Ever since discos became churches of sound in the Seventies, the magic of ever-evolving dance music has also been its curse. In a sizzling club or a full-on house party, the music became a world apart, an echosystem of beats that eradicated the everyday. But this was not a portable paradise. Because of its aggressive insistence on participation, dance music often felt rough, sometimes irritating, when encountered by chance or played at home for pleasure. Through the decades, there have always been exceptions (Dr. Buzzard, DJ Shadow), and now one of the most intriguing alternative-dance concepts in years comes from Detroit Techno veteran Carl Craig and his orchestral collaborators on the new Versus. Craig has been breaking his own path since the start of the Nineties, when he mixed the language of computers and nature in song titles and the movements of his works. Rather than grabbing and pulling you onto the dancefloor, Craig prefers slow-building seductions with percussion figures that rise and fall. You start dancing head first. Even an aggressive number like 2004’s “Sandstorms” blows over you with pleasure. Craig identifies his techno with the voracious style appetites of Detroit. On his 2013 triple-disc collection of remixes and originals, Masterpiece, a sequence that he calls “Inspirations” includes the Messengers, the Temptations, Muddy Waters, Prince Jammy, African Head Charge, and David Lynch.
But can Craig go all the way to classical? A perverse attraction of Versus is the suggestion of rolling dice in pitch darkness. It features orchestrations by Francesco Tristano, performed by the Les Siècles orchestra (fourteen pieces, with lots of horns), conducted by François-Xavier Roth. The collaboration itself has a peculiar history. The material on Versus (a dozen previously recorded works by Craig, plus one original by Tristano and another by Tristano and Rami Khalifé) was originally done as a concert almost a decade ago. Rather than release the show, Craig and his collaborators worked for years to create studio reimaginings of the performances. You can find the whole of the 2008 show on YouTube, with Roth at a podium, Craig behind his rig, and the orchestra between them.
Propulsive pop-classical fusion has a sad history. The combination of incomprehension and condescension from the academy-trained performers led to muddled music that was loud, louder, loudest, crude and rushed — more like tools falling down stairs than tunes that thrived on hooks and sex appeal. That racket is consigned to history’s junkbin. The dry intellectual austerity of electronic classical is beyond passé these days, as gone as kitschy electrosymphonies. Even a quick dip into Tristano’s background and work show he did not develop as a classical worshipper of the Three B’s. Versus even boasts an unlikely precursor. Back in 2008, Deutsche Grammophon released ReComposed by Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald, where the Berlin techno vet von Oswald joined Detroit techno vet Craig to transform recordings of Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky (yes, “Pictures at an Exhibition”) originally made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The result is more a peppy curio than a breakthrough — and, it must be noted, more like what you fear Versus might be before you hear it — though the consistent care and concentration make it a vital warm-up for the later project. In his Versus notes, Craig credits von Oswald as a “spiritual adviser.”
A surprise pick for the triumphant track of Versus is one not by Craig, but “The Melody” by Tristano and Khalifé. It wafts between contemplative and celebratory moods, as Craig’s work often does, without ever suggesting an imitation. Instead, it confirms that the album has established a new techno idiom. Most crucial is how Tristano’s piano occupies the place of the synthesizer. Treated with echo, it moves through the piece as a melodic and rhythmic element, inhabiting synthesized sounds without ever sounding electronic — the ghost in the machine, as it were. The same spirit of transformation works on the horns and strings — they don’t mimic synths as much as show understanding of the music’s electronic soul.
Established fans of the prolific Craig may get more rapture from oldies made new like “Sandstorms” and “Error in Replication.” The most radiant new plumage appears on the perfectly named “Technology,” which originally appeared on Craig’s 1995 marvel, Landcruising. That treatment combined fidgety beats with a perfectly compatible, languid synth figure that eventually took over the mood of the piece with the ease of a breath, rather than a forced pause, ending with a fierce reburst of fidgets. Ten years later, Craig released The Album Formerly Known As…, which reworked the whole of Landcruising and began with a transformed “Technology.” Through one of the most imaginative reinventions in dance music, Craig made both the reflective and unbounded personality of the number exist at the same time, neither one dominating nor surrendering to the other.
The fundamental switch on the version of “Technology” on Versus is that all of the instrumentation has changed, so that while the calm synthesizer refrain of both the 1995 and 2005 recordings pervades, Tristano’s cyberminded piano keeps the jumpy rhythm patter right in the conversation. The careful devotion and hard work on detail put into this performance glisten when you compare versions of the piece. Now it’s the first-choice treatment — no one can resist this advanced “Technology.”