Sitting comfortably in the pantheon of Detroit’s electronic music behemoths, Carl Craig’s distinct brand of atmospheric, raw techno has been hitting dance floors across the world for nearly three decades. For an example of his talent take a look at the wealth of material produced under a variety of monikers (BFC, Psyche, Paperclip People, 69 & more), in which his music absorbs many different influences to create an original sound that has in turn become highly influential. Further to this output, Craig often open-mindedly looks beyond the frontiers of techno and tackles other genres, using his inherent talent to push boundaries and bring something new to the table.
One such exploration is his foray into contemporary classical music from an electronic perspective. Collaborations with the likes of Moritz Van Oswald and Francesco Tristano have yielded interesting and innovative works such as ReComposed – a minimal electronic take on Ravel and Mussorgsky, and Versus – an orchestral performance of Craig’s tracks. The result is an intriguing blend between two worlds of music that both hold minimalism as a common denominator. It’s a fusion that has intrigued musicians as far back as the 60s, and most recently became the theme for the latest edition of Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky x Boiler Room’s Stay True Journeys. A programme of events and documentaries across the globe that seek to uncover amazing music scenes and reveal the ‘Stay True’ stories behind them. Having touched down in Mexico City, Santiago and Warsaw so far, it was now Hamburg’s turn to play host…,
Ballantine’s x Boiler Room Stay True: Germany sought to shed light on the contemporary German classical scene and its electronic influence, including performances from Carl Craig and his regular music partner Francesco Tristano – classical pianist and graduate from the esteemed Juilliard School in New York. At 1am, with their energetic sets complete and the uber-keen crowd of German techno fans filing out, we found enough peace and quiet in the venue’s dimly lit basement to chat classical, electronic and whatever else we had time for with Carl and Francesco.
“Last time I’ve done Boiler Rooms they have been people randomly arranged, less choreographed. Today it was like “hey let’s get a whole room of people in there. Probably makes it look a lot more impressive than it does people meandering behind you and the camera as they have done in the past.”
A seemingly fatigued Carl Craig instantly perked up as soon as we started chatting. Beginning with one of the most obvious talking points, he discussed his early experiences with string music and the first time a relationship between classical and electronic music clicked in his head. “Erm…musically, I always loved elevator music. So, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’ – all this very light music with strings. Motown was doing the same thing, putting strings on the Supremes and behind Marvin Gaye and stuff. It was very common. I was born in 69 and so from probably about 66 until early 70s there was so much music that was done with a lot of strings and that sort of thing. So that was the first influence – a hybrid, a fusion of R&B and soul, and all these classical type arrangements.”
“When it made sense for me in terms of electronic music was just seeing the cover of Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos from 1968. I remember seeing that in the library: this guy dressed in classical, 16th century gear in front of a big-ass mode modular with shit coming out and all that. That was for me when it made me think in the back of my mind that those two can mix, electronic and classical.”
He went on to discuss the role he looks to play in these fusion projects “I mean, [electronic and classical are] all calculated in some way or another. What I’m interested in bringing to the table is the improvisational aspect of it. Because classical musicians don’t improvise and techno musicians definitely don’t know how to even play in order to improvise in many cases. (Laughs) So that’s why I like using the modular – doing something like a drone, a random, I like using a mode because there’s some note value aspects there. Adding whatever I can electronically. If you watch the Versus performance that we did in Paris, that one definitely shows what I’m doing – that one’s modular and for orchestra. In relation to what was meant to happen today, we were meant to have some string players play along but that didn’t happen.”
Though Carl didn’t go into the clear similarities between Electronic and Classical any more than them both being ‘calculated’, Francesco Tristano touched on how they were both interlinked. “One music doesn’t exist without the other. There is no techno or electronic music without the classical background. If you go back to Baroque music for example, you find minimal structures, the same kind that maybe Carl Craig or Jeff Mills would use.”
However Francesco’s main connection between Classical and Electronic music lies in their reliance on technology: what it’s capable of, and how musicians aim to push boundaries with the latest equipment. “There are documents about Bach really being a nerd about organ building and organ tuning. That was basically Carl Craig today. Carl is going to get the latest Dave Smith synth or the latest Akai sequencer. Likewise Bach was really curious to get the latest organ built by the best builder in Germany, to learn the newest tuning techniques. Technology has always served music and it is true for classical composers as it is of course [true] for techno producers.”
Francesco Tristano plays a key role in Craig’s Classical works by making up for the lack of Classical knowledge/ability that Carl doesn’t pretend to have. “Ce Ce [Tristano] has a really great history as a pianist. Also his education is really good – he went to Juilliard and so that’s somebody who I [trust]. Even though he’s younger than I am, he’s more seasoned from that side of things. It’s always a give and take. It’s never like I say ‘I’ve been doing this for 25 years and so know the right way to do it blah blah blah’. No I have to listen to people that know what they are doing and then be able to hopefully learn from them. I’m just a novice when it comes to classical music. I’ll sometimes say, ‘Ce Ce, come play piano’ or ‘Hey I want to do this thing with strings but have no idea how to do the arrangement’ then he comes and does the arrangement. We have a great partnership.”
The way in which Craig talks of Tristano and some of his other collaborators (Francisco Mora, Marcus Belgrave) gives off an admirable, humble approach to his diving into genres. Aged 45 he’s very much still learning, and being the best in his field he’s lucky enough to be mentored by some of the greats. “With Innerzone, Francisco Mora is my jazz mentor. He’s the one that turned me onto a lot of Sun-Ra and other stuff, because he played in Arkestra [Sun Ra’s ever-changing ensemble]. When it comes to jazz music I ask Francisco when it comes to classical music I ask Francesco.”
This constant branching out and developing, taking his electronic background and dabbling in Jazz/Classical – it inevitably leads to the buzzphrase ‘forward-thinking’. Anyone that watched the Ballantine’s x Boiler Room stream will note that it was innovatively different from other Boiler Rooms. A step by Boiler Room that Craig gives the hands up emoji indicating praise/approval. “[Boiler Room] are kind of like Where’s Waldo (Where’s Wally for those somehow completely unaware of American pop culture), putting themselves in interesting situations. Whether it’s like a party we did in Miami where it’s by a pool, or if it’s the one in London that I did live, or at Richie Hawtin’s house where I took my pants off or whatever. It’s just they’re kind of there. It’s good that they’re recording these things…and making an attempt at the classical aspect of it – shows you another step that they’re taking instead of it just being locked into people on a techno feed.”
Finally, continuing with the ‘forward-thinking’ theme, we asked Carl who else out there has caught his eye for pushing boundaries and being a bit of a gamechanger “That guy – James Blake – is really interesting because now he’s got Drake on his dig, all these other people are seeing the music that I wouldn’t have expected them to pay any attention to. That’s always really interesting, how music has come from America – so you had the blues – then some records get over to Europe and the Beatles get a hold of it and they make their thing, then it goes back over to the US, and then it comes back over again, and the Stones get it – and the music keeps jumping back and forth.”
“You can still see that really happening now in Electronic music – going into pop music – going that way. I mean [one of] James Blake’s first records was on R&S and I mean, I’ve done records on R&S! So that’s just kind of like this strange thing and now Drake is into it. And so now is Drake going to do a record with a Juan Atkins or Kyle Hall?!”
Aside from leaving us dreading a Drake/Kyle Hall collaboration, this fleeting basement exchange nicely presents Carl Craig as the accomplished mastermind now turned ardent novice. He’s passionate about using his ability and experience to contribute fresh ideas to music fusions, and openly allows others’ knowledge to osmose into his own work. Ultimately his approach results in the best being gained from when the best work together – and subsequently this music heavyweight’s boundary-pushing works are sure to be the stuff of future music textbooks.
Out to @carlcraignet & @fratrist. Many thanks to Ballantine’s whisky for the trip, and for the quality drams during a quick stop at the Glenburgie distillery in Scotland. To check out all the performances from Stay True: Germany and previous ‘Stay True Journeys’ head to: http://boilerroom.tv/staytrue/
Words: Tom Brandhorst – follow him on Twitter, he’s sporadically funny