When modern Aussie music goes classical, good things happen

When was the last time you listened to classical music? I mean the actual orchestra with violins, oboes, trombones and the whole shebang. Last month? A year ago? Or – most likely – never?

That’s okay, I don’t blame you. But I’m here to change your perception of it this week. Because – luckily – there are quite a few Aussie acts representing very different genres who have turned to orchestras for a completely new audio-visual experience.

PART 48 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Before anything else, let’s define some characteristics of classical music.

  • It’s mostly associated with sophisticated instrumental works (such as symphonies).
  • Sometimes, it mixes vocals and instruments in those compositions (i.e. in operas).
  • And it’s written down in the traditional musical notation style (something like sheet music from Beethoven’s times).

To sum up: classical music emphasizes beauty, elegance and balance. So you might think that it’s impossible to marry it with some modern genres that focus on other, more entertaining and crowd-pleasing factors. Well, think again. And to prove that you can do it successfully, here’s a selection of some of my favourite “classical meets contemporary” moments in Australian music.

CLASSICAL HIP HOP

I’m starting with hip hop on purpose. For me, this would be the least likely genre to “work” with the orchestra. But two Aussie outfits proved me completely wrong.

Hilltop Hoods “orchestrated” their two consecutive albums, the 2012 Drinking From The Sun and the 2014 Walking Under Stars, into one hip hop symphony. And the result is pretty surprising.

Rap is a genre that relies heavily on lyrics and storytelling. So I was afraid that using the orchestra – a combination of many instruments at once – might distract the listener from this important aspect. Not at all; those various sonic layers enhance the power of hip hop rhymes and vocals, in my humble opinion.

It also turns out rap instrumentation and modern beats can be successfully transcribed into the classical arrangement. I luuuuuv the delicate strings (hence, the record’s name – Restrung), lively trumpets and pretty clarinet melodies. There’s even a harp used here and there. Overall, it’s a pretty cool and fresh idea.

In 2018, the Sydney rap reps, Thundamentals, released a record with a very anti-hip hop title, Love Songs. To spice things up a little more, they decided to perform it (and some tunes from their previous albums) at a one-off event at the Tivoli in Brisbane in May 2019. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra was invited to accompany them. As a result, the show was, obviously, sold out.

And again, I didn’t expect that it would work so well in this setting. Yes, it might sound unusual in parts. But the crowd singing along to almost every song is a testament to the experiment gone right.

The band released the performance as Iso Tapes Vol. 1 in May 2020 to keep their fans happy and engaged during the pandemic. A much appreciated gesture given the current circumstances, I reckon.

ELECTRONIC ORCHESTRA

Even if you’ve never heard of Flight Facilities, you might know one of their songs from Telstra commercials. “Claire de Lune” is also worth your while because it references a French composer, Claude Debussy, and his work.

In 2015 the Aussie duo was invited to participate in the Melbourne Festival, that is a celebration of performing arts in general. Flight Facilities used this occasion to transform their debut album, Down to Earth, into an unforgettable classical experience with the accompaniment of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

Needless to say, it was a great move. Because the band’s music is very suitable for the orchestra setting that further enhances its cinematic effect. And “Claire de Lune” is simply a masterpiece that ended up permanently on the list of my favourite tunes, especially in this arrangement.

Davide Rossi, the Italian composer who helped translate the modern record into the full orchestra piece, said of this innovative “marriage”, “I find that [electronic] music is very sympathetic with classical instruments. I find most of the electronica producers and artists to be very refined in their musical language,”. Something I would have never assumed myself.

Another Aussie electronic band, The Presets, took things even further (a year earlier, actually). As part of the 2014 Vivid Sydney Festival, they created “(…) a time-bending musical odyssey through 42,000 years and over 230 songs, (…) an exhilarating surge through history.” This time, the Australian Chamber Orchestra performed the work.

In the beginning everyone thought it was a crazy idea that “made no sense on paper”. Well, it ended up making a huge impression on audiences and was dubbed “Badass Classical Band” by Time Out NY.

ABORIGINAL TRADITION MEETS WESTERN ARRANGEMENT

I doubt there’s anything more epic than combining traditional Aboriginal music with the orchestra. Especially when it’s performed by The Great Gurrumul (Dr G Yunupingu) himself. This extremely talented performer from the Northern Territory is considered to be the most successful and known (also internationally) Aboriginal musician of all time.

The Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) album was written by Erkki Veltheim, an Australian composer and performer, born in Finland. It was a process that took a few years and was finally completed mid-2017. Sadly, Gurrumul didn’t witness the release of the record which went on to occupy the top of the Australian charts for a while.

It’s a wonderful work of art that blends Aboriginal and Western music traditions that seem to have a lot of similarities. One of them is the creation of longer works through the repetition of small melodic and rhythmic motives.

The composer also gave a little insight into the creative side of the process, The orchestral compositions accompanying the manikay (songs) are inspired by the vocal and yidaki (didgeridoo) parts (…) and the western classical minimalist tradition. The yidaki is represented by the cello section on the album.

The tracks are performed in Gurrumul’s native Yolngu language. So to understand their meaning, I recommend following this song-by-song guide, with English translations of the lyrics.

ROCKING THE (VIRTUAL) SYMPHONY

Of all modern music genres, rock is probably the one that uses classical influences the most. Heaps of rock symphonies/operas have been produced over the years; The Who’s Quadrophenia or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are amongst the most famous examples.

Birds of Tokyo resorted to this classic(al) collaboration in April 2020 for a good cause. Music From The Home Front was a virtual event that I reported on here. The band recorded a very special version of their banger “Unbreakable” with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

It wouldn’t be anything special if it hadn’t been staged in the times of strict lockdown in Australia. So all five Birds of Tokyo mates and the orchestra members performed their parts from the “comforts” of their homes. The separate recordings were then “stitched” together, both sonically and visually. Today, 4 months later, it’s standard practice. But I’m still impressed by Birds of Tokyo’s charitable end product.

MODERN APPROACH TO OPERA

Opera is also doing pretty well Down Under, thanks for asking. Take the two divas that proudly rep it, for instance.

Katie Noonan is a versatile singer-songwriter whose musical spectrum embraces opera, jazz, alternative rock, pop and dance. She’s equally proficient at all those styles. But let’s narrow it down to opera this time.

In 2019, she recorded a very special album, The Glad Tomorrow, which honours the poetic legacy of the Great Grandmother Oodgeroo. It’s a combination of opera and the spoken word. The Australian String Quartet accompanies Katie in this endeavour and the effect is definitely worth your while.

So is Kate Miller-Heidke‘s repertoire.

She fuses opera and pop music in a very interesting way. That’s why she was chosen to represent Oz at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. She scored pretty high (#9 out of 41) for a non-European performer. And the song she sang in Tel Aviv, “Zero Gravity”, is one of her more popular releases.

Kate just recently released a new single, “Deluded”, that she performed live for the first time on the new Aussie live music TV show, The Sound. It was recorded in the empty Espy (Esplanade Hotel) in St Kilda (one of Melbourne’s beach suburbs). So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to make opera a little more pop (or the other way round), this is a great way to find out.


Have I missed anything? If you know any other example of a rad modern-classical music cooperation, feel free to shoot me a message.

Cover image source: Minute School

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