The perfect score? How composers are taking pop festivals by storm

Hollywood soundtrack maestro Hans Zimmer was an unexpected smash at Coachella – but he’s not the first orchestral artist to cross over. Are classical musicians picking up where DJs left off?

For most of his 59 years, Hollywood soundtrack giant Hans Zimmer probably didn’t imagine performing his compositions at pop festivals. After all, as he says: “Why would you spend an evening of your precious time with a man with his back to you and a bunch of people in suits?” But two weeks ago he turned out to be the surprise smash of Coachella, stealing the limelight from Lady Gaga with his orchestra and choir embellished with all the sonic bombast of rock and EDM and a climactic Lion King singalong. Yes, he went the full Hakuna Matata.

Zimmer’s set might have caught the party bros by surprise but it’s the latest in a steady infiltration of festivals by composers. Movie score maestro John Carpenter is a fixture, as is Ennio Morricone; then there are minimalists such as Philip Glass (whose Heroes Symphony was a Glasto 2016 highlight) and Steve Reich (billed at classy technofest Dekmantel in Amsterdam this August) and alt-classical new-schoolers Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm and Max Richter. You can now scarcely move at big music events without bumping into a 30-piece woodwind section. If DJs are the new rock stars it’s looking suspiciously like composers might be outflanking them all.

Robert Raths – whose Erased Tapes label kickstarted a lot of this by bringing us Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds and co and turns 10 this year – suspects that decades of dance culture have primed us for this. “People are used to listening to music that evolves over time,” he says. “You can even compare a DJ set to a symphony … if you do it well!” He may be referring to the way the subtle repetitions of Frahm or Reich appeal to people used to zoning out for hours to deep techno, but it works in other ways, too.

Zimmer, for example, is the equivalent to the current dance music superstars delivering maximum bang per buck; indeed, many of the Coachella crowd might have already raved to The Circle of Life’s Zulu intro as a staple of Skrillex DJ sets. And it’s working the other way, too, as more and more DJs cross over to classical, from Detroit techno forefathers Carl Craig and Jeff Mills to Pete Tong, who is bringing his trance-bangers-with-violins project, Ibiza Classics, to this year’s V festival. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing, which is good news for anyone who enjoys a festival spectacle. If we don’t see Daft Punk Do Debussy doing the rounds by mid 2018, I’ll eat my bass trombone.


Joe Muggs

The GuardianTramp

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