Has anyone ever told you music made without "real instruments" isn't music? Electronic dance and hip-hop beats composed of synth bleeps and drum-machine crashes aren't for everybody — nor are songs built from repetitive samples, five-second loops of other songs stacked on top of one another. If there aren't guitars and other strings, it must be less than, right?
Those "real music" snobs couldn't be more wrong, and Jacomo Bairos and Sam Hyken of Miami's Nu Deco Ensemble have the orchestral arrangements to prove it. Their mad musical minds thrive on the connection between contemporary pop and classical beauty. And for their latest trick, they've set 23 minutes of French touch icons Daft Punk into an emotionally moving suite, Humans vs Robots.
"Sam and I both wanted to reimagine what the possibilities were for an orchestra in the 21st century," Bairos says via email. "We hoped to excite Miami audiences with something fresh, eclectic, and innovative. The traditional symphonic orchestra, minus a few dedicated ensembles, is largely a legacy institution. This is beautiful and a wonderful way to preserve incredible composers and their masterpieces. However, we wanted to challenge the notion that orchestras can only play certain styles of certain periods, even with certain instrument combinations."
The tension of organic and synthetic elements is at the heart of Daft Punk's nearly 30-year career. The world-famous duo shies away from the spotlight; since 2001 they've appeared as leather-clad robots hidden by glowing helmets. Their early music mines the grittiest electronic noise to create infectiously-funky disco hooks, and it's that dichotomy Bairos and Hyken couldn't help but explore.
"They seem to always defy genre, constantly reinvent themselves, and as they have evolved, have become more and more acoustic in many ways," Bairos says. "Having started out super-underground to rise over the years to become such an influential creative force, reimagining their own sound over and over, made them the perfect group whose essence we wished to try and capture in an orchestral suite."
Humans vs Robots digs mainly into Daft Punk's melodic 2001 classic Discovery and it's 2014 Grammy Album of the Year Random Access Memories, which Hyken says "offer a wonderful counterpoint between their more electric and more acoustic sounds."
"Daft Punk's music very much lends itself to orchestration," he continues, "with the music having a very baroque like quality. I highlight this throughout the work, by removing drums and rhythm section elements."
Daft Punk is no stranger to orchestras, though. The duo got behind the conductor's podium when scoring Disney's 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy. Nu Deco's suite opens in that ghostly world.
"It is such a unique sound, and I begged Sam to include it," Bairos says. "This to me feels like the minimalism of Reich and Phillip Glass meets J.S. Bach and Greek synth pioneer Vangelis. To watch the suites grow and evolve into completely new versions of the originals is what I'm so proud of. I feel Sam and his team of writers always come up with a new way and the new sound to express the original artist's work. The orchestra has no boundaries on the colors and palate it creates. Ultimately, we hope to raise these artists' music to elevated to new heights."
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Humans vs Robots was first performed in 2017 at the Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood. It's now released in a stunning video (see above). You'll dance, you'll cry, and mostly you'll be wildly impressed.
Previously, Nu Deco has given Outkast, Radiohead, and Kraftwerk the classical treatment and collaborated with acts like Macy Gray, Ben Folds, Danay Suarez, Kimbra, and Wyclef Jean. Earlier this year, Hyken found himself onstage at the Latin Grammys with Bad Bunny after he collaborated with the reggaeton superstar for his live performance.
In September, the orchestra announced it was moving to the Citadel after four seasons at Wynwood's Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. But since the pandemic, all performances have been put on hold.