Techno and classical music don’t have much in common. Regimented rhythms, laptop production and an anyone-can-do-it bedroom production mindset on the one hand, complex musical theory, years of training and virtuosity on the other. So it comes as something of a surprise that there’s a growing trend for techno-classical crossovers. In 2008, Carl Craig collaborated with fellow techno producer Moritz von Oswald of Basic Channel on Recomposed, an album of reworks of classical pieces for iconic classical label Deutsche Grammaphon. Then, last year, Jeff Mills performed improvisations of works by French composer Claude Debussy together with pianist Kathleen Supové

  By far the most accomplished techno-classical fusionists are German trio, Brandt Brauer Frick. The reason is simple enough: instead of bolting drum machines onto existing orchestral pieces Paul Frick, Daniel Brandt and Jan Brauer have gone back to first principles to make techno using classical instruments. Their debut album, You Make Me Real, released last year, is that rare thing, a genuinely innovative record. Tracks such as Bop would be at home in a minimal techno set. Indeed, listen casually and you might not notice how it was made. However, pay closer attention and the shuffling polyrhythms and rich, resonant pianos could only come from a classical background. It’s inspired stuff. 

  In January, Brandt Brauer Frick unveiled their live show at the Eurosonic music conference in Holland. It sees the core trio joined by classical musicians to make a ten-piece ensemble. In a solely acoustic performance they recreate You Make Me Real using 80 pages of sheet music per track. It’s weird, compelling and head-scratchingly improbable. 

  Substance caught up with Paul Frick, the classical mastermind in the band, to talk about dirty sounds, the man-machine interface and why his band aren’t just about the concept. See the end of the article for a podcast in which Frick talks about the music and techniques that influenced the making of You Make Me Real.

How did Brandt Brauer Frick start?


Daniel and Jan knew each other from school. They had a project called Scott. They made dance music, hypnotic, minimalistic stuff with a bit of a jazz influence. They first got in touch with me about two-and-a-half years ago. I had just brought out a solo house record. They messaged me on Myspace. We listened to each other’s music and liked what we heard, so decided to meet up in Berlin. They had heard a piece of mine, Ya Esta, that was techno-inspired but completely acoustic with weird piano sounds. When we met they said it would be great if we did a project like that. We tried it and the chemistry was really good. We just knew we had to do more.


Was the original idea to make dance music using classical instruments?


Yes, but the three of us had very different expectations of what it would become. I thought it would be a lot more experimental. Daniel says he knew it had to sound like proper dance music. We started adding some analogue synths and we always do that now because we don’t want to be too dogmatic about the classical music thing. The bass is very often a synthesizer.


Is your approach a reaction against technology?


No, we are pro technology, but classical instruments are such an incredible technology themselves. A piano is a good example. It’s taken hundreds of years to become what it is now. There’s so much knowledge in it. I don’t think digital technology and classical music technology should be in opposition. We try to marry them to each other. It’s more about the complexity and richness of the sound. Classical instruments sound so rich and you don’t always get that richness with synthesizers. With a synthesizer you turn a lot of knobs and you find a great sound. With a piano it sounds great already, you just need to record it. We think of our music as a great combination of old and new technology. And digital technology helps up a lot. I mean, we do all the arrangements using computers. It’s a play between man and machine. We try to make the frontiers between man and machine disappear. But I suppose there are a lot of contradictions in our music because we try to play the classical instruments as mechanically as possible. Sometimes people ask us why we don’t have more of a human feel. I think we have, but we love imitating machines. The inspiration of our music is based on machines as well.  

Why does that contradiction interest you?


Life is very contradictory. I like it when there’s a tension between you and the tools you use. I also think the interaction between man and machine is related to our everyday lives. So many professions would be unthinkable without machines. I think that makes it interesting to explore what can happen between humans and their tools. Also, we’re interested in making machines sound more human. We try to make our music warm. We’re trying to give some softness to techno. It’s not like we’re the first people to try and do that, of course.


The interplay of man and machine is something that Kraftwerk were interested in. Do you accept them as an influence?


Completely. Daniel told me he’s not interested in Kraftwerk, but I am. I think our approach is similar, but they focussed a lot on the coldness of the music. While we have similar interests what we do is also contrary because we’re trying to make techno with this warmth.


You used ‘prepared pianos’, modified with screws and pencil rubbers inserted in the strings. Why?


A few years ago I got a commission to write a new interlude for this old John Cage piece called Sonatas And Interludes. I prepared a piano according to the instructions he lays out. You have to place various objects - screws, bits of rubber, an eraser - at precise points on the strings and at around the instrument to change the sound. I did that following his instructions exactly. Then I sampled all the notes. That’s where it started.


Is that the kind of experimental thing you thought Brandt Brauder Frick was going to be about when you started?


Yes. In a way I think we still are very experimental. For example, if you put a four-four drum track against a polymetric rhythm you can really hear how the polymetric rhythm works. That’s what a track like Bop is about. It sounds really complex and endlessly changing. We are experimental but we try not to lose ourselves in it. It’s more about the vibe between the three of us. When we are all happy then it’s done. It’s not as calculated as you might think.


Your music sounds a lot like techno made using synths and a computer in the standard way. It’s a lot of effort to do it your way. Why bother? 


If you listen closely to the sounds it’s not like techno. And everything, even proper classical music, is recorded using computers these days. If you buy a CD of the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s recorded digitally. 

How does the ensemble compare to the three-piece line-up of Brandt Brauer Frick?


The ensemble takes our live act to the next level. It’s what we wanted to do from the start. Playing live with the ensemble is probably the most exciting thing we have done. The adrenaline we feel is amazing. 


How complicated is it?


Very. It’s a lot of work and a lot of logistics. The scores are between 50 and 80 pages for each piece. And then there’s the separate parts for each musician too. But finally being on stage with it makes me feel it’s worth it.


Does the techno world get what you’re doing?


People perceive it in very different ways. Some don’t care how it’s made but like the music. Some only seem interested in how it’s made. Some reviewers perceive us as minimal techno, some as new jazz and so on. People focus on the whole cross-over aspect, but we wish they would concentrate on the fact that the music we’re making has good chords and melodies. It would be great if they’d take the music as it is. Because we make it the way we feel and not for purely conceptual reasons.


What’s next?


The ensemble are playing loads of festivals, including Coachella, Glastonbury and Bestival. We’re going to record a new album with the ensemble, which will be released this autumn. Besides that we are getting more and more interesting offers to do remixes, which in our case means doing acoustic cover versions. And we will found the Brandt Brauer Frick 

Entertainment Group. But that’s another story.


Text: Chris Cottingham


You Make Me Real is out now on !K7.



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