The resonant note of a woodwind instrument tuning, the plucking of a string, the scrape of a chair and the shuffling of paper: all well-known and comforting sounds to anyone who has played in an orchestra. But this rumble isn’t in anticipation of a performance of Mozart, or Beethoven, rather Bastille’s ‘Pompeii’.
Bastille’s emotional rendition of ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’ featuring the London Contemporary Orchestra backed John Lewis’s 2019 Christmas ad – but this collaboration was not a one-off occurrence inspired by the Christmas spirit.
As the feature-length documentary film, Bastille: ReOrchestrated explores the four-piece band experimenting in performances featuring classical musicians and gospel singers since a charity show at London’s Union Chapel in 2017. Subsequently, the band toured a series of live shows, tweaking and reinventing the orchestral arrangements of their songs with each performance and growing in scale, reaching its pinnacle in a spectacular concert with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and a 12-piece choir at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie in January 2020.
At first glance, it seems a strange direction for a band like Bastille to take, spending their time reworking their existing catalogue of tunes from festival-favourite pop ballads to beautiful classical visions, rather than continuing to churn out successful chart-toppers. The frustration of the band’s booking agent Alex Hardee in reaction to this decision shines through in the documentary as equally as Dan Smith’s determined excitement at the creative journey he steered his fellow bandmates on.
In fact, the documentary further reveals the sense of apprehension and inferiority many of the band members had when faced with the large number of classically trained musicians they were now playing with, and the imposter syndrome and stage fright expressed is relatable and reassuring for any fellow musician to hear from a commercially successful band.
The fusion of these two groups – band and orchestra – came with some difficulties, as the musicians seemingly ‘spoke two different musical languages’ of beats versus bar numbers and letters, and some level of translation was needed between them. Overcoming small hurdles like this, and ultimately pushing forward with this creative idea proved to be extremely fruitful and rewarding for all the musicians involved.
This blending of pop and classical music has seen a recent resurgence in popularity in the positive reaction to the Vitamin String Quartet’s covers for the Bridgerton soundtrack, and if Bastille’s recent release of the ‘Roots of ReOrcehstrated’ EP is anything to go by, classical music’s foray into mainstream music charts is not ending any time soon. The combination of Smith’s narrative lyrics and pop-rock melodies with the variety of instrumentation in an orchestra adds depth and emotion to the reworked songs, providing listeners with even more layers of sound to enjoy.
Clips of performances in the documentary reveal a real variety of audience-members attended the band’s ReOrchestrated tour, but there’s no denying that the young demographic of Bastille’s typical concerts meant an opening up of classical music to a whole new group of people, reaffirming that classical music and orchestras really can be enjoyed by anyone, not just a certain group in society.
Furthermore, the success of the touring and released singles of this pop-classical reinvention presents another question: can music still be divided into such strict genres? Bastille’s music (and that of many other bands that fit into the enigmatic ‘Alternative’ genre) has always been hard to define. It remains unclear whether the band are definitively Pop, or Rock, or Electronic Dance – and can a band be called Indie if they are signed? Is the label revoked when they become popular in the mainstream?
Adding classical music in Bastille’s collaborations with classical musicians only confuses this further, but is overall indicative of a blending of genres nowadays that ultimately proves that any musicians who experiment even slightly in their work no longer conform to set genres. Arguably, ‘genre’ doesn’t really exist in music as we previously imagined it anymore.
With many musicians now booking for concerts set for Summer 2021, music fans are desperate to get back to that familiar atmosphere at the barrier of a rock concert, the buzz of the speakers in anticipation and the filling of a room until people are packed like sardines which now feels like a dream (or maybe a nightmare post-coronavirus). With restrictions slowly lifting, however, it might become more common to see a rock concert start with the gentle tap of a conductor’s baton on a music stand, instead.
You can listen to Bastille’s ReOrchestrated versions of their hits here.
Image: ‘Bastille, 2020’ by Press