Q & A/Classics Unleashed

How did this album come about?

I had the inspiration for this album a long time ago when Wendy Carlos released her album called ‘Switched-on Bach’. I thought it was pretty cool that someone could take something with synthesizers and recreate some of that very well-known classical music. I thought that this was a great interpretation because that’s what we’re all about – interpretations. And here is someone who did this and it was really hard work for her. I actually ended up buying the first digital keyboard from her when I was in New York. And, I included one of the Bach pieces she did.

Then I was reminded of ‘Hooked on Classics’ which I thought was terrible. I was thinking that you could do a little better than just using a drum beat behind Beethoven’s symphony – and turn it into essentially a disco song.

So back to Inspiration. Let’s make it simple. I studied electronic music as a kid at the conservatory and learned a lot about it. So I thought, What if I could fuse all that electronica with the classics, how cool would that be!

It’s all about the instrument. The instrument comes first – then comes the musician. When an instrument maker invents a new organ or keyboard, that’s when the composers/musicians come in.

So when you introduce new sounds, the orchestra gets bigger and the music gets more color and more tone, so to speak, and everybody gets excited. And now with digital sounds at your fingertips we have an explosion! Now we have an infinite number of sounds. The colors and tones are absolutely explosive. For a composer to have this at his disposal is very exciting and cool.

If Bach was alive today, what would he do with these pieces? How would he use it?

I thought to myself I’d like to put myself in their shoes and if I can re-orchestrate this music maybe I can give it a new perspective. I had a lot of fun doing this. I thought it was really cool to replace the traditional sounds with something that nobody has ever heard – and give new life to it.

What does the title Classics Unleashed mean?

In the fine arts world, there seems to be a consensus of interpretation. You just have to play it like this or that and they say they know that this is how the composer intended it to be played. You are really constrained by what your teachers tell you: Play faster here, play louder there. You don’t really get to express yourself. If you try to do a different interpretation you get slammed. The fine arts world is very conservative, at least on the educational side.

What people don’t get nowadays is that these composers were partygoers and womanizers… but the conservatory of music turns them into statues. They remove the human aspect. And that’s what I found when I joined rock bands – you can be anything you want without any restrictions. So there, you’re completely unleashed. Anything works! All of it. Nobody will say that was too fast or too loud or not loud enough. And at the conservatory I would think, I didn’t play it like you are used to hearing it and the way you like it – and I get it.

This album is about breaking a lot of traditions. The conservatory is very traditional in many ways. I wanted to break that mold. I wanted to be unleashed. I wanted to do anything I want with these pieces and they can’t say anything about it!

How did you take these famous works and translate them into the digital realm?

I tried to put myself in their shoes and find new sounds to use for the notes.

What new elements do you bring to the classical pieces? Explain the “unleashed” parts…

It’s just another interpretation with different colors. It’s just another perspective that one can look at. And it’s done with sounds that normally nobody would ever hear. As an example, instead of hitting a double base, I might have an explosion of a bomb. Unconventional sounds are ingested into the piece, which is a kind of ear candy. You have heard Moonlight Sonata a million times on a million pianos with a million pianists but this is a completely different approach and perspective.

You’re using the same notes but it’s essentially reorchestrated. That’s what it is I’m doing. It’s like turning on more colors and more shapes and more textures than you would normally hear. Lots of new nuances and unconventional sounds.

If the masters were alive today and could listen to your new album “Classics Unleashed” – what do you think they would say?

Cool, man!

Who is the audience for this?

The audience for this is broad. You are gonna get the classical world that will be curious to know how you can screw up classics. And then you got the electronic crowd, the alternatives that might really enjoy it. Because classical music is always seen as being highbrow and stuffy. It’s not hip, it’s not cool. We don’t look at those composers of being womanizers or rockin’ rollers of their time. But they were.

So by doing something like this, for the younger crowd, it brings a whole new life to this music. No more stuffiness. It’s like progressive rock. Kids today would think ‘who’s gonna listen to this stuffy music’ and now they get all these cool sounds that they might like. I think it is really refreshing for young folks to get into classics because they don’t have to listen to old people sitting in an orchestra playing stuffy old music but rather some guy playing synthesizers.

I think kids might be turned on to classical music if they hear this.

You have written in so many different formats – pop, rock, music for TV shows and films. So many genres – how do you change your approach for each type of music?

Most of what I do is Art Rock, that’s the closest title that would describe it. Art Rock was eventually called Progressive Rock because that was rock musicians with a classical background. I was certainly inspired by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. They released their version of ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’.

That was REALLY cool and everybody was digging it. Everybody knows this piece now because of them. They made it very current. That’s not what I’m doing with this album. They interpreted it a bit more and put more rock into it and added more stuff. I’m not adding anything. I’m keeping true to the score as much as possible. I’m not jazzing it out or anything like that. Because there is a hip-hop version of it and it sounded just horrible. I decided to stick to the notes and just change what it is the notes do.

How did you get started in music?

When the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan show and played ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ I was told that I was figuring it out on our piano. I think I was five years old at the time. And my grandfather thought there might be something there so he took me to downtown Toronto to introduce me to the top teacher in the world, Boris Berlin. He was not interested then, because he only taught at university.

A year later, when I had learned piano from my grandmother, my grandfather took me back to Boris Berlin and he said, Oh I think I’ll take this one on! So there was me and there were two other students that were part of the gifted program. I got my first scholarship at the age of seven and performed my first solo concert at nine.

I did an album for Walt Disney, called A Tribute for Disney, when I was in grade three. The whole class would sing and I played the piano. That was the first album I was on. To make an album in those days was a big deal.

Classics Unleashed is cutting edge. What could possibly be next?

More of the same. My next project is inspired by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. So, I’m doing Pictures at an Exhibition.

Before pianos were created there was the harpsichord– how did that influence composers’ writings in their time?

Beethoven already wrote for the piano. However, Bach still worked with a harpsichord. The piano was already being constructed. He was introduced to the piano as a new instrument but Bach wasn’t impressed by it because it was kinda rinky dinky… not as good as the harpsichord at the time but technology improved and by Mozart’s time he was really ready to explore this new instrument.

Victor Alexeeff and Tony Kaye from Prog/Rock band YES
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