A 90-piece Russian orchestra doing techno? Matthew Sweet has heard the future of house, and breakbeat, and classical music, too
Sunday 27 September 1998
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.
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