On the surface, classical and techno can seem very distant. One traditionally belongs in concert halls with grandiose performance lengths and suggests the flamboyance of massed strings and brass. The other calls the strobelit nightclub its home, driven by unrelenting, often minimalist four to the floor beats.
Classical has always incorporated the popular, though. In 1795, for example, Joseph Haydn blended a toe-tapping Croatian folk tune into the finale of his Symphony No. 104. Two hundred years later, Aphex Twin reworked his own pulsating electronica into classical forms with help from Philip Glass. We all know that dance music is often best when mechanical efficiency is fused with human imperfections and expression. This marriage can be seen on the most basic level in the live sets of most electronic-based performers as they strive to translate their in-studio inventions onto the stage – but there are ever more exciting elaborations constantly being explored, particularly in the classical world.
Germany is a country with both classical and techno entrenched in its capillaries. From Karlheinz Stockhausen’s advancements as composer to the brilliant Hauschka’s contemporary bridging of electronica and classical, evidence of the meeting points between these two worlds is easy to stumble across wherever you look. This makes it the perfect next stop on our global Stay True Journey with Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky in Hamburg on Thursday 11 December. As a prelude to our broadcast which will include live music from Carl Craig, Brandt Brauer Frick and Gregor Schwellenbach, we caught up with Luxembourg-born pianist Francesco Tristano to discover how he is continuing to connect the dots between the nightclub and the concert hall.
Would you say that curiosity is an important driver behind whatever project you commit to?
Extremely. I’m very curious and especially curious about things I think I know about. The more I think I know about something specifically, the more I realise I don’t really know anything about it or that I have a very limited knowledge of it. Curiosity is very much a driving force. In music, I look for very definite answers because there are very practical issues that can be resolved.
How much of a direct influence have your Luxembourg surroundings had on your music?
Everything goes back to education and the first five or six years of awareness. My musical tastes were very much defined by the time I was five or six. I grew up in a house where my mum put on music at the loudest volume possible from about 7am to 7pm and there wasn’t a day without it. Those were the surroundings I grew up within. There happened to be a lot of classical and baroque music, but there was also a lot of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Earth, Wind & Fire. My taste for electronic music and synthesizers has been with me since my very early years.
There hasn’t and isn’t much of a scene in Luxembourg. It’s a very small place, but that hasn’t prevented me from growing into what I am now. I was very lucky to be born in Luxembourg because there weren’t that many musicians that were supported by the government and/or good teachers. I was one of them. I was also lucky to leave very early, because I left Luxembourg when I was 15. Luxembourg may be small, but this element also brings great things – for example, you’re definitely more open to other languages and cultures because if you don’t open, it is likely you will stay in a very limited realm of things. My background is also Italian, so I have those influences too. You can’t choose the place where you grow up, but you can assess these things maybe 20 years later and I definitely think it was a good thing.
Is it hard in the classical world to move from pianist to composer?
Let me start by saying I never wanted to combine anything. The way I was initiated into music was very free and by being sat by the piano playing chords. I don’t think there was ever a separation between playing and composing stuff because that’s what I always did. The eye-opener was electronic music. When I started listening to it and going back to the piano, it was not that I wanted to incorporate the electronic sounds into my playing but it was more like a leak. My way of composing could not be the same because I was so inspired by the long, minimalistic structures and repetitive harmonies, which allowed me to create longer structures of my normal material.
The piano was the 909 of its day. When it was first invented, it was almost like it came from the future; like a UFO. It’s arguably almost the first form of synthesis, so I think it’s slightly shortsighted to define the piano as a classical instrument. Now you have piano makers who build new designs and come up with new ideas that are bigger and more varied. In that sense, it’s very similar to a synth creator who would come up with updates or new versions of a Prophet 5 or whatever.
As an instrument, the piano is undoubtedly more dynamic than is sometimes heralded. There are so many different tonalities that can be created from the same key dependent on how the note is played, for example. In recent years, advancements such as those used in the ROLI Seaboard have helped extend this even further. Have you had the opportunity to use it before?
I’ve used it before in Luciano’s studio. It’s very intuitive but also quite hit and miss at the start. Once you get properly acquainted, you can pretty much do whatever you want. I only had a brief encounter with it but I was exposed to its capabilities. It’s great because the piano as an instrument already unifies generated sound through the hammer on string and the keyboard itself. Nowadays, you have a sound module that is separate from the controller, which gives you the benefit of being able to control the output just as you want it.
I was watching a documentary on Joe Zawinul from Weather Report where he is filmed showing how he would program his keyboard to have descending scales. So when he was playing up the keys, the mirrored sound was moving down. The interviewer asked why he did this to which he answered, ‘that is exactly what I wanted. I’m interested in having feedback that doesn’t correspond to what I’m doing.’ He had a sound that was triggered by him but reacting in a totally different way and that’s what you see as MIDI controllers these days. I’d like to spend more time with the Seaboard.
Alice and I met four or five years ago and became friends. At some point, she invited me to be a guest appearance on her album as a piano duet for a couple of tracks. Her label actually had other plans for her, so instead we talked about doing a whole album together. We came to the decision that Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” would be the way to go because we both loved it and thought we could do something with it. Then, of course, it was one of the biggest scandals in music history when it was first premiered and that was barely 100 years ago. We had a great time preparing for the recording and now we’ve been enjoying the tour since the summer. We’re actually on a little break, but we go on again from February till next October or so and there are a lot of international dates too.
Apart from the sound, how does having another pianist influence the music you produce?
It’s very much a counterweight to what I do. We never tried to make the perfect duet – we play on separate pianos, not the same – and I play Yamaha while she plays Steinway. We never tried to merge our sound to make it into this perfect symbiosis, but instead really tried to accentuate our differences. We tried to make it extremely dynamic. She’s a great melodist when she plays in the upper register and you can really travel with her sound. Then you have me hammering down in the lower register to give the sound a groove and provide rhythmic support for the melodies. It all happened very organically.
“The piano was the 909 of its day. When it was first invented, it was almost like it came from the future”
Moving on to next week’s Boiler Room & Ballantine’s Stay True Germany event in Hamburg. Going to a classical music venue and going to the club are very different visual and auditory experiences. How are you hoping people will react to the two being brought together in such a format?
I think the reaction will beautiful. The Boiler Room audience is one of the best audiences because they’re open-minded people. I understand the venue is an industrial-type building, which is perfect because it isn’t a classical concert hall or a club either. It’s something that calls for yet a different vibe. I’m not too familiar with Gregor Schwellenbach, although I’ve heard a couple of things so I’m looking forward to his set very much. I’m very familiar with Brandt Brauer Frick who are one of the best avant-garde bands on the musical landscape. We’ve had a few collaborations and I’m also working on a classical festival that also incorporates electronic music, so I’ve invited them along to that in May in Dusseldorf, Germany. Then, of course, there’s the master [Carl Craig]. We may do something together before I leave him to do the last hour with all his modular synths. I think the whole line up is curated with great care, so it will be a wonderful musical journey.
The Piano, Hats & Stabs EP is coming out via Get Physical and leans more towards your admiration for techno than it does classical. What were your hopes for this project?
It’s basically my ongoing quest to symbiotically combine electronic instruments and the piano. The EP is definitely dancefloor orientated with a high BPM and an omnipresent kick drum, but it’s the first piece of work recorded in many different locations over several months. I recorded the initial takes in Paris in January and also recorded some synths in Holland and Spain before summer. I also did a long editing session in Rome with my sound engineer who did some great work. In fact, one Juno 106 synth was recorded in Detroit at Carl [Craig’s] place. So it only really came together in the last month when I did the final mixdown and mastering. I’m quite curious to see how people respond to it. I’m also in the midst of making it a live show. Previously, I’ve had three albums on the French label, Infiné, but this will be on Get Phsyical so I’m interested to see how that goes down.
So Boiler Room viewers will be the first to see the live show?
Yes, but keep in mind that the EP is 30mins long and the show is about an hour so I’ll probably throw in a few more older tracks or remixes I’ve been working on. The set up will be the same – with my Yamaha Grand – and I also have a Yamaha digital synth as well as a Moog bass synth plus my sequencers and controllers. The music will be 75% new; all of which will be refined over the next few days. I’m very excited because when you have a premiere that’s broadcasted like this, there’s a great energy. I consider everything I do a work in progress and these live sets never sound the same, but of course you need to start somewhere. That marker will be Stay True Germany.
Francesco Tristano’s ‘Piano, Hats & Stabs EP’ is released on December 11 via Get Physical here.
Head over to our designated Stay True Journey with Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky micro-site to find out more information. Also keep an eye out for a documentary we are currently working on with Ballantine’s, featuring all aforementioned artists/getting under the skin of Classical meets Electronic music. The show is live from 8pm CET on Thursday 11/12/2014
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