William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings

If anything, in 1999, you would have known William Orbit for his production work on pretty much every pop hit of the year. Yes, they all had pretty much the same synth arpeggio on them – he loves synth arpeggios – but Madonna, All Saints, and plenty of others had benefitted from his work.

What you almost certainly didn’t know was that four years earlier, he had released an album of updated classical music, called Pieces in a Modern Style. Originally credited to The Electric Chamber, it had been speedily deleted following complaints from the estate of one of the composers. But now, with his new-found fame as a producer, Orbit was able to revisit the album, remove the two problem pieces, and replace them with some new ones. And, because he was now a mega-star, he also got two singles, the first of which came out twenty years ago this week.

That opening single was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, taking Samuel Barber‘s dramatic piece and bringing it to life in a modern way. The irony, of course, with Pieces in a Modern Style, was that they weren’t particularly – but with Ferry Corsten‘s intervention, the single version becomes huge. It opens with William Orbit‘s synth string work, just fattened a little, but then suddenly, after the first minute, it just ignites, with beats and a trance lead line. To describe it as anything other than explosive would be underselling it.

ATB takes much the same approach, opening with effect-laden strings, and bringing in his own trademark sounds after a minute or so. His reworkings only ended up being released in Germany, perhaps because they didn’t fit as well for the UK audience, or perhaps they just weren’t ready in time. ATB‘s sound was already well known at this time, and honestly his mix does sound very like everything else he had released. It’s nice enough, but does feel a little surplus to requirements.

Finally, it’s time to hear the original, cut down somehow from its nine-minute album form to be a four-minute radio-friendly version. I doubt this received much airplay, even on classical radio, but it’s good that the single gets the original in some form here. It’s a challenge for the listener, in a way, as many people buying this release would have done so for the first track, but you have to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful piece of music, realised perfectly here. If, perhaps, a little short.

The fourth track on the German single – and actually the lead track on the UK CD single – was Ferry Corsten‘s full 12″ mix. It’s great to hear him take his elements to a full club mix, but it’s also a little disappointing that he chose to open with a fairly dull introduction, with a bit of trance synth work, and a lot of beats. After the first couple of minutes, he just switches us straight into the radio version, which is entirely as it should be, but I could honestly have dispensed with the introduction there.

Finally, we get ATB‘s 12″ mix, and as with the previous track, it’s a little surprising that a piece of music that started off life with a duration of nine minutes seems so forced when turned into an extended dance mix. It’s a reminder, in a way, of how different the forms of classical and dance music have to be. Opening with a rhythm section just feels very dull, in this context.

Even if he didn’t create the single version himself, it was with Barber’s Adagio for Strings that William Orbit cemented his position as one of the finest producers and multi-instrumentalists of our time, and for that, we all owe it a lot.

We reviewed the German CD single, which is no longer available new, but can be found through various second-hand retailers.

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