Below, he tells us about the art of crossing genres.
Wooden Elephant is a semi-descriptive name, inspired by our traditional wooden acoustic instruments, and the mammoth contemporary popular works of art that we reinterpret. The idea at the core of the ensemble is to take some of the best electronic-based ‘pop’ albums of recent times and to acoustically reimagine them in their entirety as singular, long-form contemporary classical works. So far we have reworked Björk’s Homogenic, Radiohead’s Kid A, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade (complete with the poetry of Warsan Shire from the visual album version), and we are in the process of creating a live version of Aphex Twin’s epic double album Drukqs in collaboration with prepared-piano specialist Mathias Halvorsen. With Radiohead’s permission we will be releasing our version of Kid A on 4th June 2021 on Berlin label Backlash Music.
We are fundamentally a string quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass), but to aid with the transition of electronic sounds onto acoustic instruments, we employ a host of extended string techniques, and a variety of additional objects and small instruments. Some of our favourites include tuning forks, plectrums, a power drill, harmonicas, bathroom sink plug chains, aluminium foil, and toy archery bows. Of course, this idea is not particularly new, and has been floating around the mainstream since John Cage decided to chuck some screws into a piano in the 1930s to see what would happen, but for us it has become somewhat of an obsession, and has turned our album projects into almost as much of a visual performance as an aural.
These trinkets aid us with the transition from electronic to acoustic, and are in fact vital to preserving a lot of the musical interest that is naturally lost when popular music is played in a classical setting on traditionally classical instruments. There is a habit for ensembles and audiences to assume that you can make any music ‘classical’ by merely playing it on classical instruments. However, believing this is to fundamentally misunderstand the contrasting principals and philosophies behind classical and popular music, and leads merely to the bastardisation of all genres involved. In order to combine differing musical genres effectively, you need to understand and respect what it is that gives each genre its sound and its identity in the first place.
In reality it is not instrumentation that is the main difference between genres, but the way each genre constructs music from the foundations upwards: a string quartet playing a transcription of Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk is not classical music — it is a pop song played on classical instruments. In the same way, The Who playing Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King is not rock music, but classical music played on rock instruments.
Classical music harmony is incredibly flexible, arising as it does from counterpoint, from the existence of independent voices within the harmony. As a viola player I absolutely love playing these inner lines, that weave in and out of the harmony and the melody, almost unseen and unheard, but without which the music would be far paler. Popular music, on the other hand, is generally built from block chords — think of that grandfather of modern pop, the 12-bar blues. Even pop songs that use unusual harmonies in a pop context still generally stick to block chords.
The origins of pop music of course come from the African-American slave trade, and the subsequent emergence of jazz and blues. Here, rhythm (and often internal rhythms within a relatively simple structure) is far more important, and takes up far greater ‘bandwidth’ within popular music than it does within classical, from jazz drumming to what rappers refer to as flow (an amazing example of which is Kendrick Lamar’s cameo on Beyoncé’s Freedom, where the natural stresses of his words create complex internal rhythms within his general framework of semi-quavers within a 4/4 beat).
The other defining aspect of popular music is far more abstract: attitude. Popular music is far less homogenous than classical music, not in terms of musical languages — which are vast — but in the ways that it is presented, and in the ways that it is performed. In popular music the individuality of the singer is celebrated, and each artist strives to find their own unique sound and image.
So what happens when you transpose popular music into a classical context? The truth is that it often sounds bland and unadventurous. But this is nothing to do with the quality of the music involved, and everything to do with the fact that all you have done is to strip out many of the most important aspects of popular music which give it its identity and interest. To take it to extremes, punk was just as much about its image and anti-establishment philosophy as it was about the music, so if you detach the music from its context and play The Sex Pistols in that most establishment of venues, the classical concert hall, on classical instruments, you are missing half of the point.
This was a problem we struggled with while reworking our albums, and is the reason why there are many incredible pop albums out there that simply would not survive this genre transplant. Even within Kid A — an album that naturally lends itself to a genre transplant as it already straddles genres in its original form (alternative rock and electronic music) — some tracks proved to be much harder to make work than others. For example, Idioteque is one of Radiohead’s best and most iconic songs, and I absolutely love it. However, when you play the vocal line on a violin, and as a result remove Thom Yorke’s voice and lyrics, you are left with, quite frankly, a pretty average melody. So the challenge then is to find a way of replacing this interest in a way that is in keeping with contemporary classical music. As I mentioned above, our approach to these problems is to push the John Cage approach as far as we can, by effectively ‘preparing’ our instruments. And so in Idioteque, our violinist Aoife plays one verse of the melody with a milk frother with elastic bands tied to the rotating end. This creates a flickering, incessant sound in keeping with the jittery, anxious feel of the track, and also has the benefit of the slightly alarming (but totally safe) visual of taking a mechanical rotating implement to an old Italian violin.
Another aspect of Wooden Elephant is our insistence of creating versions of entire albums, not only individual songs, and of connecting all these songs together to create a singular mass of music. The greatest popular albums are masterpieces from start to finish, meticulously constructed to give perfect structure and flow over 40-60 minutes. They are pop music’s version of the string quartet or the symphony, but they are rarely consumed in their entirety from beginning to end. In some ways, performing only a few songs from an album is the pop equivalent of stopping after the first “O Freunde” of Beethoven 9. And although in many ways this classical music obsession with performing full works every single time — as if to divide them would be an act of heresy — could be viewed as counterproductive and elitist, it is undeniable that the experience of long-form art — be it a film, a novel, a sporting event, or a show — elevates its individual components and heightens tensions and emotions almost by the mere fact of its length. A single Schubert song can be beautiful and captivating. An entire Schubert song cycle can be life changing.
When popular artists perform their own music — even when they embark on a promotional tour of a new album — it is incredibly rare for them to perform an album from start to finish. Viewed from a classical perspective, this is as baffling as classical music’s unwillingness to ever perform individual movements must appear to the pop music world (although thankfully this is gradually changing — big shout out to Patricia Kopatchinskaja and others like her). However, this pig-headed refusal to desecrate works of art by presenting anything less than their whole can also be viewed as one of classical music’s great strengths. By bringing these seminal works of popular art into this world of contemporary classical music and by embracing this celebration of long-form art, we are allowing audiences to hear these albums performed live as they were originally presented — not in terms of instrumentation, but in terms of flow, in terms of form, and in terms of their vast emotional breadth.
Having spent this entire time speaking of the differences between popular and classical music, and the need to respect these differences, it is also important to acknowledge that music is just music. And no matter its origins, all that any form of music is trying to do is to make life richer, happier, and more worth living. It doesn’t matter if it’s pop, funk, classical, electronica, folk, jazz, or anything and everything in-between — music is music, and great music is great music. And to steal the words of Warsan Shire, if it is written and performed with love, understanding and respect, let it be glorious.