Although classical music is on the decline in America, it’s heartening to know that someone, somewhere in the world is attempting to revitalize it. Fred Thomas, a British composer and classical musician, is utilizing modern recording and post-production technologies to create unique compositions and reinventions of traditional classical music. Brian Eno was one of the first to pioneer the concept of “in-studio composition”—coming to the studio with the skeleton of a piece (a single melody played on an individual instrument, for example) and then layering other recorded sounds upon sounds, instruments upon instruments and experimenting until he had a finished product. By utilizing this kind of creative experimentation and exploring the realm of multi-track recording, Thomas is challenging the status quo of the classical music genre—a genre that’s been largely stagnant in the midst of rapidly developing innovations in sound and recording technology.
Released last month, Thomas’ newest album, electrofeit, is a compilation of Bach compositions revisited and reinvented through the post-production process of in-studio composition. His use of sound techniques derived from film, such as panning, zoom, cuts and fades is merely scratching the surface of complexities within his “electronic counterfeit” production (i.e. electrofeit). Thomas draws significant influence from Glenn Gould, a Canadian classical pianist and composer, famous not only for his virtuosity as a 20th century classical musician, but also for his unexpected departure in 1964 from the world of live performance to embrace the studio as the future of music—one of controlled experimentation and a means of removing music from the confines of the ephemeral into that of the spatial, existing anywhere, anytime. Meanwhile, the rest of the classical music world held fast to tradition.
Now, 51 intransigent years later, you have Fred Thomas playing the organ in St. Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire with a ten-microphone setup, each one strategically placed around the room to record a specific tone of the performance, each model of microphone chosen for that clearly defined purpose. Thomas plays the entirety of the compositions he’s selected for electrofeit as one whole set, treating it as a live concert of Bach fugues, each piece a sort of dialogue between two or more parts, or “voices”. Afterwards, he has his skeleton.
In a 1979 lecture at the first New Music America Festival, Brian Eno discussed multi-track recording as a breakthrough in traditional compositional thought: “One [a composer] becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was... It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter—he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc.” Eno goes on to explain his role as a composer in light of newly developed recording technology, “So I think there is a difference in kind between the kind of composition I do and the kind a classical composer does. This is evidenced by the fact that I can neither read nor write music, and I can’t play any instruments really well, either. You can’t imagine a situation prior to this where anyone like me could have been a composer. It couldn’t have happened. How could I do it without tape and technology?”
The innovation of recording technology in the music industry and creative process has only continued to expand in influence and scope since Eno championed it in the early 1970’s. The practice of sampling that emerged from in-studio composition was the foundation of what many consider to be the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” with artists like The Beastie Boys and De La Soul incorporating clips of other music and topical audio recordings into their songs and lyrics. Thus engendering a social commentary and, at times, politically engaged conversation between musician and listener.
To this day, the significant influence that in-studio composition had on pop music and hip-hop music has been largely unseen and its possibilities underexplored within the classical music genre. Thomas, who started playing piano at the age of three and grew up with strong musical influences from his father, a classical violinist, echoes Eno’s sentiments by stating, “My attitude, taken from Gould's cue, is instead to treat the recording technique absolutely as an independent and creative artform.” In this way, electrofeit is not a cover or tribute album, but a creative product and work of art wholly his own. Bach’s compositions are but the initial layer of his aural palimpsest.
For the making of electrofeit, Thomas’ creative process took place mainly in his studio, where he selected individual “voices,” or strands of melodies from the main, skeletal recording, then rearranged these in layers to create his final product. With this repetitive overdubbing process, Thomas is telling the listener a story; his interpretation of an historical narrative. “Electrofeit takes pieces from many different keyboard works and arranges them in a narrative way that means something to me at least,” he says when discussing the act of reproducing music of the past.
Just as Brian Eno considers himself a composer beholden to the studio and constantly evolving recording technologies, Thomas is now pioneering this methodology in the classical genre. He is opening the doors for classical music to be heard in the precise manner the composer intends for it to be, without the loss of transmission that occurs from traditional composition, to conductor, to individual musicians in a live performance. Electrofeit has a sound that is both more full and resonant than typical Bach recordings, with a sonic depth that can only be paralleled in music and film genres outside of the traditional. His use of overdubbing and panning allows for the inherent polyphonic nature of the music to come to life for any listener, anywhere, at anytime, in the exact manner that he intends it to be heard. Of course, headphones are a must for this experience:
Electrofeit is the first in a trilogy of soon-to-be-released Bach albums by Thomas in collaboration with other classical musicians. It is available to stream on Spotify and for purchase on The Silent Howl website.