While many immediately discredit any attempt to marry classical music with popular music, the string ensemble Instrumental have struck a chord with their first release, Acoustek, which offers classical reworkings of electronica/dance songs.
"I think [dance music] has all the elements that classical music has," said violinist Brian Wright, who was approached by violinist Everton Nelson to join the group. "I mean, Beethoven was totally rhythm driven. It's all about pulse. He has melodies, but they're all on the pulse."
Each member of the group — Andy Nice, cello; Sally Ward, viola; Andy Waterworth, double bass; Catherine Browning, violin; Wright and Nelson — had been earning a living doing session work with pop acts while finishing their studies at various music schools. Nelson played strings on albums by Björk, Sting, Mick Jagger, Jamiroquai, Joni Mitchell and Madonna. Wright has toured with Blur and the High Llamas as well as with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
"By the time you're in your twenties you've got a few options — get a job in an orchestra where you're not really that valued; or try to freelance where you're doing gigs around the country for peanuts; and then there's recording," Wright said. "Because classical music is really badly paid and musicians are undervalued — musicians in England tend to do everything: pop, classical, whatever."
Instrumental began experimenting with such tunes as the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again." They started performing in clubs and pubs, playing everything from Ralph McTell folk-derived tunes to Kronos Quartet material, but it wasn't until Browning came into a rehearsal with her orchestration of the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" (RealAudio excerpt) that it all clicked.
"We were together for about six months and we just knew there was something," Wright recalled. "[The first time] we sat down and played 'Little Fluffy Clouds' through we just knew.... We suddenly got a sound, which is what all chamber groups look for."
The group started to gain attention in the DJ/dance scene as tapes of its recording of "Little Fluffy Clouds" began circulating. At the same time, string accompaniments were becoming an essential ingredient in recordings by such artists as remixers 4 Hero and such hip-hop acts as the Wu-Tang Clan. After hearing their tape, 4 Hero brought the sextet into the studio to lay tracks for their remix of Nuyorican Soul's "Black Gold of the Sun." They also played on sessions with DJ Rap, Jhelisa and Toshihiko Mori, among others.
Instrumental continued to experiment with other re-workings on their own which eventually culminated in the recording of Acoustek. In addition to "Little Fluffy Clouds," the group applied its arranging and playing talents to songs from the likes of Brian Eno ("Sparrowfall" [RealAudio excerpt]), Moby ("Hymn"), Plastikman ("Consume" [RealAudio excerpt]) and other artists in the dance scene.
"The album is a[n] homage to dance music that we came into adulthood with — it was the backdrop to our classical training," said Wright. "We were all out in the clubs and there's this whole thing about the older generation not enjoying what was going on and saw it as a big rebellion, and so what we were trying to do is re-present that music to people. That's certainly the album's idea."
Dance music is a combination of hard beats and rhythms, which Wright feels lends itself well, as odd as it may seem at first, to a classical ensemble. After all, he noted, the core sample used in the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" comes from minimalist composer Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint." In fact, after hearing the Orb's recording, Reich reportedly gave his approval to the recent Reich Remixed dance album project.
But Wright notes that critics and promoters are having problems with classifying Instrumental's musical approach.
"We're in a very difficult position insofar as our profile and categorization and this is the trouble we've had getting off the starting block," he said. "We're not classical and we're not pop and we're not jazz and we're not folk or ambient. We're something other than that and we're doing our thing."
Nevertheless, audiences are mostly responding positively.
"A few people walk out not getting it, but most people are kind of curious," Wright said. "And most of the time they have no idea what we are playing and are like 'we know that tune' but they don't quite get it. Then it comes to them and they [realize] it is the music they already knew and they love it.
"It's also the same with the people who don't listen to electronica, because they're put off by the sounds and they miss the beauty of the music. By presenting it on classical instruments you have the other end, people who aren't necessarily listening to dance music enjoying it. We have an incredibly broad appeal."
Wright then added with a laugh, "I just don't understand why we're not massive."
The group continues to record together and separately and earlier this year was invited to perform with Nigerian world beat star Femi Kuti (son of the legendary Fela Kuti) for several live dates in Lagos. Instrumental are currently working on a new album which will include original tracks from the various bandmembers as well as a few new dance reworkings.
"I like to think because we come for a 400 year tradition of music we're bringing all that on board," said Wright. "We're not trivializing [classical] music; we're digging it up."