Hybrid vigour

A 90-piece Russian orchestra doing techno? Matthew Sweet has heard the future of house, and breakbeat, and classical music, too

Dance music doesn't have a reputation for being clever. If Technoboy can't hear whether Kebab Man is asking him if he wants garlic sauce, then that generally means it has achieved its desired effect. But this might be about to change. In March 1999, a Swansea-based band named Hybrid will release Wide Angle, the first dance album to employ the services of a 90-piece orchestra. Their aim? Oh, simply to alter the course of musical history.

It's a warm July morning in Moscow, and the two principal members of Hybrid, Mike Truman and Chris Healings, are having a last-minute discussion with their collaborator, the film composer and musicologist Sacha Puttnam. They are about to begin recording with the Russian Federal Orchestra at the Mosfilm studios, where Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Tarkovsky all clocked on for work.

When I arrive at the studio, the orchestra is already assembled, poring over the score for a Hybrid track called "Kill City". Puttnam is conducting, dressed in one of his inexhaustible supply of dapper suits. ("They won't take me seriously unless I'm properly dressed.") At first, the musicians seem puzzled by the task in hand, and work proceeds in fits and starts. Behind the glass, Truman is tackling his toughest problem of the day: trying to persuade the Mosfilm sound engineer not to stop the tape as soon as the orchestra makes a mistake. Though the studio's equipment is state-of-the-art, the men and women who operate still think in analog terms. Even if the orchestra crashes to a halt in the middle of a bar, Truman will be able to digitally rework it once he's back in London. It takes all morning for this point sink in.

Puttnam, meanwhile, is in a state of nervy rapture. "I've been waiting to do this for 10 years," he enthuses. "When you work with an orchestra, the younger musicians have all got their Walkmans on when they come into the rehearsal room, and they're listening to house music. Then they take them off and start playing Beethoven." This is the gap he wants to bridge. "There's a real resistance to change in classical music, because the people in charge of it don't really care about getting it across to new audiences. Which is why it's losing its appeal to young people. But if you look at the history of classical music, it's been pushed along by things like the gavotte, the chaconne, the waltz. It was always dance music. Functional music. You didn't just go along and listen to whatever some composer had come up with. You were playing dance music for everyone to meet each other. This is exactly the same thing."

By lunchtime, the 90 musicians have clearly got the idea. Those members of the orchestra with headphones - who are able to hear the house track being pumped in from the studio - are keeping them on long after they've done their bit. To Puttnam's delight, they even start to add their own improvisations and flourishes. It's an exhilarating process: imagine Gorecki largin' it in a field in Hampshire, and you'll have a reasonable notion of Hybrid's style.

Hybrid - Truman, Healings and Lee Mullins - met while clubbing in Swansea six years ago. They bonded over Truman's house remix of "Another Brick in the Wall", and they've been doing DJ sets and mixing their own music ever since. Healings, a former postman, is the band's percussionist. If they become famous, he will probably be the one who gets screamed at by teenage girls. Truman is the digital whizzkid with an ear for a juicy breakbeat, but he's not your usual club loudmouth: he's much more likely to retune a hotel TV than throw it through the window. Puttnam comes from a very different background. He trained at the Moscow Conservatory, and, since graduating, has moved back to his native London and into film and TV work. He scored The Confessional for Robert LePage, and is currently composing for a new BBC radio adaptation of Bleak House.

Once their labours in the studio are over, there's time for Puttnam to show the band around Moscow. Healings and Truman take to the city as if it were a huge engine for producing unfamiliar sounds. They forage round Red Square, using a digital camcorder to sample the bells of the Kazan Cathedral. (Healings calculates the number of beats per minute, and figures that they're already at the right speed.) Then Truman notices a woman talking sternly into a megaphone, and urges Healings to point the camera in her direction. They do energetic thumbs-up signs, obviously deciding that this material will add some authentic ambience to their album. "She's only advertising guided tours, you know," chips in Puttnam.

Truman and Puttnam are both disenchanted with the insularity of their respective musical spheres. "Dance music and electronic music have lost their way," asserts Truman. "They've started to get a bit anal, to close in on themselves, to recycle the same ideas over and over again. Club music is about noises and rhythms and how hard your bass drum is - and that's about as far as it goes. And you can't sing along to a breakbeat all night."

Puttnam has similar feelings about his own musical background: "The people who run the classical world have no respect for young people. I don't enjoy going to operas any more because you see 12 boxes with nobody in them and students outside who can't get in. They're going to become dinosaurs if they don't change their ways. Orchestras are going to start having to look for new work. And this is it."

Everyone involved in the production of Wide Angle has been on a steep learning curve during the last few weeks. The Hybrid boys have had a crash course in orchestration (Truman admits that his last visit to a classical concert was on a school trip), and Puttnam has had a high-speed tutorial in new musical technology. He's also cast off a few scholarly prejudices. "When I'm composing, there's always this little academic on my shoulder, telling me to keep things changing constantly, and to keep within certain strictures. But Mike's taught me to forget all that." Bringing the insistent rhythms of house music into contact with classical orchestration has forced Puttnam to throw away the rule book. And he can produce excellent precedents for doing so. "It's exactly what Debussy did," he contends. "In his day you weren't allowed parallel fifths. So he comes along, starts using parallel fifths and suddenly that's his own sound. So when Mike's not worrying about academic restrictions, suddenly you get these wonderful harmonies that you're not supposed to have. And they work."

In the post-war period, Puttnam argues, the orchestra has ossified, and abandoned an interest in technological advance that once ensured its constant evolution. "Wagner was always looking for new sounds. He wanted a new tuba; a bigger tuba. And now there are Wagnerian tubas, huge things that vibrate so deeply that the sound goes right through your system. He was always looking for that extra bit of bass. I'm sure if he was around now and heard the 808 bass used in jungle music he'd be jumping up and down and shouting, 'that's the one!' "

For Truman, Puttnam's orchestral expertise has given him the opportunity to add depth of feeling to a musical genre whose expressiveness is usually limited to the most trite upbeat sentiments. "When you hear very formulated European house music," he says, "the emotional content is almost nil. You know exactly where it's going, you know what key it will change to, you can tell where their samples come from. There's nothing in it that would make you happy or melancholic. We want to instil some strong emotional content into our music."

Now he's seen what a full orchestra can do, Truman is sure that next time, he's going to ask his musicians to perform more daring feats. "I'd like to get the orchestra to play the electronic lines, and the synths to play what might normally be considered the orchestra's part." Everyone nods in agreement. I can almost hear Hybrid marshalling a fleet of Moogs into melody as the Russian Federal Orchestra bashes out a heart-stopping breakbeat rhythm.

Hybrid play Heaven, W1 (0171 930 2020), 8 October. 'Altitude/Kill City' is out now; 'Wide Angle' (Distinctive) is released in March 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all