From Daft Punk to ballet: Thomas Bangalter makes full swing to classical
When a leading contemporary choreographer approached Thomas Bangalter to score a ballet using a symphonic orchestra, the former Daft Punk co-creator leapt at the chance.
“I was very attracted by the idea of writing for the orchestra, and orchestrating myself,” a soft-spoken Bangalter told NPR’s A Martínez. This was his first major solo endeavor since Daft Punk disbanded in February 2021, though the project actually took root long before, in 2019.
Angelin Preljocaj choreographed this commission by the Opéra National de Bordeaux. Composing the accompanying music allowed Bangalter to return to the dance of his youth in Paris, where his mother was a ballet dancer and his father a songwriter and producer. The first performance took place in July 2022.
On Friday, French classical label Erato released the 23-track instrumental score for Mythologies, composed for symphony orchestra. The inspirations are drawn from Baroque compositions (à la Jean-Philippe Rameau) and American minimalism (such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass), rather than the broad rock, house and jazz influences — and samples — behind Daft Punk.
Not Daft Punk anymore
While the music makes a definite break from the dynamic, thumping sheen of the electronic duo, it is still dance music, with its own idiosyncrasies. And there are subtle echoes of a now bygone era in the way Bangalter uses the orchestra.
His approach to melding different melodies and sections is akin to sampling — reusing and modifying pieces of existing music, which Daft Punk used heavily. There is little counterpoint, with the melodic lines mostly distinct rather than combined. Most of the tracks resemble a patchwork — albeit a unified one — of various, often short, components artistically sewn together.
These vignettes of sorts also match the broad narrative arc of the project, featuring fragments of various foundational myths. There are references to the Gemini (Castor and Pollux), Zeus, Danae, the Minotaur, the naiads, Aphrodite and Icarus. “It allowed a certain freedom and creativity that would take away the fear of the process maybe for me,” Bangalter explained.
But whether mixing electronics or writing for an orchestra, Bangalter says he’s working “with the same love of contrasts and oppositions, in very sweet things and very violent things, going from one thing to another.”
The seeds for Mythologies were sewn years earlier, when Daft Punk mixed electronics with a symphony orchestra for 2010’s sci-fi action film Tron: Legacy. But Joseph Trapanese, not Bangalter, arranged and orchestrated that score.
After three decades of working with synthesizers, drum machines, guitar pedals and computers, Bangalter says he found the constraints of classical music to be liberating. “There’s somehow a fixed palette with the orchestral music, but there is still an infinity of things you can do with that fixed palette,” he said. “In electronic music, there’s some kind of infinity of sounds available to you. And somehow that infinity of sounds becomes a little bit troubling and disconcerting, and you don’t even know anymore where to start in some sense.”
Ultimately, Bangalter says, writing music for dozens of individual musicians brings him “closer to human heartbeats.”
‘Climbing a mountain’
The task was a daunting one. And a lengthy one too, involving some 220 pages of notes to create just 90 minutes of music. “It was like climbing a mountain… The first thing when you start with a blank paper is, ‘How am I going to get there?'” he said.
Bangalter studied piano as a child and later took up bass guitar after meeting Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — with whom he later formed Daft Punk — while attending the Lycée Carnot school in Paris. They launched the rock band Darlin’ at the time with Laurent Brancowitz, who himself later joined the pop rock group Phoenix. A negative review dismissed Darlin’ as “daft punky thrash,” which ultimately inspired the name for the groundbreaking duo Bangalter and de Homem-Christo subsequently formed.
With little formal musical training, Bangalter took a crash course in classical composition to prepare for what became Mythologies. He pored over orchestration and music theory treatises, including a seminal 19th century one by Hector Berlioz. “At each page and each bar, I was trying to keep a fresh ear and a fresh eye about things to experiment and rules to follow and rules to break,” Bangalter said.
He also developed a “fruitful relationship” with the conductor of the orchestra with whom he recorded the album, Romain Dumas of the Orchestre national Bordeaux Aquitaine, who also happens to be a composer. And Bangalter avoided writing at the keyboard, as he once had for Daft Punk.
Composing can be a rather “solitary process,” Bangalter remarked, but that changed entirely come rehearsal time, with 20 dancers, a 55-piece unamplified orchestra and numerous technicians in Bordeaux’s 18th-century opera house.
Daft Punk may now be “a thing of the past,” but Bangalter says he’s still keeping his drum kits and synthesizers. “We’re very happy and very proud and in peace with how fortunate we were to express ourselves so freely and how we were able to express what we wanted to express together,” he said.
The audio version of the interview was produced by Barry Gordemer and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear it, use the audio player at the top of the page.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
You might not know what they look like, but you probably know the music they made.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ONE MORE TIME”)
DAFT PUNK: (Singing) One more time, we’re going to celebrate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “AROUND THE WORLD”)
DAFT PUNK: (Singing) Around the world. Around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER”)
DAFT PUNK: (Singing) Harder, better, faster, stronger.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE GAME OF LOVE”)
DAFT PUNK: (Singing) When you decided to walk away.
MARTÍNEZ: That is Daft Punk, the now-defunct house music duo from France who kept their faces hidden under shiny robot helmets. Thomas Bangalter was half of that group, and this is the music he’s making now.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “VII. TREIZE NUITS”)
MARTÍNEZ: Today, Bangalter releases his debut album of classical music titled “Mythologies.” It turns out a techno music composer writing classical music is not as much of a stretch as you might think.
THOMAS BANGALTER: In 2019, the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj contacted me to write an orchestral score for a ballet commissioned by the Opera National de Bordeaux in France. And it was an interesting coincidence because I was very attracted by the idea of writing for the orchestra and orchestrating myself.
MARTÍNEZ: So this is something that you’ve been thinking about doing.
BANGALTER: Yes. I had with Daft Punk previously worked with an orchestra, and I really wanted to really write for the specific different instruments and do the orchestration myself.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “V. LES AMAZONES”)
MARTÍNEZ: I remember back when I was in my 20s going to raves, the whole point of why I loved it – because the music happened in a very spontaneous manner. So considering that that’s how most people know your music, how do you kind of just extract yourself from that and create this?
BANGALTER: When I think about spontaneity, it’s about doing things in the moment. And obviously, writing 220 pages of sheet music and score for the orchestra is a long process, but at each page and each bar, I was trying to keep a fresh ear and a fresh eye about things to experiment and rules to break, going from techno and then here working with ballet music, but with the same love of contrast and oppositions in very sweet things and very violent things, going from one thing to another.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “XV. ARES”)
MARTÍNEZ: What was the most fun part about this for you?
BANGALTER: I guess the most fun was – my mother was a ballet dancer, and so I was raised in that environment with choreography and dancing classes. And to reemerge and imagine the rhythms and the motifs for the dancers to dance to was fun. It was a quite solitary process. And when we got to the starting of the rehearsals and seeing these 20 dancers, 55-piece orchestra and all the technicians around, it became, like, more than a hundred people to make this performance happen. It’s fun. It’s fun going from this aspect of solitude to a collective spirit.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “VIII. DANAE”)
MARTÍNEZ: What was the most frustrating part, the most difficult part about this?
BANGALTER: It was like climbing a mountain. The piece is about 90 minutes long, and the first thing when you start with a blank paper is, how am I going to get there? You know, it’s not even about how stylish you climb the mountain. It’s really, are you going to be able to climb that mountain and give that music to the dancers? I guess the fact that it was all these mythologies in some kind of fragmented way was reassuring because it had some narrative arc, but it was also pretty open. So it allowed a certain freedom and creativity that would take away the fear of the process.
MARTÍNEZ: How is the language of classical music different than electronic music?
BANGALTER: It’s a different way of looking at infinite possibilities. There is somehow a fixed palette with the orchestral music, but there’s still an infinity of things you can do with that fixed palette. I’ve always loved, I think, constraints. In electronic music, there’s some kind of an infinity of sounds available to you, and somehow that infinity of sounds become a little bit troubling and disconcerting, and you don’t even know where to start.
MARTÍNEZ: Did I hear you right when you said that you love constraints?
BANGALTER: I love some constraints because it’s triggering creativity in an interesting way. I think in terms of the tools to have some limitation has always been challenging and interesting at the same time. The other aspect, which is fascinating to me, is to get away from technology and closer to the, you know, human heartbeats.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “XIII. LE MINOTAURE”)
MARTÍNEZ: Now, Thomas, I’m not going to ask you whether there’s a chance in the future that Daft Punk gets back together. But is that music in your past now?
BANGALTER: I think Daft Punk as a group and as a collective and as what we expressed and experimented is something from the past. But in terms of medium and ways to explore things, I’ve not thrown away the drum machines and the synthesizers that I was using. So I see more of the fact that this project that Guy-Manuel and I have been doing for almost 30 years is something from the past, and we’re very happy and very proud and in peace with how fortunate we were to express ourselves so freely and how we were able to express what we wanted to express together.
MARTÍNEZ: It’s good to hear that you have not thrown away the drum machines. That’s composer Thomas Bangalter. His album is called “Mythologies,” and it’s out today. Thomas, thank you very much.
BANGALTER: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF THOMAS BANGALTER’S “XIX. CIRCONVOLUTIONS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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