For years, the global EDM community of beat makers and creators has been the butt of industrywide jokes for its open-armed embrace of supposed button pushers, sample stealers, cake throwers and gimmicky, mask-wearing “DJs.” Most of the criticism comes from rock bigwigs like Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, who later rescinded his controversial comments at the 2012 Grammys, and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. Some of the flak is even self-inflicted: See loudmouth Deadmau5 and #RealDJing advocate A-Trak. What it all comes down to, ultimately, is that the general music world places electronic artists on a lower tier than traditional, “real” musicians.
Pete Tong is on a mission to change all that.
Over the last 20 years, Tong has established himself as one of the few true global ambassadors of electronic music through his decades-long career at BBC Radio 1 in the U.K. He has transcended the role of the traditional DJ to become a bona fide tastemaker. Launched in 1993, his industry-leading Essential Mix program, a weekly DJ mix radio show, is to this day considered the holy grail for dance music hopefuls and genre legends alike, as Tong has used the show to build his reputation for having a golden ear that shifts and defines the future sounds of dance music.
This week, at the Hollywood Bowl, Tong sets his sights on a growing trend: orchestral EDM, a musical movement that, as its name suggests, melds electronic music and dance beats with live instrumentation and ambitious, full-on orchestration. Teaming with English conductor-composer Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra, a modernist symphonic collective known for collaborating with pop and experimental artists, Tong and his orchestral collaborators will re-create and reinterpret historic tracks that defined dance music in the ’80s and ’90s, as well as newer cuts from current-day acts such as Rudimental and Eric Prydz. The result, Tong says, will be equal parts classical music concert and neon-lit rave.
“It’s a grown-up rave — with an orchestra,” he says.
The collaboration first came together back in 2015 when the BBC Proms, a series of orchestral classical music concerts held annually at the Royal Albert Hall in London for more than 120 years, invited BBC Radio 1 and Tong to curate and contemporize one of its events. The date also aligned with the 20th anniversary of Tong’s Radio 1 live broadcast takeover in Ibiza, the Mediterranean party island that has become synonymous with dance music, a milestone he and his orchestral crew celebrated via a specially programmed set list of seminal Ibiza tunes.
Originally a one-off show, the initial Proms performance sparked a groundswell of interest that led to more events: a three-date run of sold-out arena shows in the U.K. in 2016; international dates in Ibiza, with a forthcoming Australian concert; a BBC Radio 1 film of the original show; and global festival slots.
It also spawned an album: Classic House, a classical crossover compilation from Tong, conductor Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra comprising a number of the songs performed on that first night as well as other classics. The album hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts, a first for Tong. The follow-up album, Ibiza Classics, is scheduled for release in early December.
“That tells you why we’re doing it, because the story keeps evolving and the interest seems to be there to do it,” Tong says of the project’s success.
While Tong has made a name for himself as a tastemaker and influencer in the electronic space, he’ll be the first to admit he’s not the originator of the EDM-orchestral hybrid. In fact, says Tong, the sound dates back to the ’70s, when entities like the Salsoul Orchestra, TK Records and Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra helped shape the early sounds of the disco era.
“Disco was using orchestras in those studios in the ’70s, when budgets were a lot bigger,” Tong says. “Orchestras were the backbone of all those great disco production studios.”
The spread of electronic music in the United States, by way of Chicago house and Detroit techno in the ’80s, updated disco sounds and influences as advances in technology gave way to new production methods. Now, instead of commissioning a full-on ensemble, dance music producers were able to re-create the scope and breadth of an orchestra with the touch of a finger through programming, drum machines, synthesizers, samples and production patches, a technique Tong dubs “one-finger wizardry.”
“A lot of those records were [an] homage to an era 10 [or] 15 years before,” he said in a recent interview with Insomniac Event's Wide Awake Stories radio show. “They couldn’t get an orchestra, so they were writing orchestral parts on left or right hand. Looking at Detroit and techno, tracks like ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Knights of the Jaguar’ were fully blown attempts to do orchestral pieces, but they were doing it with samples. I don’t think the people that wrote those tunes at that time ever could have dreamt that they were going to be played by an orchestra.”
Throughout the ’90s, the 2000s and well into today, orchestral influences continued to infiltrate the dance floor, with modern examples including Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now” (1998); the disco-sampling, strings-laced “Stress” (2007) from French electro house duo Justice; Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy (2010) film score and accompanying soundtrack album, which enlisted a 90-piece orchestra; and Electronic Opus (2015), an electronic symphonic album by American trance producer BT, featuring orchestral versions of his songs.
The trend continued this year when Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig released Versus, which comprises orchestral and electronically enhanced versions of his music, in May; his accompanying Versus Synthesizer Ensemble project, a self-described “synthesizer-controlled techno-symphony” made up of six live musicians on keyboards, pianos and synthesizers, performed songs off the album at Movement Music Festival in Detroit in May and Sónar Festival in Barcelona in June. And just last month, Australian producer/DJ tyDi announced his forthcoming album, Collide, an EDM-meets-orchestra hybrid in collaboration with two-time Grammy Award-winning composer Christopher Tin.
Tong’s version of orchestral EDM, he maintains, differs from his contemporaries’. Where other producers and composers are using orchestras to reimagine their own music or create original compositions, his project aims to add gravitas to the wider electronic genre by recognizing its storied past, from Ibiza to Detroit and beyond.
“We’re celebrating some music with an incredible heritage and history,” Tong says. “Often, dance and electronic music [history] doesn’t necessarily receive the plaudits it deserves in the same way rock & roll history does. But a lot of this music that we’re playing is a soundtrack to many people’s lives all over the world. ... These songs really mattered a lot to them. To be able to go and re-perform them with an orchestra, I think, adds importance to the music.”
On Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl, Tong and conductor Buckley will lead a live, 65-piece orchestra in the first U.S. performance of Ibiza Classics. For Tong, who lives in L.A., it also marks his first hometown show for the production.
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“If you’re an electronic music fan,” he says, “you’re very used to seeing DJs jump around and pyrotechnics. But it’s not been a great era for live electronic bands like it was in the ’90s. In some part, we’re doing the same thing — we’re performing live on a grand scale. In the last 10-year cycle, there haven’t been enough live acts [in electronic music]. This is a great complement to that.”
For now, Tong’s orchestral show is limited to a handful of one-off performances; logistically, it’s damn near impossible to organize, rehearse and transport a massive 65-person orchestra. But as the show continues to gain momentum worldwide, Tong sees the potential for the growing trend as a reflection of the maturity of the EDM market and the next evolutionary step for dance music.
“Spending my whole life in the world of clubs and dance and electronic music,” Tong says, “it doesn’t always get taken as seriously as some of us think it should. When people hear us play, I hope people realize how fucking amazing these tunes were. And if we have to drum it over their heads by playing it [at] the Hollywood Bowl with 65 people, and we get a little bit further down the line, it’s a success as far as I’m concerned.”
Pete Tong presents Ibiza Classics with conductor Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, Nov. 9, with special guest Guy Gerber and special appearances by Moby, AlunaGeorge and Bipolar Sunshine.