The Quiet Revival of the Orchestra

Written by the great Fred “Freddy” Bower – New York City, NY, just for us this April 2021. Listen up.

The music of the most recent decades is overflowing with innovation.  Rap and hip-hop styles push the boundaries of what we ever expected the genre would be on a near weekly basis and electronic music continues to show us that we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible. Genre charts across the internet show the traditional categories of rock and pop exploding into hundreds of disparate fragments of new styles today. Needless to say music is far more broad and complex than ever before.

That said, I’ve noticed a subtle trend building throughout my teens and 20’s: people still long for orchestral music. The orchestra has a stereotype of being a dusty, boring medium of music, but I’d argue it’s much more than that and is in fact finding a new stride in the music of today.

Below, I’ve highlighted a handful albums or events that showcase a new era for orchestras, not as stuffy machines for ancient symphonies, but as complementary assets to modern genres.

1. Nas – Illmatic: Live From The Kennedy Center

When it comes to rap, the Illmatic truly does not need an introduction. The original album is often argued to be the greatest rap album ever. This album, Illmatic: Live From The Kennedy Center, may not come close to receiving such high praise, but it offers a new perspective on the now 27 year old debut release.

The great thing about this live version is that it isn’t a standard rap concert, but rather one where Nas’ words are backed by the National Symphony Orchestra’s nearly 100 member group. Each of the iconic samples of the original project have been transcribed into a beautiful arrangement that respects the original songs but adds that sense of sweeping awe that can only be generated through an orchestra.

Highlight: Listening to The World is Yours here will still make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and give you the same feeling of wonder and ambition that Nas must have felt running Queens as a 20 year old.

2. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Timeless: Suite for Ma Dukes

This project has to be one of my all-time favorites. J Dilla was a big influence on me as a teenager and his relentless work ethic as a crate digging, MPC fiend generated beats that were the background to so many years of my life.

This album Timeless: Suite for Ma Dukes is actually the recording of a one-off event organized by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to honor the late J Dilla who passed away three years before this recording (Ma Dukes is the mother of J Dee). This is a special piece of history not just because of how respected Dilla was, but also because this concert was put on by 60 handpicked musicians to compile an elite orchestra that performed alongside Talib Kweli, Karriem Riggins, Bilal, and more.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is one of the most humble artists in the industry, specializing in the Viola, but his arrangements in the Suite for Ma Dukes are something special where his passion is self-evident.

Highlight: Untitled/Fantastic

3. Jameszoo – Melkweg with Metropole Orchestra

Jameszoo is a Dutch artist that makes electronic music but he is growing a name for himself experimenting with adding acoustic and traditional instruments alongside his digital sounds.

Melkweg was released in 2019 and strikes me as a very interesting outlier to the above two albums. Rather than substituting previously iconic beats with thoughtful orchestral arrangements, the Metropole Orchestra here is truly performing and at times improvising original material. It is because of this reason that this album gives me the belief that the orchestra is shaping and innovating itself into a completely new idea. With experimentation, rarely is the result down the fairway. And this album is no exception: some songs fall flat while others blow me away. Respect must also be given to Brainfeeder for encouraging projects such as this one to be seen through.

Highlight: (flake)

4. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

Just released last week, this album has been getting a stream of positive reviews across the internet. The album is impressive for a number of reasons.

The first is the exceptional collaboration and team effort between Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and The LSO. This is a collaboration between electronic, jazz, and symphony genres with a shockingly cohesive end product.

The second is that Promises represents what I would call a “true album” — it isn’t just a box set of songs released in a package. It is a complete work, designed to be listened to in full, from front to back. This clear intention of the artists (its tracks even labeled “Movement 1, 2, 3..”) combined with its seamless transitions song-to-song actually pays homage to the structure of classical symphonies.

I’m quite inspired by this one.

Highlight: Movement 6

What’s Next?

It seems clear to me that the orchestra can be an incredible asset to modern genres of music, but this style of music isn’t as ready-made as other instruments.

If an artist wishes to add this element to their music, they need to find a 50+ person orchestra, arrange music for all those parts, and find the time to practice, tweak, and record the work. This is a significant barrier and one that may keep orchestra’s reserved for just the special occasions — I might just be O.K. with that.

2 April, 2021 —

Fred is originally from outside Portland, Maine and is both a creator and producer, player (an outstanding sax player, at that) and lover of music in every regard. More recently, Fred has been working and living in NYC for several years with his Fiancé, and been a very good friend of mine for far longer (we’ve attended live everything from Phish to Blackalicious together). He’ll be submitting content to our blog as he feels like it – just like we do. We’re more than happy to have him. Thanks again, Freddy.

And thanks for reading, beautiful people.

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