View more photos in the M83 and L.A. Philharmonic slideshow.
It's no small task, walking before a sold out crowd in one the most beautiful symphony halls in the world and performing alongside one of the its most respected symphonies. Lesser mortals would cower, or panic, or not even accept the invite. Not so Anthony Gonzales, a french electronic music composer who records under the pseudonym M83. He made his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut on Saturday night on a bill with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In one of the Phil's typically daring and courageous bills, the young Frenchman, used to playing less formal clubs and parties, performed a solo set, then retired offstage so the Phil could play two pieces designed to complement Gonzales' music, and then returned in the final segment to perform with the orchestra.
Gonzales stood before his vast console of analog and digital synths like a futuristic telephone operator trying to deal with a disaster; lights blinked reds, blues and greens as the the spots painted the composer with a violet patina. He began the concert with old-sounding analog synthesizers, which gave off a warm, antiquated hum that rolled like a theramin or a spaceship, and big oceans of ancient/future tones echoed through the hall. It was an impressive sound, and over the next half hour Gonzales did his best to fill the space with music suitable for the concert hall, almost as if he was trying to convince the crowd that he belonged up there.
Though it wasn't designed as such, the evening took on the air of a competition after M83 left the stage and the orchestra began filing in. It was then that someone in the crowd yelled, “Finally, some real musicians!” (or something to that effect; I was a few rows back). It was delivered with anger and malice, as if what M83 had presented was so insulting that the gentleman couldn't help but speak up.
A few moments into the LA Philharmonic's graceful, if at times stirringly tense, performance of Arvo Part's masterful “Fratres,” it became pretty clear that the angry man had a point. Alongside such a gorgeous, stunning work of late-20th century, Gonzales' relatively simplistic and repetitive drones of synth and beats immediately felt mismatched. Part's piece, composed for strings and percussion, has similar sense of repetition that M83's music does, but where Part's composition tornadoes menacingly, swirls with dark strings that gradually shift as a few cellists create a low, spine-tingling drone, M83 just sounds repetitive and quasi-complicated. Conductor Julian Kuerti, on loan from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, managed all the Phil's energy as if he were carrying a bowl of water over a long distance: with a careful consideration and aware of every single step. Kuerte and the Phil then delivered the rollercoaster ride that is Claude Debussy's La Mer — created in M83's native France over a century ago.
M83 almost pulled off an upset when he came out to join the Philharmonic for the final part of the concert. With full band and huge orchestra, the dozens onstage, including an all female chorus, the collection performed a composition that Gonzales wrote for the occasion. It seemed quite inspired by “Fratres,” moving slowly and deliberately; tones shifted gradually, as strings, brass and woodwinds, augmented with synthesizer and voice, cascaded along a melody line. But the problem is that it didn't really go anywhere, and didn't seem to contain any honest emotion.
Matters got worse when a rock drummer came out on stage and the musicians tried to perform a big beat anthem thing that sounded like Fatboy Slim with strings. It didn't work at all, and it felt as though Gonzales was once and for all out of his league — way out. It's one thing to create dynamics with a computer and a bunch of tracks; quite another to create for a living breathing group of people. Doing one well doesn't mean you can do the other well. By the time M83 performed some shoes-in-the-dryer beat thing based around a Bloc Party sample (???), it was like a Mystic Moods Orchestra record had exploded in the Disney.
Part of the problem, perhaps, was that M83 apparently wrote all new compositions for this, and in doing so ignored that part of his creative brain that landed him in the Phil in the first place; it was like he was trying out for first-chair Buchla synthesizer or something, rather than adapting his own beautiful electronic creations for symphony — which would have been way cooler.