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Most pop fans know William Orbit's
music but little or nothing about the man behind it. The British ambient-house pioneer and master remixer twiddled the knobs in relative obscurity for years, doing studio time with Sting, Prince, the Human League, Peter Gabriel, the Cure, Blur, Depeche Mode, and Madonna, among others. Orbit's production and writing Grammys (Best Pop Album and Best Dance Recording) for the Material Girl's Ray of Lightalbum in 1998 finally brought him out of the closet, so to speak.
Folks may at last be familiar with his name, but Orbit, born William Wainwright, is no Johnny-come-lately to the music scene. He collaborated with fellow songwriter and musician Laurie Mayer on two mid-'80s albums of alternative techno-pop as the group Torch Song, then honed his studio skills and began remixing singles into dance gems, including tunes for Seal and Kraftwerk. At the same time, under the banner Strange Cargo, Orbit launched an intermittent series of guitar-spiced ambient albums full of his own alternately percolating and moody material. As Bass-O-Matic, Orbit delved into hyperpaced house, scoring a Top 10 U.K. single in 1990 with the hip-hop infused "Fascinating Rhythm."
With such peripatetic stylistic leanings, it's no real stretch that Orbit's newest solo project turns out to be a suite of updated classical works, Pieces in a Modern Style. Classical-techno hybrids began appearing with the advent of the synthesizer -- remember 1968's Switched-On Bach by Moog guru Wendy Carlos? -- and Orbit's offering seems to spring from the same (albeit updated) technological ground: He claims to have created the tracks in his bedroom with Pro Tools software. But far from the mechanical cheese proffered by his forebears, Orbit delivers surprisingly warm, understated takes on some of his favorite compositions.
So understated, in fact, that the opening track, Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings, instantly found its way onto classical radio in Britain. Barber's original melody is immediately recognizable, and at times during the nine-and-a-half-minute piece, the keening, computer-conjured orchestral arrangement brings to mind a poignant, ethereal film score.
Throughout the album background washes of synthesizer push out the gauzy edges of the 11 classical masterpieces, while the melody lines are reworked by Orbit's one-man orchestra. "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni receives a lilting piano-run intro before a wavering faux-string background and bubbly main keyboard theme give way to classical guitar. Beethoven's Triple Concerto opens with tinkling, windchimes beneath a weeping violin until rhythmic vinyl scratching and a thumping, syncopated bass line bring the disc to by far its funkiest peak.
Brooding didgeridoo leads into a sad, staccato piano melody on "Piece in the Old Style 1," actually a contemporary composition by Henryk Górecki. The haunting aboriginal flute momentarily turns into the throbbing, heartbeat pulse of the song but subsides as echoing, spacey sounds segue back into shimmering synths. "Piece in the Old Style 3" features old-fashioned blip-bleep computer speak and Eastern-flavored wind-instrument sounds.
A loping bass line and jangly guitar reminiscent of the early Cure open "In a Landscape" by John Cage. As the song builds, though, we never get to Robert Smith's gulping vocals. Instead the cut cycles through more synthetic symphonics with a lush, orchestral background. A Floydian helicopter sample, old-school electronic keyboard scales, and outer space noises -- like radio transmissions tuning in and out -- are joined by a churchlike organ and the occasional, ominous digital groan on Erik Satie's "Ogive Number 1." Maurice Ravel's "Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte," with its warm organ chords and chirpy hand bell-chiming, and Vivaldi's "L'Inverno," complete with carousel calliope, are Orbit's submissions to cheesiness.
Piece in a Modern Style is surprisingly subtle, especially for listeners accustomed to Orbit's higher-energy output. This is strictly weekend-morning or late-night listening. Lucky for those with a higher pulse rate, the album comes as a two-CD set, and on the second disc one of remixer extraordinaire Orbit's own creations gets sliced and diced: Adagio For Strings receives booty-shakin' treatments by both trance producer Ferry Corsten and DJ ATB; also included is the Corsten mix, which already hit No. 1 on the U.K. dance charts. Turntable turnabout, it seems, is only fair play.