Seven artists talk about how they draw on classical and symphonic sounds to create their thoroughly contemporary compositions.
Today’s landscape is one in which musical lines have blurred. Genre mashups in which rockers inject their songs with EDM, rap or acoustic folk elements are commonplace. Conversely, hip-hop and neo-soul artists routinely weave rock threads into their work. Of course, there’s nothing really new about that. When Run-D.M.C. covered Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” back in 1986, it barely raised an eyebrow.
But what about classical music? Can your new band get away with merging metal and Mozart?
We asked for insights and advice from six successful musicians who have found ways to infuse classical and symphonic sounds into their modern projects.
John Elefante’s international musical career skyrocketed in 1981, when he prevailed over competitors like Sammy Hagar to become the new lead singer and keyboardist for the supergroup Kansas. Later in his career Elefante went on to massive production success, founding the famed Sound Kitchen recording studios in Nashville and collaborating on more than 100 albums with artists like Tim Mcgraw, Faith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Brooks & Dunn and many others. He’s produced megahits for the Christian rock group Petra and is credited with helping to move contemporary Christian music into the mainstream.
His albums have garnered massive recognition, including numerous Dove Awards, four Grammy Awards, and 10 Grammy nominations. He says classical instruments and sounds play a crucial role in his work.
I don't read music, but I constantly hear moving orchestration in many of the songs I write. Sometimes a good simulated orchestral patch on a synth will slot in nicely, but there are times when you just have to have the real thing. Instinct is usually my guide.
Boasting a unique sound that blends cerebral songwriting and classical instrumentation, The Speedbumps won an Independent Music Award in 2014 for their song “I Come From a Town.” Upright and electric bass player Kevin Martinez, who has a master’s degree in music composition, once spent nine months collaborating with The Canton Symphony Orchestra for joint performance of The Speedbumps’ songs at the historical Canton Palace Theatre. Martinez says the band calls upon classical style on every project.
It’s really inherent in our music since we feature a cello in our core group. It is the lead non-vocal piece of the group, and (cellist Sam Kristoff’s) sense of melody and tone lends an orchestral tinge to the flavor of all our music. On our two latest records, the newest of which will be released on April 21st, we have hired talented violinists and violists to add layers on certain songs as well.
Finnish metal masters Amberian Dawn describe their style as “symphonic metal,” combining technical mastery with dark, romantic storytelling to produce a trademark sound. in 2014 they released their new album, Magic Forest, through Napalm Records. Tuomas Seppälä is the founding member of the band and plays keyboards and guitar, while also composing all of Amberian Dawn’s songs and arrangements. He says experimenting outside of his classical training and blending symphonic sound with metal has always been a passion.
I started to study classical music and playing piano at the age of five. That's why I'm a kind of a mixture of a classical composer of old times and rock musician of today. But I also don't have any goals when I start working with a new song. The composing process flows on and the end result might be symphonic, or not. I don't decide to write a symphonic song, or a power-metal song for example. The song kinds of writes itself when I start composing.
After parting ways with their label, Dutch metal band Stream of Passion managed to raise more than $50,000 from fan sourcing to fund their upcoming album A War of Our Own. Marcela Bovio, lead vocalist and violinist, began taking lessons in flute and music theory at the age of six. She says that being freed from the record company’s expectations—and the unquestioning support of the fans who came together to finance the new composition—gave her the freedom she needed to explore. But she’s always relied on her classical training to add depth to her band’s sound.
We've made a string section and classical piano an integral part of our sound. When we're writing the songs we always add arrangements for strings and piano to go along the heavy guitars and drums; it adds an extra layer of depth to the songs, as well as a very dramatic feeling.
Modern technology brings classical sound temptingly within reach. Some of the artists we spoke to incorporate entire simulated symphonic orchestras while others hone in on one orchestral section.
The term “classical” is pretty broad, and an orchestra is an awfully large thing to take on the road. We asked our musicians if they were partial to a particular orchestral sound.
Described as a modern-day renaissance man and an all-in-one musical anomaly, Avery Watts' music has been featured in motion pictures and video games, and heard in stadiums around America. Lebron Jones has been known to amp himself up before games with tracks from Avery’s 2014 album The Takeover, which broke into the Top 20 charts in Europe. You can download his latest single, “Here to Stay,” for free. He plays each instrument in his arrangements, layering them together into a unique sound that touches on rock, metal, and contemporary while revealing his love of all things orchestral.
I tend to rely heavily on the string section of the orchestra for my main melodies and sonic layers. Primarily violins, violas, and cellos. I’ll use a double bass if the strings are by themselves in portions of a mix, but most of the time it interferes with the bass guitar and bass drum in a rock context. Secondly, I’ll implement orchestral percussion such as timpanis, taiko drums, concert toms and anything else that goes boom in the night.
Once a childhood musical prodigy who earned widespread acclaim in Christian music circles, David Phelps went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music from Baylor University and become a nationally celebrated vocalist. Perhaps best known as the powerful tenor in the multiple Grammy- and Dove Award-winning Gaither Vocal Band, Phelps is constantly building on a career that has already been groundbreaking. Emerging as a leading voice in contemporary Christian music, Phelps has a hard time selecting just one orchestral section for his works.
Generally, I try to add what I feel the song needs. Some songs just need strings on top of the rhythm section while others call for a full orchestra. Production choices are largely about the taste and predetermined direction of the producer and artist.
John Elefante explains how the percussion and string sections he hears in his head go from his imagination to accomplished orchestral musicians and, finally, into his projects:
I will usually use a string section about 13 piece depending on the budget. I start by playing the parts on a synth, then passing it off to an arranger who can chart my thoughts and expand on them with their own ideas, and then comes the magic. There is nothing like hearing for the first time what you've been hearing in your head with the real thing!
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