View photos from the March 7 performance in the M83 and L.A. Philharmonic slideshow.
At first glance, synthesized pop purveyors M83 don’t appear to have much in common with one of the world’s most renowned philharmonic orchestras. Led by 29-year-old Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez, M83 perform most of their music by electronic means — synthesizers and computers — rarely lingering too long in the analog world except to deliver vocals and the occasional drumbeat or guitar riff over the top of their ethereal machine-made soundscapes.
Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to remember the last time the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra employed any artificial blips or beeps. They of course play every note in real time, and usually perform weighty classical pieces steeped in tradition. These distinct worlds are set to collide on Saturday, when M83 will share the stage with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in what will be the band’s very first orchestral collaboration.
Delve a bit deeper, though, and you’ll soon discover that perhaps these worlds aren’t so far apart after all. Gonzalez, whose band just finished touring with two of today’s biggest rock acts (the Killers and Kings of Leon), cranks classical music on his tour bus and even studied it as a kid. “I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music since I was little,” says Gonzalez from his studio in Antibes, the historic Mediterranean seaside town he calls home. “I studied classical piano as well — I always liked classical music, and it’s a big source of inspiration to me.” Although these classical influences may not be initially apparent, the cinematic scope of M83’s music and complex layers that swirl upward into startling crescendos do offer clues.
Meanwhile, two weeks before the performance date, L.A. Phil violinist Robert Gupta admits he’s never heard M83’s music, despite, at age 21, being the orchestra’s youngest member. This doesn’t stop the gifted soloist from expressing his enthusiasm for seizing the opportunity to remind young people that even contemporary rock and pop come from a classical tradition.
“I think [the collaboration] is such a great idea,” Gupta says. “We do so many things with the Hollywood Bowl with popular music and rock musicians and it’s a way for an audience to see that even this popular, modern stuff came out of tradition. And for a band like M83 to recognize that and to program the music with it speaks to their musical merits.”
The program the violinist refers to is one that Gonzalez and orchestra conductor Julian Kuerti selected together. It will include two classical pieces: Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” and Claude Debussy’s “La Mer,” which, Gupta says, give him “goose bumps” every time he hears them. This is something he has in common with the M83 mastermind, whom he’s never met.
“They’re pieces of classical music I really, really love,” Gonzalez gushes. “I think those two pieces fit perfectly to the atmosphere of my music. It’s gonna be great — I can’t wait to hear the orchestra play those pieces live. When I’m on the road, I’m listening to lots of classical music, and these are the two pieces I’m listening to the most.”
Gupta says the choice of these pieces impressed him for different reasons. “It speaks to M83’s understanding of classical music as a genre,” he says, adding that he considers both composers visionaries. “Pärt is an Estonian nationalist and his music has always spoken out in some kind of political way, and he’s tried to make classical music more accessible to the public. Also choosing Debussy is right on the ball because he set a precedent, especially with ‘La Mer.’ He was an impressionist, as much as Monet was, because he was tone-painting with colors of harmony. I’m really looking forward to seeing how M83’s music is going to relate to these two great composers.”
Rather than focusing on M83’s hugely popular recent album, Saturdays = Youth, which made many critics’ 2008 Top 10 lists, Gonzalez says he plans to perform earlier works, as well as some remix material he feels will be better suited to the environment. He’ll go light on “the pop tracks from the last album,” opting instead for “tracks that are more like orchestral material — mostly songs from my previous albums, for example, ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us,’ because I don’t think it’s really interesting to play pop songs with the orchestra.” He also intends to play “Pioneers,” a tune he remixed last year for U.K. chart-topping indie rockers Bloc Party.
The program will conclude with a joint performance by M83 and the L.A. Philharmonic, which Gonzalez seems quite confident about, despite it being his orchestral debut. “I’m more intimidated by the 30 minutes of music I have to play alone just by myself,” he confesses. “Playing with the orchestra I won’t do a lot of things — I won’t play a lot of instruments because I want to give a lot of space to the orchestra since there are a lot of musicians in it. But I’m not really stressed about playing with the orchestra. I’m gonna have a lot of pleasure playing with them.”
While the orchestra may not be entirely familiar with M83’s material just yet, Gupta reassures, they’re excited by the prospect of the collaboration. “I’ve seen orchestras where the stuffy nature of the players is really constraining and they don’t enjoy music that’s outside their comfort zone,” he says. “But this orchestra is a bunch of really great sports and good musicians because it takes a good musician to appreciate the validity of musical expression in a band like M83.”
Should M83 feel slighted that the violinist isn’t yet familiar with their repertoire, they may take comfort in knowing they’re in good company. When legendary diva Diana Ross performed with the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, Gupta found himself in a similar position. “I was embarrassed that I didn’t know her stuff because she’s a cultural icon,” he admits. But the consummate professional intends to do his homework before the show. “We’ll prepare on our side, they’ll prepare on their side, and we’ll meet together and make music. So whatever challenges that manifest themselves, we look forward to, because that’s part of the job.” In the meantime, Gupta says, “I’m going to download M83 off of iTunes right now!”
M83 perform with the L.A. Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, March 7.