Worlds Collide: Club Music for the Orchestra

When I set out to write Crossfade, I very quickly realised that it was going to be a learning curve.  I have written for orchestra and other variations of acoustic instruments before.  I have written a significant amount of club oriented electronic music.  But in writing Crossfade, I had to meet the two in the middle somewhere - to take machine based dance music and bring it to life using the orchestra as my main tool. 

This has been done before.  Jeff Mills’ Planets has recently combined orchestral and club music in a performance at the Barbican and last summer The Heritage Orchestra and Pete Tong brought the Balearic Islands to the Albert Hall for BBC Radio 1’s Ibiza Prom.  However, both performances relied on a DJ, a heavy pulse, a click track for the conductor to hold the orchestra and DJ together. 

Crossfade aims to almost completely remove the machine element, with the exception of non-rhythmic synth parts.  It aims to make the orchestra the machine, with each instrument and section creatingthe repetitive, often epic grooves and atmospheres that we hear in electronic dance music.  Backed by a solid percussion section of NOFA members, led by the master of groove, NOFA’s percussion tutor Ollie Tunmer, and the inspriational and enthusiastic leadership of Marianna Hay, the orchestra will create a new piece of dance music without the need for any drum machines or click track.

My next challenge was to think about how to meet symphonic structures with the continuous flow and building of energy characteristic of dance music.  In Crossfade, I set out to write three movements.  The first movement being fast, the second slow, and the third fast again, echoing a three movement symphonic structure.  However, I wanted each movement to be in a different style of dance music and show how the orchestra could play these styles effectively.  Furthermore, I wanted each movement to flow into the next.  Movement 1 attacca into movement 2 attacca into movement 3.  Or perhaps alternatively track 1 mixed into track 2 mixed into track 3.

My final big challenge was to think about instrumentation and the translation of the constituent parts of dance music tracks - pads, drums, effects, leads, bass – into music for orchestral sections and instruments. When writing electronic music, the sounds available to the producer and composer are almost infinite.  On one synthesiser alone, a huge array of different sounds and timbres can be made.  With an orchestra, you can’t just tweak a knob to make a sound more aggressive or flick a switch to make a sound less jagged.  With Crossfade, orchestral instruments are manipulated to produce sounds not obviously recognisable as orchestral, produced in contexts in which they are not usually heard

There have been a few bumps along the road, a few difficult corners to manoeuvre, but I am extremely excited to share this new work with the help of NOFA in August at Leeds Arena.  For me, this experience has been a valuable, informative and exciting experience and I hope is not the last time that I get to write dance music for ‘real’ instruments.  I can’t wait to hear how the creativity and diversity of playing within NOFA enhances the piece and completely brings it to life.  Having worked with NOFA for a number of years, I know that the orchestra will do Crossfade justice and I am beyond excited to hear the results!

Jack McNeill is a producer, composer and DJ based in London and Berlin.  After releasing his successful debut EP,  Polyr, under the moniker Oren in December, he has gone on to perform across Europe including at capacity shows in the UK and Berlin.  Alongside his active work as a musician, Jack is completing a PhD in composition at the University of York in site-specific electronic dance music and sound arts.  He currently releases his music with Blackbox Records and is the composer of Crossfade, commissioned by NOFA for their 2017-2018 season. Find out more about Jack's work on Facebook, Instagram and Soundcloud.