Mission Control

It's hard to figure out just what to make of William Orbit's Pieces in a Modern Style, kind of like it's hard to know what to make of Puff Daddy's "Been All Around the World." If you like that track, is it because you like Puffy and B.I.G.'s flow — or because you've always liked the guitar riff from "Let's Dance"? Likewise, if you get into the orbit of Orbit's versions of the classical works interpreted here, is it because he's doing something really interesting? — or because it's pretty hard to screw up Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"?

The most memorable tracks on Pieces in a Modern Style feel like high-brow Puff Daddy songs, beginning with the first cut, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (RealAudio excerpt). Orbit (born William Wainwright) — the British knob twirler who's left his studio mark on works by Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, Blur and, most notably, Madonna's Ray of Light — re-creates this haunting piece entirely on keyboards yet leaves the final sound virtually unchanged from familiar string recordings of the work. A powerful piece of music, to be sure, but there's really no reason to listen to Orbit's version when there are so many others available.

Baroque compositions by Handel ("Largo From Xerxes") (RealAudio excerpt) and the aforementioned Vivaldi ("L'Inverno" from "The Four Seasons") are similarly presented more straightforwardly than inventively. Orbit adds swirling string effects to "Largo" and plays the "L'Inverno" with a keyboard sound halfway between pipe organ and harpsichord — yet, while they're gorgeous, the beauty stems from Handel and Vivaldi, not Orbit. Meanwhile, romantic composer Pietro Mascagni's "Intermezzo From Cavalleria Rusticana" gets a playful treatment reminiscent mostly of synthesizer player Walter/Wendy Carlos' 1968 Switched On Bach recordings. Those recordings never really transcended novelty; neither does this one.

Ultimately, the best tracks here are those in which Orbit plays to his techno sensibilities without losing the essence of the original works. The melody of Ravel's "Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte" (RealAudio excerpt) is at the fore of Orbit's version, but it gains a sense of poignant urgency from pulsing keyboards that suggest the coupling of romantic and minimalist aesthetics. With Orbit's addition of throbbing percussion, synthesizer washes and tasteful guitar chords, Beethoven's "Triple Concerto" is an evocative soundscape: It does what the best classical music does, pushing one's ears, mind and body to create a vital listening experience that fills all the senses.

While most of Pieces in a Modern Style is suitable chill-out, early-morning music, the DJ Ferry Corsten and DJ ATB remixes of "Adagio for Strings" (included with the album as a separate disc) show what happens when you take such music to the dance floor. Corsten's version, already a hit in England and on U.S. club charts, begins with hard beats and keyboards, then fades to the album version, then combines the two in its climax. The ATB remix does much the same but takes a more upbeat approach. Orbit might want to bring the DJs along for the whole ride next time.