Can Electronic Music Make Classical Music Great Again?

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Versatile alt-pop and electronic music-maker Emika talks to another musician who applied classical training to electronic production: Yair Elazar Glotman.

In September, alt-pop musician Emika took her career in an intriguing new direction by announcing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to record with a symphony. After surpassing her €20,000 funding target, the British-born and Berlin-based artist signaled the arrival of the project’s product, which will come in the form of her forthcoming LP, Melanfonie. The album was created in collaboration with the Prague Metropolitan Orchestra and seeks to take influence from both Emika’s electronic music grounding by placing an enlarged bass section of the orchestra at the center of the seating plan and her history of classical training.

Fellow Berliner Yair Elazar Glotman also combines a background of classical music with electronic techniques. He trained for much of his life as a contrabass player and rose to prominence by exploring electroacoustics and abstract techno for the underground labels Opal Tapes and Where To Now? as Ketev. Last year, under his own name, he recorded Etudes, focusing on the contrabass as a source of sound but approaching the instrument from an experimental angle, and he will soon release a new album entitled Blessed Initiative.  We paired him with Emika to explore the notion of the classical music world in the modern age and how it fits into the context of electronic music.

EMIKA: As a kid I very quickly got into playing the piano and writing my own music, but I struggled with traditional schooling. It was all about sight reading and playing Beethoven, and I became really frustrated with that as a teenager. So instead of going to university, I got a job in a studio and learned how to record my pieces instead of having to notate them. I had a very frustrating love-hate relationship with this so-called “classical training,” and when I went to uni and studied Creative Music Technology to learn how to be a producer and a sound designer, I always had unfinished business with the classical world. My goal was to do massive orchestral pieces, and having left that world I’m now coming back to it with a slightly different approach.

YAIR ELAZAR GLOTMAN: Making peace with it?

E: Yeah. I met a lot of classical major labels this summer, and all these people are interested to talk to me now that it’s paid for and done, because my fans paid for it through Kickstarter. It’s amazing how I feel like nothing’s changed in 10 years. It still feels like this elite upper class world, but the thing that’s changing is that people like yourself are actually pushing things forward.

YEG: My background story’s pretty similar. I played the upright bass but felt stuck within the boundaries of university and music education—and on top of that I struggled with the boundaries of the instrument itself. In the classical context, bass had a very straightforward role that you never really step out of. When I moved to Berlin I wanted to study classical music, and I was really in love with the idea of playing in the orchestra. I wasn’t thinking about being free to explore the potential of the instrument. After a while I realized that I don’t have the fire to become a classical musician, and I was more interested in being self-sufficient. For you, the piano has so many opportunities in terms of harmonies, but back then I was dependant on other people in order to explore, since bass is always part of a larger arrangement. Going to electronic music was my way to become free to work by myself.

E: That was definitely my main motivation for getting into music technology: you can work independently and explore the sound outside traditional notations.

YAG: What you said about your love-hate relationship is funny because I left feeling this sense of failure back then. I realized I was interested in composition, and I was at a crossroads between going to the traditional route or approaching music from the art department. I was mainly interested in electroacoustic music, and I thought there was a big gap between sound art and music that would give me more freedom to explore, since I feel like people perceive music as a form of art. It’s the form of art that has the most expectations. Everybody knows exactly what they like and what they hate, but if people were as opinionated and narrow-minded about other mediums, it would just be things that are very easy to digest.

E: That’s a really good point about how hard it is to cope with the history of classical music. It’s been around for centuries, whereas electronic music has only been around for decades. If you look at classical labels, you’ll see that very little of the market promotes and encourages new classical music; they basically release the same pieces re-recorded by some young performer. If all of these major labels next year decided to sign 100 new composers, we might be able to start pioneering a future for the orchestra. I’ve had so many conversations over the years are about how it’s literally a dying market. The audience is old now, but it’s very difficult to try to balance the history that we have with what could potentially be the next thing. I just don’t see a point in re-recording Beethoven again and again.

YAG: The opportunity of a musician to also be the composer, performer and maybe even the mix engineer—that’s what I think is interesting and what was exactly lacking when I studied classical music on the contrabass. The repertoire for contrabass is so small it’s almost funny, but I could see that a lot of people weren’t really interested in music outside of that context. I guess it’s about that idea of devoting your life to one thing and mastering it, and right now I feel like we live in a time where it’s more interesting to spread your knowledge and abilities across many things rather than to devote your life to perfecting one pursuit, at least for me. Interpreting what exists and creating something new are two different things.

E: That’s partly why I came up with the plan to do everything directly, in the sense that I’ve got my own label and I don’t have any management dictating what I should do. I decided to write the music and find an orchestra, and then I went to my fans and asked if they would help me financially to pull it all together. If you cut out everything that we’re talking about, you free yourself from the history and the education.

YAG: In terms of the business model, nowadays people are encouraged to be doing different roles at the same time. The musician can be their own booker, record and mix their own things.

E: I feel like most artists are encouraged to follow the same concept for success and be one thing when actually they might be a great business manager or engineer. There’s a lot of pressure to get a manager, get as much exposure as you can and play loads of shows—and that’s fine, but it’s really not what I’m interested in.

Another thing is that I really don’t want to be “avant-garde.” I don’t want to be forced to go into the avant-garde world just because there’s a traditional world. My music is romantic and lyrical with universal themes, and I don’t want to have to be something obscure and niche just because it’s not Beethoven, so I feel like I’m spending a lot of time trying to create the alternative context as well as the work to go inside of it, and if that’s what you want to do, you can’t live in your bubble and have a manager that speaks on your behalf.

YAG: I think, since I’m working more outside of the mainstream, I do enjoy the benefits of being free since it’s not just something I depend on to make a living, so I don’t really have to compromise. I guess, like you said, if you do one thing it would be easy to market it and know exactly what it is…

E: …to come up with the formula and then keep feeding into that formula once it’s working.

YAG: …But for me it’s really important to change and always evolve contexts and genres. My ideas don’t necessarily fall into a certain genre, so it’s really important for me to transform them and let them grow organically. It becomes hard when people don’t know what to expect from you, but for me it’s all part of my exploration and my ideas and the question of changing the context. Something that could work in a club situation could also work as a sound installation, but also as a traditional concert situation.

E: It’s that question of, “Are you going be more true to yourself or to what the world expects of you?” And that comes back to the responsibility that you have when you’re an artist. I feel like, because I got into the music business at such a young age and before I’d fully formed as an artist, I spent the last five years just trying to unlearn loads of things that weren’t true to me. The music industry educates and influences everyone in such a profound way that it can be really hard to see that objectively and decide what you actually want to work on and be known for. There are so many people working in the creative industry, but what we actually see from artists is often a different face with the same concept for success.

YAG: I think it’s very important to maintain control over your decisions. But what you said is interesting in terms of un-learning something: trying to forget it and learn again.

E: Yeah, my favorite word is “unlearn.”

YAG: I just came back to the contrabass. That was how I started playing it again after three or four years. It’s a big instrument, so it would be in my room always making me feel guilty, but I couldn’t really hide it. After studying in the art department, I thought, “It’s such a big part of who I am and I have such a strong relationship with it that I need to find a way to solve it.” For me it was really about how to unlearn certain habits. I wanted to free myself from the instrument and also in a way free the instrument from me, so it was important to develop ways for the instrument to play by itself. I decided to make a sound installation revolving around the instrument, and then develop certain techniques of letting the instrument resonate by itself by creating feedback chains of vibrations on the instrument.

You try to gain control when you learn classical music. You do scales every day, you need to practice so much, and in a way the worst thing when you’re a classical musician is to be surprised by your instrument. When I went back to play with the instrument, I was trying to see how I could play it without falling into routines of playing the same type of thing that stopped me before.

E: I had a similar thing with the piano. I always had a piano in my room, and I also felt guilty, like I should be playing it more, but every time I sat at the piano I would just see shapes and harmony. This chord next to this chord makes it jazzy, and this chord next to this chord makes Shostakovich Russian style. But I also had a time like that with electronic music where if I would put the hi-hats there it would sound like dubstep, if I put the hi-hats like this it would sound like house, and if I use this particular hi-hat it sounds like a Detroit record.

I think the breakthroughs I’ve had have been when I’ve left it alone for ages, and then when something happened in my life—when I had something inside me that was worth expressing—I went to the piano or my computer and something original and decent came out. I did a lot of training, understanding the building blocks of music, but then I found that I had to just abandon it until somehow the music always started to play in my heart again. Then I could sit at the piano and actually work instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the education.

YAG: It’s really about losing control as well.

E: It’s funny because I still have never played a piano concert, and I put out a piano record last year with hardly any promotion, and it was very successful. But I still can’t do a piano show, even though it would probably be a great thing for me to do. I’m terrified of playing the wrong note.

YAG: I know exactly the feeling about playing the wrong note. Playing composed music is very absolute about when you’re right and when you’re wrong. What was important for me was putting myself in a situation where I cannot be wrong. I also wanted to embrace failures and mistakes.

E: That’s what the classical world doesn’t teach you. It just teaches you that you’re bad, and now I’m 30 years old with this huge block afraid to perform my music in case I do it wrong!

YAG: I guess I see playing other people’s compositions as being an actor. You have a context and a script, and you need to find ways to interpret it, but the boundaries of what you can do are very clear. Eventually you need to bring something personal into this interpretation. I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t relate to a baroque piece in a very authentic way. Like you said before, there are so many amazing interpretations recorded that I don’t really have something new to bring into that. I’d rather stay in a personal and authentic space where I don’t have to pretend.

E: You just used a really key word: relate. When Mozart was around, the music he composed was of his time, and I find it really strange that we keep trying to relate to really historical pieces. I respect it and it moves me, but for me the most important thing is to create classical music or orchestral music with themes and narratives that we can relate to today.

YAG: My biggest nightmare is to be an artist making their classic comeback and being expected to play something I wrote 30 years ago over and over again. I see a lot of situations where people find a winning recipe and then try to recreate that all their life just because it works. That’s kinda scary to me.

E: These are all the things I’ve been thinking about, and it’s really nice to talk to you about them. I’m really excited by the fact that, when I decided to announce the symphony, DJ Mag was the first to push the project for me and the classical labels weren’t. I’m so excited by the fact that the electronic music world seems excited about doing all this work with orchestras and redefining classical music in a completely different context. We’ve talked a lot about failure and problems, but on the other hand I’m pretty blown away by how much new classical music is actually coming in the context of electronic music.

YAG: I think there is an overlap between traditional experimental music and the club situation, which is interesting. Now you can hear the overlap between electroacoustic music with some techno, and the fact that there’s a label like Subtext that releases industrial techno but is also willing to release a solo contrabass album or organ pieces—that’s a positive environment. I think the more these categories merge, the more the music will benefit from that. 

E: And now there’s a crowd receptive to this kind of music and able to find out about different forms of music more easily. Look at my fans: I just took the idea to them, and they were up for it. If the audience wants, they can also find out and support music independently and really tailor and discover exactly what they’re looking for from their music.

Photo of Emika by Adam Krena. Photo of Yair Elazar Glotman by Andrew Onufrienko.

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