Local collective Uninvited Guests reinterpret Glenn Gould’s catalogue for a pop audience

A group of Toronto musicians are grappling.

A group of Toronto musicians are grappling with a problem that many others have tried to resolve: how to make classical music palatable to pop audiences.

Or more specifically, how to excite a new generation about the work of late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.

“He was the godfather of electronic music and nobody recognized that,” says bassist/producer Billy Wild over the phone. “The one thing that stuck out the most for us was – and this is what we built the entire project around – how he predicted that the audience will become the artist and the life will become the art.”

Initially, Wild and drummer Andrew Testa were asked to “clubify” Gould’s music for a tribute concert at the University of Toronto three years ago. 

The pair were only vaguely familiar with Gould’s music but agreed, and after immersing themselves in his recordings and writings, they became fascinated with his contentious decision to retire from performing to focus on recording.

They started to see parallels between the ways technology was shaking up the classical world of Gould’s time and the present-day debates around authenticity in music.

“Gould foreshadowed things like remixes, DJs, DIY producer/musicians, and he had a lot to say about how the concert hall was going to be completely replaced by recorded music,” says Wild.

With the blessing of Gould’s estate they named themselves Uninvited Guests and conceived an audio-visual performance that remixed his music into 10 minutes of downtempo trip-hop that fell flat with the audience.

Convinced younger listeners and musicians need to hear Gould’s music, Uninvited Guests – which also includes Alex Kotyk (orchestral parts) and Chief (vocals) – are changing tactics. They’ve remixed Gould’s recordings with pop and hip-hop artists after a Ludacris mashup that Wild whipped up on a lark went over well with friends.

“We were getting frustrated that people didn’t get it,” he says. “We thought there was going to be more of an appetite, and at the end of the day there just wasn’t.”

The tracks are part of a mixtape, Uninvited X Gould, featuring Gould remixed with a cappellas from hits by J. Cole, Missy Elliott, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake and Wu-Tang Clan, among others, that comes out November 17. (A commercial single will follow on December 8.)

The project was also a way for the musicians to delve deeper into Gould’s catalogue, in particular his performance of Bach’s Two Part and Three Part Inventions and works by German composer Paul Hindemith.

Wild spent time in the CBC’s archives listening to Gould’s more experimental – or “unlistenable,” as he puts it – material to extract samples, such as a bass line that sounded dirty enough to gel with Justin Timberlake’s vocal from Sexy Back.

“The samples were hard to work with because Gould played like a madman,” explains Wild. “The thing with the piano is it eats up your entire dynamic range, and with hip-hop you want to save that mid-range for the voice. To find stuff that wasn’t clashing with the voice was difficult as all hell.

“We started looking less for music that we just liked and more for stuff in certain keys, timbres and tonal qualities,” he continues. “To be honest, we threw a few songs into Ableton and, holy shit, it worked. But a good chunk came from breaking down the classical composition and finding things that worked tonally.”

The group hopes the recent popularity of high-profile collaborations between rappers and classical composers will rub off on their project.

In September, Kanye West performed his 808s & Heartbreak album with a string section at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and then performed alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

Last month, Kendrick Lamar performed songs off his To Pimp A Butterfly album with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and a month earlier the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed Drake’s Know Yourself at the Polaris Prize gala. Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall’s latest album, Kardi Gras Vol. 1: The Clash, also has a handful of heavenly sounding orchestral sections. 

The Polaris performance was part of a wider cross-genre partnership with the TSO that will give this year’s winner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the opportunity to perform with the orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall next year.

For Christopher Mayo, the freelance composer and arranger who reworked Know Yourself for the gala, the biggest challenge was avoiding the gimmick factor.

“There was a lot of danger in it coming across as a very token thing,” says Mayo. “We didn’t want to seem like we were just like trying to make classical music cool or hip-hop more legit.”

Mayo is based in Toronto but spent 11 years in London, England, where he collaborated with electronic musicians Goldie and Matthew Herbert on classical projects. He calls West’s collaboration with Shaw a great example of a recent pop-classical crossover that felt seamless and genuine.

Although hip-hop has a long history of sampling classical music – especially since copyright has expired on lots of compositions, and orchestra sessions are expensive – the classical world has been slower to reciprocate the love.

“[The classical world] has been aware that classical music is not inherently superior to all other music,” Mayo says. 

That attitude went out 40 to 50 years ago, but it’s taken a while for the mechanism of the unionized orchestra to catch up.

“Too often when you get orchestras that want to tap into pop music of any kind, the things they do are geared toward older audiences,” Mayo says. “It’s not current. It’s nice to realize that orchestras working with popular music are not just about marketing. It can be something that is genuinely collaborative and can benefit everyone.” 

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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