How classical music was brought to the dancefloor

I Am the Mighty Jungulator are taking on the mighty Shostakovich, 'reimagining' his Sixth Symphony - for clubbers
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The Independent Culture

Attempts to attract a new, younger audience to classical music are usually the preserve of various crossover gimmicks. Dressing the ensemble "informally" in black shirts or paisley waistcoats, say, or inviting someone from the world of pop or jazz to share the stage. There's also mucking about with the repertoire, as in recent Scandinavian projects where string ensembles played tunes by Metallica and Joy Division.

But what if you tried to reach a new audience without jeopardising the integrity of classical music and performance style? What if you remixed an orchestral piece, without making the usual compromises? Imagine reimagining Shostakovich.

At the Colston Hall, Bristol, on Sunday, the main-hall performance of Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Shostakovich's famously problematic Sixth Symphony of 1939 - begun as a tribute to Lenin and completed at the renewed height of Stalin's terror - will be followed at 9.45pm in the Colston Hall's bar by a full-length remix of the work by the cult Bristol-based audio-visual collective I Am the Mighty Jungulator.

Having discreetly filmed and recorded the orchestra's performance during the concert, I Am the Mighty Jungulator will present their reimagined interpretation by mixing the original sound and vision for an octophonic sound system and double-video projection. Operating from a console set up in the the bar, the group will create an instant replay of the Sixth in real time, digitally tweaking the recorded concert through live processing, and drawing in new elements uncovered in their long period of research.

The event is a unique happening commissioned by the Colston Hall, and there is no admission charge for the remix, although tickets do need to be booked in advance. It is also quite giddily experimental, for no one - including the performers - really knows in advance what the outcome will be. "We're not predicting that it's necessarily going to appeal to a classical audience, or that the people who attend are going to come to a classical gig next year," says Graeme Howell of the Colston Hall. "It's about Shostakovich, and about making an artistic statement."

When I first talked to IATMJ's Nathan Hughes (who does the visuals) and Matthew Olden (who does the sound) a month ago, the project appeared to have got the better of them. "We need to do a serious piece of work here; you can't just busk it," Hughes said, rather anxiously. Worryingly, Olden - whose background is in techno and drum'n'bass - drew comparisons between Stalin's reign of terror and John Major's Criminal Justice Bill, the scourge of rave culture.

But when I met up with the pair again last week at the Watershed media centre- another partner in the Philharmonia's Bristol Partnership, along with St George's Bristol - they were absolutely consumed by Shostakovich. "We've embraced the depression," said Hughes, not entirely facetiously.

The commission has also tested the usual procedures of the group, whose name is taken from a computer programme of their own invention, the Jungulator, which they use as the basis for audio-visual performances in clubs and galleries, and as a tool within arts education.

"I Am the Mighty Jungulator is a collective, a multi-platform production hub and a band," says Hughes, 38, who trained as a fine artist and film-maker. "There's a core of four people, and another three or four when we go live. I'm coming from classic cinematic influences, and other guys out of more trashy-punky things.

"We don't tend to do politics - it's a big, daft, psychedelic people's band, a Hawkwind vibe - but in this piece the parallels with the present day are inescapable. Russia was falling into a state of degeneracy; millions of people died at the hands of Stalin; yet you had the paradox of the media saying everything was great. It made you feel mad, yet you had to keep going, in a kind of coping mechanism. Someone who knew Shostakovich kept a diary and they wrote of their 'dead eye to the world'. That really struck me. I'm sitting in Bristol, it's a lovely evening, and yet..."

"I've been listening to it over and over again," Olden, 34, says of the Sixth. "I'm coming more from dance music, but with that you're also involved in making music for people's heads, creating another landscape. With this project, the reinterpretation of the music relates to how we work as a group anyway. A lot of what we do is controlled improvisation, acting upon patterns in a random way. There'll be eight separate speakers, all working in sync with each other, and I've built a really good timing system to control the whole thing. It's like a big clock that allows sound to travel from one speaker to another, enabling you to create shapes from the patterns of the music."

"There'll be hammers and sickles drifting round your head," says Hughes. "We can see them, but we don't know if anyone else will be able to."

When the project was first mooted, Ashkenazy was against it. "We talked to him, and he was concerned that we were going to trivialise Shostakovich for the purposes of popularising classical music," Hughes says. "We had to convince him we had serious intent, that we wanted to do something of substance that related to the themes of the work. That put us under more pressure. It left us with the question of, if we're documenting the moral and spiritual decline of Western culture, how far can we go?"

According to Howell, they can go as far as they like. "If Shostakovich were alive today, he wouldn't necessarily be doing orchestral music," he says. The prospect of Dimitri kicking it large on a techno tip is not, therefore, as disrespectful as it might seem.

And if the classical audience don't want to see a canonical work reimagined in a new and challenging way, they don't have to. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia's own interpretation will take place earlier in the evening, happily unhampered by crossover gimmicks or casual clothes.

Mozart and Shostakovich concert, Colston Hall, Bristol, 27 November at 7.30pm; Re-imagining Shostakovich, 9.45pm (0117-922 3686)

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