Sharps & Flats

For all its pretentions, William Orbit's "Pieces in a Modern Style" makes for seductive secret listening.

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At first listen, William Orbit's "Pieces in a Modern Style," an ambient, electronic interpretation of works by classical composers, appears both pretentious and lowbrow, a grab for high-art respectability and, simultaneously, a play for the Deepak-reading masses who meditate to versions of Pachelbel's "Kanon" laid over soothing ocean sounds. Does the producer who made Madonna cool again really think he can do the same for Vivaldi?

However, if you can separate yourself from all the high-low culture controversies the record dredges up, "Pieces in a Modern Style," is quite beguiling. Orbit's record isn't a music appreciation class for ravers, an attempt to bring Art with a capital A to the kids. Nor is it a ploy to increase electronic music's credibility by proving that it's just as classy as a string quartet. Rather, the album treats its source material -- which includes pieces from Beethoven, Ravel, Handel and Vivaldi, as well as modernists like Erik Satie and John Cage -- with a lively respect that's much different from fossilizing reverence. It points out a certain continuity between classical and electronic music, especially in the way both rely on the repetition and elaboration of motifs, but it does it without being didactic.

Unlike the bloated grandiosity of prog rock, electronic music has a somewhat better track record of appropriating classical influences. In 1968 there was "Clockwork Orange" composer Wendy Carlos' hugely popular all-Moog synthesizer record "Switched-On Bach." Classically trained Craig Armstrong, who often works with Massive Attack, merged soaring string arrangements, dubby trip-hop beats and loops on his majestic "The Space Between Us" (1998). And last year, The Art of Noise's "The Seduction of Claude Debussy" worked by tracing the connections between the father of modern music and his digital descendents.

"Pieces" attempts to situate Orbit in the tradition of those artists. To him, classical music is vital enough to invite reinterpretations. Several of the tracks on the record hardly resemble the originals. Storm sounds stand in for the crashing orchestra on Beethoven's "Triple Concerto," a choppy, squelching bass appears halfway through and a bell-like, almost twee synth tinkles the melody, all of it rendering the original unrecognizable except in occasional passages of digital violin.

Similarly, his take on "In a Landscape" makes it a different song altogether than the one John Cage wrote. His sweetly spacey keyboards and guitars have a different sound from the piano or harp the piece was written for. Moreover, the sequence of notes is different; the tune is Orbit's own. No one should mind his liberties, though, because Orbit's bright, shiny "In a Landscape" is lovely, the music-box melody carrying the listener over and through atmospheres both organic and celestial.

In fact, Orbit makes these compositions so much his own that "Pieces" doesn't seem like much of a departure from Orbit's "Strange Cargo" series of solo ambient albums. Today Orbit is best known for his production work -- for reinvigorating Madonna's career with "Ray of Light" ("Pieces" is on her label, Maverick), shepherding Blur into the rock avant-garde with "13" and providing the subtle electronic beats that made folkie Beth Orton's debut so arresting. But Orbit also has a long history as a solo musician known for creating delicate ambient ballads. His methods in reinterpreting Vivaldi's "L'Inverno" aren't much different from those he used to turn the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" into a gossamer electronic piece in 1996, which is why his versions of two songs sound more like each other than either of them do their originals.

The most unsatisfying track here is the first of the two remixes of Orbit's version of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" included on a separate CD single (another version is on "Pieces"). The "Ferry Corsten Mix" is a kind of progressive house take on the composition, and it's become a monster hit in the UK. Here, all the pitfalls of Orbit's endeavor are exposed in a track that obliterates the original's subtlety while playing up the strings for pathos and cheesy intensity. But the "ATB Version," a bouncy, trancey techno take, is irresistible, full of the heedless joy that marked the early rave scene.

That track is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of Orbit's confidence and insouciance. He wants to inspire passionate enthusiasm, not polite, elite admiration. With its naked sentimentality and pop strivings, "Pieces" is neither hip nor sophisticated. But beyond the whiff of new-agey preciousness that hangs over the project, the record is beautiful and moving. It's the kind of album you play in secret, but over and over again.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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