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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

DJs rehearse playing in unison before the performance this weekend. Chris Whiteoak / The National

How the world's first DJ orchestra is preparing for its live debut at Louvre Abu Dhabi 

Heard the one about the 20-piece DJ orchestra, done up in tuxedos and collectively spinning classical music on turntables? Probably not, because they don’t exist – yet.

As you read this article, eleventh-hour rehearsals are under way for the live debut of the Turntable Symphonograph Orchestra, a recently assembled collective of virtuoso DJs, which promises to reconstruct works by Grieg, Holst, Strauss and Tchaikovsky with nothing but turntables and mixers.

Presented at Louvre Abu Dhabi Thursday and Friday, the show’s producers are convinced it’s the first time a classical/hip-hop hybrid like this has been performed, and their claim rests on pretty firm ground. It’s a frankly mind-boggling idea, as anyone with even the remotest grasp of a turntablist’s role will know. DJs are solitary beings who rarely know what they’re going to play, or scratch, next. The idea of a DJ playing prepared pieces, the exact same way every night – and at the same time and tempo as 19 other turntablists – is the very antithesis of what the art of DJing is about.

Whatever they were spinning, the Turntable Symphonograph Orchestra has proven to be a pretty exciting draw for aficionados, featuring a roughly even split of notable American turntablists – such as D-Styles and Shortkut of seminal hip-hop outfit Beat Junkies – and Japanese award-winners, including DMC World DJ Champions Izoh and Rena (who was just 12 years old when he claimed the prestigious global contest last year).

The roots of the cross-­continental collaboration go back to December, when a leading turntable manufacturer gathered 30 top DJs from Japan and beyond in Tokyo, to assemble the “world’s first” DJ orchestra. Called the Philharmonic Turntable Orchestra, the group riffed, scratched and deconstructed the first LP ever pressed – Columbia Records’ recording of violinist Nathan Milstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.

But as the stunt’s YouTube video shows, the resulting recording was far from live – the three-minute video and soundtrack was assembled over three days’ hard work.

More than half of those DJs have reassembled as the Turntable Symphonograph Orchestra – renamed to differentiate it artistically and legally from the previous collective – but the new project is a very different beast.

Rather than a marketing stunt, this time they’re presenting a completely live set, around an hour long. That means there’s an awful lot that could go wrong.

“We’ve all come from this battle DJ background, where we have to be as busy and as technical as possible,” says D-Styles, a member of both projects.

“Playing classical music means simple parts just sprinkled here and there, very minimally – it’s the exact opposite of how we’ve been trained.”

Born Dave Cuasito, D-Styles is a veteran of pioneering hip-hop DJ group Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and a founding resident of Low End Theory, a scene-­defining Los Angeles nightclub which recently folded after a 12-year-run featuring the likes of Flying Lotus and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

“Somehow, we actually pulled it off last time – but we didn’t get to perform it live, that was the missing link in that experience,” he adds. “So I was very excited about the opportunity to come to Abu Dhabi and perform this thing in front of an actual audience.”

And why the UAE? Because one DJ who wasn’t in on the YouTube stunt was Dubaian James De Valera – better known as Lobito Brigante – who was bowled over by the relatively niche promotional footage, and vowed to bring the concept to the world.

“I’ve seen single DJs playing with orchestras. I’ve seen one DJ using five or six turntables, and crews of three or four DJs [playing together] – but never anything like this,” remembers the Spaniard.

When I saw that I thought: ‘This should be something bigger.’ It should be a fully performing project that doesn’t have to be owned and run by a company.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Japanese Connections: The Birth of Modern Decor exhibition provided the peg for a non-­corporate, arts-oriented platform, a pitch De Valera polished alongside co-producer Adam Hardy.

“Such a performance is an expression of how diverse the region has become and highlights the full breadth of the UAE’s cultural exchange programming,” added Hardy.

To make the project a reality, the duo called on a team of outside talent. On the musical side, De Valera enlisted the core team of turntablists D-Styles, Shortkut and Ta-Shi – communicating between Dubai, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Tokyo – to conceptualise how this might be made a reality.

The first group rehearsals took place on Sunday, just four days before showtime. Measurements for 20 tailcoats were also needed to identically suit and boot the ensemble of 16 male and four female DJs. “All I’ve been doing for the last three months is sweating and panting over what a ridiculous idea this was,” laughs De Valera. “It’s going to be the world’s first live turntable orchestra – and possibly the last.”

De Valera and Hardy also enlisted the services of Oliver Weeks – a respected British composer whose works have been performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra – to assemble the raw digital material the DJs will use to present “deconstructed” versions of famous works including Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Combined with original material from De Valera, Cuasito and other members of the team, these fragments form the decksmiths’ virtual record bag – applying a DJ’s toolkit of tricks to manipulate the pitch, tempo and rhythm of samples as required. Like a conventional orchestra, each turntablist will be responsible for playing a particular part.

“It gives us the ability to completely deconstruct any piece of classical music, and reconstruct it anyway we want,” adds De Valera. “Some DJs will be doing the equivalent of playing the triangle – but that’s in the ­nature of being in an orchestra.”

Previous attempts at large-scale turntable productions include Kid Koala’s interactive Satellite Turntable Orchestra project, which saw audience members invited to spin along in colour-coded segments. Larger sponsored “Scratch Circle” projects have seen groups of DJs pass the spotlight around. But the idea of 20 DJs playing a single, synched piece is unprecedented.

“There’s a huge room for error, a lot of risk,” adds Cuasito. “With classical music there is not so much space for ­improvisation. If one guy messes up, it messes up the whole structure – that’s why we have to learn to improvise – this guy missed the horn section, [so] we’re going to loop this part for four bars so he can catch up.”

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Both DJs are tight-lipped about what to expect from the mishmash, but it becomes clear in conversation that the classical source material will be gradually reconstructed to realise a clubbier beat. Cuasito describes the closing chapters as “Mad Professor meets Massive Attack” and while improvisation will be tightly scripted, every single DJ will get a moment to let loose. Most of the time, stepping back may prove the greatest challenge for traditionally itchy fingered turntablists.

“It’s going to be a test, people will have to be very minimal – and as DJs we’re not used to being minimal,” Cuasito adds. “People need to realise how to be simple – they can just be the cowbell.”

And whatever the next chapter holds for turntable orchestras – it happened first in Abu Dhabi.

The Turntable Symphonograph Orchestra performs at Louvre Abu Dhabi October 25 and 26, 8pm. Tickets cost Dh105. Visit www.louvreabudhabi.ae