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Derrick May takes techno into the symphonic realm
A techno pioneer and a symphony orchestra might seem like strange bedfellows, but Derrick May loves it.
The Detroit electronic music artist is preparing for this weekend's U.S. debut of the orchestral project he's presented four times before, in France, Belgium and Macedonia. He's gotten used to the quizzical looks and raised eyebrows, and he's happy to be able to show that the "collision" of the symphonic and the synthetic works much better than most people expect.
"I'm not trying to reinvent dance music here. I'm trying to bring dance music to a point to show people it can be transmitted and translated to a whole other level," May, 51, explains by phone from Spain during a recent European tour. "And so far it's been really cool. I've not had that head-turning resistance. I've had a really warm, receptive response from the musicians and directors and people in that (classical) world."
The Techno Symphonic Fusion concerts also allow May -- one of the famed Belleville Three techno originators along with fellow Michiganders Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins -- to remind listeners that the electronic world is rooted in musicianship. "It comes as a shock to many people; they forget I compose music, that I created music and I can play music," notes May, who plays keyboards during the shows. "So there's a real sense of history lesson to this.
"There's a real lack of appreciation for electronic musicians as musicians, and I totally get it. People think of us as DJs, but there's an element to this music, especially from my generation, where we played everything. We didn't use the assistance of computers; we didn't have them, at least not when we started. We mostly played things into sequencers or some sort of (technology), but we were writing and playing music just like any other musician."
May also keeps the improvisational nature of his DJ sets by note pre-preparing or even rehearsing what he'll play atop the orchestra, which is conducted by May's cohort Dzijan Emin. The other musicians all wear headphones to allow them to hear what's going on and stay on course while May free-forms his way through a repertoire drawn from a nearly 30 year career that includes pieces he's made under his own name and with monikers such as Rhythm Is Rhythm and Mayday.
"I'm really just listening to what's happening around me and expressing myself how I see fit," May explains. "It's my music, so I'm filling the pockets and gaps of my own songs as I'm performing. The (orchestra) musicians are only playing what's in front of them, but I'm playing anything I want and finding some way my melody can contour and complement what they're doing.
"It's a challenge, but we've been able to pull it together and everybody enjoys it. Every time we can do it I can see the orchestra start tapping their feet and bobbing their head. The principal violinist or cellist is always happy to shake my hand. It's a great thing."
May says he's getting plenty of interest to do more orchestral shows and already has dates lined up back in France and in Australia. "This is the kind of thing that gets a different audience interested in these (orchestras)," May says. "It's more relevant to them than Beethoven, so it puts different people in the seats, and they like that."
Derrick May with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, featuring pianist Francesco Tristano
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14.
Chene Park Amphitheatre, Chene at Atwater, Detroit.
Tickets are $26-$65.
Call 313-393-7128 or visit CheneParkDetroit.com.
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