The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Classical music and grime 

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Urban Classic will unite grime producer DaVinChe with jazz musician Jason Yarde and conductor Charles Hazlewood.

Highlights from the 16 February concert will be broadcast on BBC digital station 1Xtra and BBC Radio 3.

London MCs Bruza, Tor, Pase, Purple and beatboxer Faith SFX will perform the finished suite with the BBC Concert Orchestra, with DJ sets from 1Xtra's Semtex and Cameo.
This BBC story has been getting some interest at Dissensus recently, with reactions varying from "Oh God, no" to fantasy fulfillment. It's one of those ideas that is so hard to imagine how it will turn out that it's guaranteed to produce a wide spread of opinion. Some people are sceptical about whether it will work at all. Others - notably Logan Sama and Martin Clark, who are more involved in the scene than some others - cautiously regard it as a good thing: this is a chance for MCs to get some national coverage, all publicity is good, and big up the BBC for continuing to invest in the music.

For myself, my own thoughts at Dissensus have been pretty uncertain, but here with a bit more space I can really explore the question.

One of the first things I thought of was that here are two musical genres with difficulties reaching out to a new audience, despite wide critical acclaim. Classical's problems are well trodden ground; grime's problem seems to be that it lives in the shadow of both drum and bass and US hiphop. The hope for critics (and likely some artists) is that grime's emergence will be both a powerful British riposte to US hiphop's domination, and a spiritual return of sorts to the good old days of '93-5 when jungle ruled the charts and the streets. The problem is that despite several false dawns, this hasn't quite come to pass; grime's presence hasn't yet met its ambition.

Is this then a mutually-beneficial publicity stunt? First up, this has all been arranged to help music education charity Bigga Fish, so they are the foremost beneficiaries. And at first glance, grime could stand to benefit - as has been mentioned, it becomes difficult for people to complain that MCs don't get the coverage they deserve when projects like this are put their way. But who will actually listen to the finished 'suite'? Will a new audience actually be opened up?

The finished, 70-minute concert will be broadcast on both 1Xtra and Radio 3. I'm not sure what part of Radio 3, but I suspect not as a lunchtime concert; more likely in the sort of graveyard slots reserved for Hear and Now and Mixing it. In fact, if this were a simultaneous 1Xtra/Radio 3 broadcast (although it's not clear that this will be the case), the late Friday and Saturday night slots for Radio 3's new music programmes might be perfect for 1Xtra's audience. What this would do from the Radio 3 perspective is guarantee that - smallish - audience of devoted new music nerds like myself, plenty of whom may not have crossed paths with grime before (or, indeed, the BBC Concert Orchestra). This could well attract some new listeners - the interesting thing is that it will attract people who like the deliberate fringes of music, rather than the mainstream. This might be a barrier to it gaining more widespread acceptance, enhancing its image as a difficult, minority genre; or it might return some credibility to a scene that has been badly damaged by association with gun crime. It might also flop badly with an often snobbish new music audience, who might predictably have problems with MCs spitting bars over an orchestral track: this could be both a social obstacle and a sonic one, since this sort of close-up viscerality is not part of most instrumental new music - and when it is (in, say, Ferneyhough or Dillon) it is heavily mediated.

My hopes are actually higher for the reception of 1Xtra listeners. Despite the cries of horror amongst some Dissensus posters, I think in general there will be a greater will amongst grime's listeners to make this project succeed, so, unless it does completely flop, they will give it more of a break. Orchestral textures, and deep, detailed production are familiar turf for grime and dubstep fans, so sonically there won't need to be too much of a realignment of values, providing some electronic rhythms are coming from somewhere, and the beats are not left to the orchestra. Experience with the London Sinfonietta has shown that orchestral players, used to infinitely fine nuance of pulse and emphasis, find the machine-tooled beats of techno extremely difficult to replicate convincingly. Grime beats are no different - except that they are often even more tightly gated and 'precise' - and the BBC CO could well struggle too. What is intriguing on this score is that beatboxer Faith SFX is involved, which suggests that some of the beats at least will be human-produced, perhaps to help bridge the gap between studio-produced rhythms and live acoustic instruments.

I'm also intrigued by the role of DJs Cameo and Semtex, who according to the BBC's blurb will be playing live DJ sets as part of the finished work. Will this be with live orchestral accompaniment over dubplate riddems? 'Cos that could be cool. Or will things be juxtaposed hard against each other? Because that could work too. Certainly including the DJs - who will naturally have to work with prefabricated materials, and thus to some degree bend the whole project to the will of grime's vinyl presence - seems like a shrewd move. I'd be less optimistic if they weren't there: grime's lifeblood is that clash between preformed 12" and live performer that has also fed dancehall for decades. An orchestra can join with the MCs on the live side of the equation, but they can't replace the recorded side.

The more I think about this, the more I like the sound of it.

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