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

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

CLASSICAL MASH-ups: four of the best

Little Fluffy Clouds

The Orb make fine use of Steve Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint'. The American composer was so chuffed with the result, he asked his record company not to sue.

En Trance to Exit

Aphex Twin (below) and Tom Middleton mash up Shostakovich in synapse-frying fashion on the seminal 'Analogue Bubblebath' EP.

Adagio for Strings

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.

Wolfgang's 5th Symphony

The Deadmau5 collaborator Wolfgang Gartner slices and dices Beethoven's most recognisable work to thrilling effect.

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss