subtly samples Shostakovich (String Quartet No. 8, in this case performed by the Kronos Quartet), and it’s easy to miss (it appears a few times in the second half of the track). In interesting parallels, Shostakovich spent at least part of his career in musical experimentation, while the Kronos Quartet have long been known outside classical circles for their takes on various rock and pop pieces.
Plays Metallica on Four Cellos
Actually, speaking of which, the Finnish group Apocalyptica first appeared in the nineties as a cello quartet covering Metallica songs (their cover of Creeping Death is especially amazing, and even more impressive live – I remember seeing them support Rammstein many years ago in Nottingham). They’ve broadened their sound since, writing their own material, even using a drummer on occasions, and at least one album had various guest vocalists. But most of all, they are probably the primary reason that Metallica went and recorded S&M…
Night of Hunters
Amos, as is frequently the case, took things one step further than many when she took full flight to her classical influences. This album – her best for many years – saw every song taking influence from a different composer’s work, and despite the immense variety of pieces she used, somehow this album was an impressive success. I could take or leave the overarching lyrical concept, but the album worked best on the staggering opener, a song with a hint of domestic violence and scorching drama, based upon a piece by French composer Alkan, one I’m not especially familiar with.
Progenies of the Great Apocalypse
Death Cult Armageddon
Finally, a number of Black Metal bands took an approach that set them apart from their peers. Black Metal was, at least in the early days, rather thinly produced far too often, and while it was clear that some bands were aiming higher, it took until larger labels came sniffing around – and thus more money was made available – that they could act on their aims. What resulted was Symphonic Black Metal – initially with synth-based strings – but by the time of Death Cult Armageddon, Dimmu Borgir were recording with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the results were extraordinary. Yes, it was perhaps a little over the top, but it sounded huge, and Symphonic Black Metal never got better than this.