Symphonies for the dancefloor

A new club anthem mixes Paganini with dreamy vocals and dance beats. But how radical is it? Chris Mugan explores the chequered history of the pop-classical crossover
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The Independent Culture

A collaboration between the Bestival founder Rob da Bank and the electronica veteran Tom Middleton sees them devise a new take on a 200-year-old favourite, Niccolò Paganini's 24th Caprice.

The piece should be familiar to those who are less well-versed in classical music as the theme tune to the sorely missed South Bank Show. But where Melvyn Bragg's arts series enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber's vibrant take on the piece, this pair, under the moniker Robortom, have morphed the melody into a dance tune under the title of "Paganini Rocks", and have thereby entered that bizarre subgenre of club music – dancefloor fillers based on classical themes.

Reworking conservatory tunes into pop-friendly forms has a long, if chequered, history. While Phil Spector was famously inspired to write "little symphonies for the kids", contemporary songwriters reworked classical motifs into three-minute wonders; think of the girl group The Toys and their 1965 hit "A Lover's Concerto", based on J S Bach's Minuet in G Major.

As the decade progressed, rock became a more sophisticated art form and its protagonists yearned to be taken as seriously as the great composers. One strategy was to emulate the forms that Mozart and Beethoven had used, whether in a traditional band or through collaborations with classical musicians. This led to The Who's Pete Townshend writing his rock opera Tommy, the symphonic arrangements of King Crimson and Deep Purple's overblown Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Dance music, too, grew more sophisticated, though its practitioners' interest in classical music was driven more by the search for recognisable melodies to get punters on their feet. In the early Seventies, soul morphed into disco via the Philadelphia sound. Thanks to the 12" single format, tunes stretched ever longer, instrumental tracks came into vogue and arrangements grew richer. The dense "Wall of Sound" devised by Spector had become a widescreen expanse, with horns and strings delineated from crisp percussion and melodic basslines.

Tunesmiths could co-opt not only a classical refrain, but whole orchestral arrangements. A famous instance occurs in Saturday Night Fever when John Travolta dances to Walter Murphy's dynamic "A Fifth of Beethoven", which lays the composer's Fifth Symphony over a funky beat. The Brazilian arranger-supreme Deodato reworked Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, widely known thanks to its use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: a Space Odyssey, as an epic jazz-funk work-out. The same tune was used by the Salsoul Orchestra, with added ape noises, while another Brazilian musician artist, Salinas, went for a more propulsive take on "Straussmania".

Elsewhere, the search was on for other familiar tunes that could be disco-fied, with varying degrees of success. Whole albums from groups called The Philharmonics and Philharmonic 2000 (notably the latter's wonderfully titled Disconcerto) warped "Für Elise" and the 1812 Overture to fit their common-time template. This misguided practice died out along with disco's flares and hot pants, though the Belgian mash-up maestros Soulwax have kept the flame alive with their sharp edit of "A Fifth of Beethoven".

Dance music took on a more futurist gleam, inspired by Japanese drum machines and Kraftwerk's "Man-Machine" technophilia, though even early synth pioneers were attracted to classical tunes. Examples include Wendy Carlos's bizarre Moog excursions in Switched-On Bach and the frenetic soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Tom Middleton says he was inspired by the more elegant strains of Isao Tomita, having listened to the Japanese composer's early electronic versions of Claude Debussy as a child. "Those ethereal textures have remained with me over the years," he says. "I don't think I'd be doing what I am now if it wasn't for listening to him."

House music was less interested in lush orchestration than in finding simple, melodic lines to replicate on synths, or sample and meld into new forms. This tendency is not as widespread as classical-disco fusions, but it springs up regularly. Again, it helps for the music to be readily recognisable, as is the case with the stately Pachelbel's Canon. Use of this mainstay largely falls into two camps. At one extreme, there are lush, chillout compositions such as The Future Sound of London's "Domain". And then there are the Eurohouse producers who speed up the Baroque sequence to ridiculous effect.

By comparison, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" has been treated with kid gloves since its use on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Platoon, courtesy of William Orbit. Younger, more excitable DJs added mammoth trance and techno beats, the most successful being Tiësto, who left vast breakdowns where the mournful piece provides an oddly uplifting, hands-in-the-air moment.

On "Paganini Rocks", by way of contrast, Robortom opt for understatement. Middleton was asked to rework a minimal take on the Caprice by Tom Hodge, who scored the piece for piano rather than violin. The pair went further, adding coolly sung vocals from the US indie group Au Revoir Simone that take the piece in a different direction. Da Bank explains that the idea was to distinguish it from previous attempts to fuse classical themes with dance beats. "We felt the instrumental was strong but thought that a vocal could lift it. Au Revoir Simone are an amazing band that I love. They can do something dreamy but also unsettling, so we've got something more subtle."

Robortom have made something more like a classic girl-group tune, taking us back to what The Toys did in the Sixties. This new use of a familiar theme may be more sophisticated than "A Lover's Concerto", but it shares that hit's naïve feel. Dance music's use of past glories has come full circle.

"Paganini Rocks" is out now on

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William Orbit (above) took Samuel Barber to the chillout room; Tiësto adds thrust then pulls it away for the ultimate hands-in-the-air moment.

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