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The Feeling’s Mutual: Why classical and electronic music aren’t the polar opposites you might expect

Luca Francesconi's opera Quartett follows in the footsteps of Björk, Max Richter and Aphex Twin.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

27 May 2014 at 2.06pm | 4 Comments

‘We need new instruments very badly… musicians should take up this question in deep earnest with the help of machinery specialists.’ So wrote French composer Edgard Varèse in 1916, a man championed by many as the father of electronic music and dubbed ‘the stratospheric colossus of sound’ by author and fervent fan Henry Miller.

In the early decades of the 20th century, composers were drawn to the possibilities afforded by new technology. Groups such as the Futurists rejected instrumental and compositional conventions in favour of new sound-worlds, placing new value on ‘noise’. This ethos was in part driven from a desire to reflect the industrial age of the 20th century. So fervent was their aim that they produced a manifesto, in which they stated their desire to ‘present the musical soul of the masses, of the great factories, of the railways, of the transatlantic liners, of the battleships, of the automobiles and airplanes’.

As technology advanced, new instruments were invented, such as the Ondes Martenot, which attracted the attention of influential composer Olivier Messiaen, who began using it in 1937 (his opera Saint-François d'Assise calls for three of them). But it was arguably the invention of magnetic audio tape and the developments in recording technology that followed World War II, that gave electronic music the push that would eventually lead to it being embraced by the mainstream. This has ultimately culminated in the success of artists as diverse as Daft Punk, Radiohead and Kraftwerk. Though apparently far removed from classical music, these artists employ the same technology and techniques that were pioneered by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Away from the rock and pop world of festivals and arena tours, orchestral musicians and composers have relished the possibilities afforded by electronic music, particularly the potential to add extra texture and ambience, at times appropriating what previous generations termed ‘noise’. Perhaps most familiar to recent Covent Garden audiences is the work of Max Richter, whose score for the ballet Infra blends mournful Arvo Pärt-influenced minimalist strings with haunting electronic soundscapes and samples. More recently Richter ‘recomposed’ Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, discarding 75% of the original material and replacing it with looped samples of Vivaldi’s string phrases and eerie electronic swells.

It’s a sound that has gained traction in recent years with Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and Dustin O'Halloran composing works that fall broadly under the banner of ‘contemporary classical’ and incorporate electronics. All three have, like Richter, collaborated with The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer, Wayne McGregor.

It’s not just a case of composers with an orchestral background being seduced by electronic music, however. The pattern of influence flows the other way too, with electronic artists such as Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares having their heads turned by 20th century classical music: the former collaborating with Philip Glass, and the latter melding Stravinsky, Mahler and Bartók samples with high-tempo breakcore for the album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született.

Ethereal electronica artist Björk studied classical music during her formative years and has stated her love of Mahler, Berg and Prokofiev. Their influence has shown itself throughout her recorded output, most notably in her 2001 album Vespertine, which featured chamber orchestras and choirs alongside glitchy electronic beats.

Opera too, has not been immune to classical music’s embrace of all things electronic – a striking recent example being Swedish synthpop duo The Knife’s collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock on Tomorrow, In a Year, an electronic opera based on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species staged at the Barbican in 2010. It’s an ambient-heavy work, which sees classical mezzo-soprano vocals soaring over droning synths and vocoder phrases.

Luca Francesconi, whose opera Quartett receives its UK premiere next month at the Royal Opera House, studied under Stockhausen and has incorporated electronics into many of his works. Quartett sees him incorporate electronic ambient sounds under frenzied and often dissonant orchestral phrases to create a sense of claustrophobia- perfect for a narrative of the two last people alive on earth, trapped in a concrete bunker after World War III. It’s sure to prove an intoxicating cocktail for the ears, and provide yet more proof that almost a century after Varèse urged the advance of music as an art form through the use of machines, composers continue to heed the call.

This article has 4 comments

  1. disco responded on 30 May 2014 at 1:26am Reply

    Interesting article.

    This interplay between electronic music and classical music goes back to electronic music’s roots.

    In 1913 Luigi Russolo wrote an open letter (known as the manifesto for an art of noises) to the classical composer Patella. He called for a new form of music to ‘present the musical soul of the masses, of the great factories, of the railways, of the transatlantic liners, of the battleships, of the automobiles and airplanes’

    In 1914 Russolo brought his theory and practice together, building prototype synthesisers to play the first attempt at an electronic music concert. He then toured Europe until war broke out.

    After the war Russolo moved to Paris where he electrified his early synthesisers and started sound tracking films.

    His ideas began influencing musicians living and passing through Paris, such as John Cage, Varése, Pierre Henry and Pierre Shaeffer.

    In 1915 Varése moved to New York and became excited by the sounds of the modern city.

    In 1929 Varése organised Luigi Russolo’s last concert, in Paris. Inspired by Russolo, Varése started working on his first electronic composition ‘Ionisation’.

    From 1920 onwards more serious electronic instruments were invented, such as Theramin and Ondes Martenot. Russolo’s instruments failed to catch on. He returned to painting (his first love) and the instruments were destroyed in an air raid.

    After the war magnetic tape, developed in Germany, became commercially available. It became the main instrument of electronic music. From here the baton gets passed to Pierre Henry and Schaffaer in Paris and then to Stockhausen in Germany, John Cage, Wendy Carlos etc in the USA. And through them we end up with The Beatles, Jean Jaques Perry, Radiophonic Workshop, Can and Kraftwerk playing electronic music in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

    Japanese electronic music also shares this connection back to classical music, as it also stems from the post war scene in Paris.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 30 May 2014 at 5:47pm


      Thanks for contributing such fascinating and detailed information. It seem that the Ondes Martenot is having a bit of a resurgence - Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has used one regularly since Kid A. I believe the sound crops up in his film scores as well!

      ROH Content Producer

  2. smg responded on 2 June 2014 at 3:45pm Reply

    It is not possible to speak about the use of the electro-acoustic techniques into the classical music repertoire without mentioning the role played by an institution such as Ircam. It was created in the late seventies by french composer Pierre Boulez. The original purpose of this place was to promote exchanges between composers and scientists. Since then, it has been frequented by many composers from various backgrounds. Numerous musical pieces using new technologies of electronic music has indeed been composed and performed there. Luca Francesconi has spent a lot of time at Ircam realising several important works of his catalogue for more than twenty years. The electronic music part of this opera, Quartet, has been designed in the Ircam studios. It is consequently the typical product from a long-term experience in mixing classical contemporary and electronic music.

  3. I hope there can be more than this use of electronic means where electronics and acoustic instruments uses the same old language. Time for a change. Change to spectral composition. We have the tools for this to analyze and create new forms.

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