On the lookout for electro-baroque (und beethoven)

Part of the mystery of progressive rock in the 70s and early 80s were bands covering Beethoven and J.S. Bach. Listen for example to “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” on Jethro Tull’s A Sackful of Trouser Snakes (1977) or “Cans and Brahms” on Fragile by Yes (1972). In prog circles, this sub-genre is often referred to as Classical Progressive.

The climax of this style must be the breakout disco hit Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1977). But the Fifth hardly retired the trend. Frank Zappa released his synclavier recompositions of his possible ancestor, Francesco Zappa as late as 1984. But where did this movement begin?

Leaving aside for the moment, the simple fun of rescoring classical pieces for synth and tock guitar, inspiration must have originated in part from the pioneering moog work by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind in the late ’60s with their popular Switched-on Bach (1968) and Switched-on Bach II albums. Soon after, Stanley Kubrick’s films 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, prominently featuring works by Johann and Richard Strauss), and A Clockwork Orange (1972, with works by Gioacchino Rossini and Sir Edward Elgar) used classical music to explore visions of space and dystopic futures. Andrey Artemiev was also using the solemn organ works of J.S. Bach to great effect in his film soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972. Meanwhile, the Nonesuch label had since the mid-1960s been using psychedelic art to market both their back catalogue of classical works as well as the new electronic compositions trickling out of university music programs.

I don’t know why the theme of classical resocoring came to be so entwined in prog circles. Perhaps it’s no surprise that baroque and romantic classical works found their way into albums and concerts that were excessively romantic and baroque in both their aesthetics (think wigs and long hair) and self-seriousness, obscutiry, and esotericism. For artists that had an interest in showing off their mad keyboard or fretting skills whilst validating their fame with a deep connection with musical roots, rescoring classical works must have had a deep appeal.

Besides the impact in progressive rock, the trend really took root in the electronica albums of Isao Tomita (aka Tomita) who throughout the 70s released one completely synthesized late romantic album after another starting with Debussy’s Snowflakes are Dancing (1974). (If you haven’t heard the album, you may have listened to a peice of it while watching public television in the US late nights. Tomita’s interpretation of Debussy’s Claire De Lune is the theme music to the long running weekly astronomy show, Star Gazer with Jack Horkheimer.

When in 1977, Walter Murphy took classical from prog to disco it was only the most recent form of a music style that had been evolving for almost a decade. Murphy took the success of his disco-classical formula to the furthest extent he could still capitalize on it, with disco imaginings of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a 1979 Mostly Mozart album. The funky jazz offshoot of this movement however originated 5 years earlier with Eumir Deodato’s interpretation of “Also Sprach Zarthustra” (later used to great effect in the 1979 film Being There).

The cycle could possibly be considered complete in 1984. Besides Frank Zappa’s Francesco Zappa album, that year also featured the release of the 2010 the film sequel to Kubrick’s 2001. In a glance back at over 15 years of classical scorings starting with 2001, the first track of 2010 presented yet another disco-electric version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Andy Summers. (Was the Deodato version not available?)

Since then, I haven’t seen (m)any classical remixes, at least of composers spanning baroque to late romantic. (One notable exception is Art of Noise’s Seduction of Claude Debussy (1999) which, I think, takes the idea of an homage album to an extreme.) With the revival of ambient in the early 90s came renewed interest in the minimalist composers, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, who had long been influences to Berlin School space musicians (Michael Hoenig, Manuel Göttsching), British proggers (the Who, Steve Hillage, Gong), new wave artists (Brian Eno, Colourbox), and detroit techno and hip-hop remixers. The fact that these composers were (and remain) still alive also offered the possibility of exciting new collaborations. For neo-minimalist albums, see Reich Remixed (1999), Donkey Rhubarb (1995) featuring Philip Glass Orchestra with Aphex Twin, and Philip Glass’ rescoring of Low Symphony (1993) and Heroes (1996) — both, of which were originally albums by Brian Eno and David Bowie that had themselves been initially inspired by Glass compositions! (Further and recommended, brilliant remixing of this jumble of collaborations, influences and inspiration can be heard on the track “Heroes” on Aphex Twin’s 26 Mixes for Cash, 2003.) Finally, check out dj BC’s excellent Glassbreaks remix album, perhaps the best example of synchronicity between minimalism and rap.

Please message me or leave a comment if you know of any other albums or tracks that fit into this interesting offshoot of classical/progressive/electronica (clogronica for short ;))

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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