Calling Anthony De Ritis’s Devolution a “Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra” raised not quite the right expectations. A concerto pits hero against crowd in dramatic conflict. But what if the soloist—in this case DJ Spooky, also known as Paul D. Miller, newly shorn of his trademark dreadlocks—isn’t so much in front of the orchestra as skulking within it, mimicking it, sowing doubt about what’s real and what’s not? What if the soloist isn’t a hero, but a spy in camouflage?
Many years ago, when we were both thinner, composer Anthony De Ritis was a student of mine. Since then he’s achieved far more success than I can assume any credit for, not only as a professor but as an entrepreneur in the music technology program at Northeastern University. He trained in technology via both uptown and downtown routes, studying with French spectralist Tristan Murail at Fontainebleau and David Wessel at Berkeley’s more experimental CNMAT. This put him in an excellent position to write what seems to be the first DJ concerto (though Google reveals a 1999 work called RPM by Montreal’s Nicole Lizée for turntables and 19 instruments), a work that was premiered last March by the Oakland East Bay Symphony and given its East Coast premiere September 23 in New Haven, with the tightly disciplined New Haven Symphony conducted by Jung-Ho Pak.
Even knowing De Ritis, I feared DJ-plus-orchestra was a recipe for gimmickry, but Devolution was smart. Much of the orchestral texture consisted of drones and various backbeats from an expanded percussion section, which gave DJ Spooky room to operate. Ostinatos were limned by an electric guitar in the orchestra, a hip nose-thumb to Woolsey Hall’s scroll-decorated arches. Still, for much of the first few minutes I could barely tell what Spooky was contributing to the texture, until I thought: “If he’s playing CDs of orchestras, how would I know the difference?” From that point I watched like a hawk to see whether, when I was hearing flutes, the flutists onstage were playing, and often they weren’t.
Closer to the surface, De Ritis filled the orchestral score of Devolution with quotations from Ravel’s Bolero (an orchestral loop of the same melody over and over, sort of like a skipping record, get it?) and the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. Phrases from the two pieces collided entertainingly, and Ravel and Beethoven found themselves accompanied by Latin rhythms they had never anticipated. But when Spooky started playing quotations from the same two pieces, and you heard violins playing the same thing they’d been playing a minute ago, only now you see their violins mute in their laps—this was screwing with your mind indeed.
A concerto must have cadenzas, and Devolution had two. In the first, the orchestra played a low drone, over which the track-skipping voice of an Arabic muezzin suddenly rang out, soon accompanied by a hint of exotically Eastern dance music and then a hard-rock beat. The second cadenza, with Spooky entirely solo, featured what would have been heard, if you weren’t watching, as a wild jazz drum solo, and in a strange, quasi-jazz moment, the audience applauded it as the orchestra re-entered.
Is this the music of the future? Oddly enough it seemed a return to an interesting recent past, a technological update on the quotation tradition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and Ives’s Fourth Symphony. But beyond bowing to the pressure to hip up the orchestra, De Ritis and Spooky widened the palette of that tradition, as well as imbuing it with a new kind of hall-of-mirrors logic that could pave the way to a submersion of the orchestra in a world of technology.
Those of you who have high-speed connections will want to know that I’ve started my own Internet radio show, Postclassic Radio, to play all this music I write about, at live365.com/stations/kylegann.