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Club Classics: Swapping the concert hall for the dancefloor with SWARM festival

Coco Khan
proms 300x199 Club Classics: Swapping the concert hall for the dancefloor with SWARM festival

Patriotic revellers wave flags at the Royal Albert Hall (Getty Images)

As I write this, the BBC Proms is in full swing. It is the defining classical music festival of the summer (if not the entire year), a cultural institute unquestionable, shared by thousands at the Royal Albert Hall and by millions more via television and radio worldwide. It is what we have come to define as the quintessential classical music experience, an almost sacred ceremony thick with tradition.

But next summer, the Proms just might have some stiff competition. It’s a dedicated classical-rave festival called SWARM and it’s format is one altogether more familiar. Tents, camping, alcohol and dancing to DJs in a field, somewhere in Glastonbury, until the early hours. Here, the orders of etiquette don’t apply, where the first page in a concert programme explaining the rules of the performance (no tweeting, no texting, no cheering, no eating, and above all you must feel incredibly embarrassed if you cough) is good for kindling and little else. Wear what you want, whoop when you please, hold up your phone to call your best friend during ‘that bit’ you both love and feel the music however you want to. It marks the official arrival of a new era for classical music, where classical gets altogether a little more club.

Recontextualising classical music out of the concert hall and into contemporary spaces is not a new concept, rather we’ve been seeing this trend get increasingly bigger over the years. As an example, this month in London, you’ll find Nonclassical, an East London club night that fuses live performance with DJs; London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF) an entirely free festival in a Peckham car park fusing drone, electronica and classical contemporary; and The Works from Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, an informal almost cabaret style night in an old music hall. And that’s naming just a few. This is a movement that is in rude health, and is growing, borne out of a desire to widen audiences and experimentation as far as it might go, much like the composers themselves have sought to do.

And its working. The impact is being felt across all genres and you don’t need to look far past our pop charts to hear it. There was the Shostakovich rework in Plan B’s iLL Manors, the Einaudi sample in Professor Green’s album track Balloon or the strange success story that was Mozart’s House.

Dance act Clean Bandit debuted in the UK Top 20 with a house track thick with classical references and a 10 second untouched sample of Mozart’s D Major String Quartet. How does that fare in a nightclub situation? ‘It’s often the moment in the set the audience gives us back the most energy and cheers’ Grace of Clean Bandit tells me.

‘The opening of our song A&E, when we play a chorale from Bach’s St Matthew Passion is also one of the bigger moments in our set, audience reaction-wise’. If that’s not enough, in just a few weeks time Radio 1 DJ Benji B will perform SW4 festival alongside conductor Grant Windsor and 16 piece ensemble Deviation Strings. It will put orchestral music on a big stage in a pop context rarely seen at a mainstream festival.

It’s clear there is something in the air, that indeed the winds are about to change. But should we be celebrating or mourning a loss? SWARM creator, award-winning conductor Charles Hazlewood, is pulling out the party-poppers.

You might have heard of Hazlewood before. He was the creator of the Paraorchestra, an orchestra made up of rarely represented gifted musicians with a disability that in three years has signed with EMI, played the Paralympics and reworked the national anthem upon the Queen’s request. He’s known for his dedication to widening audience and has become renowned for his broad fusion creations, from collaborations with UK hip-hop artists to electronica, such as his recent work with Squarepusher.

‘People haven’t quite connected the dots yet,’ he tells me. ‘Music is one broad stream, it’s not a series of mutually exclusive endpoints, if you like drum and bass there is no reason on earth why you won’t also like Mozart. An old school raver can appreciate Messiaen and Ligeti. In fact a lot of the techniques used in these avant-garde contemporary composers is the same technique as people like Squarepusher is using. There is so much common ground, and that’s the joy of it. So why would it be that an orchestra is only utilised in an environment where let’s face it, only a certain type of person feels comfortable and where all kinds of strictures apply?’

SWARM is a new breed of event. ‘It’s got all the energy of a rock festival but with the one singular difference that there’s an orchestra as the engine at the heart of it, rather than a band. An orchestra that can work with Professor Green and Labrinth just as much as it can play Carmen’. For 2014, SWARM (the rebranded name of Hazlewood’s previous festival, Orchestra in a Field) is celebrating 30 years since Acid House, the second summer of love. This new ‘third summer’ will fuse a 100-strong orchestra with those Hacienda anthems that defined an era.

For Hazlewood, it’s a matter of politics. ‘People have a right to engage with Beethoven and Rachmaninov yet generally orchestras are only really laid out to a small minority of people.’ With swinging cuts to the arts, it’ll take more than the reduction in ticket prices that we’ve seen to break down the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding music, from both sides of the spectrum.

‘I abhor the term “classical music”. I hate it. It’s got such awful connotations. [SWARM] is the future, music coming back together again, instead of these strange, arbitrary pockets. For most people classical music is like a maiden aunt who sits alone in the conservatory. Everyone is frightened of her, no one wants to go and talk to her’. But maybe they’ll want to dance with her.

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