In the last few years, if you wanted to modernize your sound, William Orbit was the man to go to. Orbit, producer extraordinaire, has worked with big names such as Madonna and Blur, adding his trademark electronica touches to their last albums. For example, all of the techno bleeps and synth washes you hear on Ray of Light are thanks to Orbit.
Orbit is also a renewed artist in the field of ambient techno. At its best, ambient can be hypnotic and entrancing. At its worst, it’s wallpaper for the ears.
On his latest album, Pieces in a Modern Style (Maverick), you get both Orbits. He creates his own versions of classical pieces by artists such as Vivaldi and Beethoven, although with a less than stellar effect. More often than not, he errs on the side of musical wallpaper.
Remaking classical music with electronics isn’t something new. In the 1970s, there was the Switched On Bach, which helped to popularize the synthesizer. Beethoven was also redone with synthesizers and electronics for the movie A Clockwork Orange, giving it a sinister futuristic sound and feel.
However, with a couple of exceptions, Orbit doesn’t do enough with the machines he has to make the classical pieces modern or futuristic. Instead, he plays the melodies exactly as they are supposed to be played, using the electronics for occasional touches and effects. When you are covering music made by some of the greatest artists in history, sticking to the tried and true may not be such a bad thing. But, it also doesn’t give you a reason to buy Pieces In A Modern Style over existing classical records.
You can get a good sense of the album just from the opening track, Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. If your knowledge of classical music is limited, you cannot be sure how faithful this song is to the original. But, you can tell that Orbit plays a straightforward song, using synthesizers to create the melody without any of the rhythms or effects that characterize techno music. While the song is pretty to listen to, after a while it sounds like something you would hear at a nature store. Replacing classical instruments, such as violins and horns, for the cold sound of synthesizers sucks the emotion and grandeur out of the great classical songs.
And that problem reappears through the whole album. From songs by Beethoven and Handel to more modern pieces by Satie and Gorecki, they all border on New Age sounding Muzak. Occasionally, there are some of the effects such as the space bleeps you hear in Ray of Light. But Orbit mainly does it by the book, sounding like someone playing on a Casio keyboard. After a while, the songs just float in one ear and out the other, too cold to bring you into the world that Orbit apparently is trying to create.
There is one exception. In a Landscape, by the famous modern composer John Cage, shows what the album could have been like if Orbit had been more willing to experiment instead of just redoing. A menacing bass line anchors a series of repeating synth patterns that chirp and chime. It sounds like something from outer space and makes you stand up and notice. Warmth oozes from the sound of an acoustic guitar joining in with the synthesizers. For the three minutes that it lasts, the song shows how interesting and rewarding ambient music can be if done correctly. Unfortunately, it’s the only example on the album.
The album also comes with a second disc, which has two remixes of Adagio for Strings. Usually, when remix discs are added to albums, it’s just a cheap way to increase the price. However, this time it’s worth it.
The two remixes, one by Ferry Corsten and one by ATB, also show what this album could have been like. The Corsten remix turns the piece into a booming trance song that would fit right in at your local club or rave. While beats and effects are layered into the piece, the original song can still be recognized. In the break in the middle, Corsten allows Orbit’s version to shine through, providing a nice break from the energy of the song.
ATB’s remix takes a different approach. It’s more reminiscent of 1980s electro-pop, not as heavy or loaded as Corsten’s remix. Again, enough of the song’s beautiful melody comes through the remix, but the stylization and beats make you take notice – qualities Orbit’s own renditions are sorely lacking.
In the end, Pieces in a Modern Style proves that sometimes the old way is still the best way.