For the past decade or so, techno pioneer and Planet E boss Carl Craig has been collaborating with a rotating cast of deft musicians and composers—working on translating some of his rave classics into orchestral pieces. Iconic tracks such as "At Les", "Desire", "Sandstorms", "Darkness" and "Dominas" have been reworked in collaboration with the composer Francesco Tristano and jazz musician Kelvin Sholar—for a brand new album called Versus. Before we dive into our chat with the Detroit hero, let us quickly run through the project's history from inception to now.
In 2008, Carl teamed up with Moritz Von Oswald, for the ReComposed project that saw the two friends and collaborators rework orchestral pieces by Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky. Since then, Craig began to involve orchestral music and versions of his own tunes into his always memorable DJ sets. One of the earliest outings of these orchestral versions was the Les Siècles Orchestra version of "At Les" in 2010. And, from there, Carl Craig began working more and more closely with composers and orchestras.
This isn't the first iteration of this project, or even your first involvement with orchestral music. You did the performance with Les Siècles Orchestra back in '08. Talk us through the history of this project.
Well, my friend and partner Alex had the bright idea of having my music performed by an orchestra. I grew up not specifically listening to orchestral music but there was tonnes of music when I was growing up that had orchestral versions; Muzak, elevator music, Motown music, Philadelphia International Music and Barry White as well. So I've always been interested in the sound of an orchestra. I used to play concert bass when I was in high school, but that was as close as I ever got to it. So Francesco Tristano had released the first album, Not For The Piano, and he has a rendition of [Derrick May's] "Strings Of Life", also one of [Jeff Mills'] "The Bells", and I thought that was amazing.
The history of the tracks, Francesco's history coming from being a student at Juilliard School, it made it more interesting for me. Miles Davis went to Juilliard and, of course, there's a whole bunch of other great visionaries that have come from that training. So we got together, picked out what tracks we felt were going to work best and then Francesco worked on the arrangements. Then Alex brought in Francois [Xavier Roth] to conduct it with his orchestra.
What was that selection process like? Where do you even start with such a huge list of releases?
Yeah, there is a lot of music to go through. He had some ideas and I had some ideas and we just tried to pick out the best in relation to what we could arrange for an orchestra. Something like "Darkness" has this very dynamic, cinematic quality to it and that's something that works very well on a minimal level, definitely. Of course, there are some pieces that just wouldn't work at all. What we had to keep in mind, what Francesco did with his arrangements, was he kept the arrangements to sound like my original compositions but he added parts that would make the performances be more interesting to the players as well as the listeners. We have this great rendition of "At Les"—it's something that's been bent in order to go further than what my versions have done.
I have this addiction to looking for new sounds and next level stuff.
Will this be the first volume of Versus? Do you plan to do more orchestral reworkings?
We don't have any outtakes. This took so long for us to finish the project, but what we have done over the last eight or ten years or whatever has been to develop a process, a formula to make it possible that when the next set of recordings are done, we can blaze through it a lot faster and have a result a lot quicker and that I would think was perfect. This album, for the most part, has not been released because I wanted it to be perfect. I did whatever I could to massage and manipulate the parts and add and subtract and do whatever so that it would be as close to perfect as anything could be.
Do you have any plans to compose original pieces for orchestras?
In time, it'd be possible to do this as new parts but I think what would come into play is that there'll be collaboration that I would feel necessary to do with new original pieces. So I can sit there and create something that would work on a level of electronic music, in my opinion, but there would have to be this connection with people who know the instruments to be able to translate what I do into something that would play. So it would probably be more collaborative, working with a conductor, an orchestra. I feel it's important to have people who understand what those instruments are supposed to sound like. Then we can make something that'll be great or even greater.
There's the Versus Synthesizer Ensemble tour as well. Is it a similar group of people that were involved with the album? How did this come together?
It's mainly synthesizer players and myself. It's a bit different. Francois won't be coming out with us, because we don't have the orchestra, but Francesco will be there. Also, one of my favourites and a great friend of mine for a long time, Kelvin Sholar is the musical director. He played on my album that I produced for Tribe; he went out with me on tour as Tribe. He's just a brilliant, brilliant musician.
What sort of challenges did you face revisiting that music with synths, while still keeping it original?
I've been producing records for 20 plus years and I know these tracks back and forth but I wanted them to still be new. On "Dominas", for instance, I didn’t use the same bass, for instance, on "At Les" and "Desire". I wanted to create new versions. It didn't have to be a '2017' version, but it has to be a new version. Arrangement has a lot to do with it. In jazz music, orchestral music, all these things, many times the arranger has some type of liberty to make the composition a bit more interesting or different or better worse. The Versus version of "At Les" is definitely different to the original version of "At Les" which is different to the live version of "At Les" which I did with Wendell Harrison and Mad Mike Banks. Kelvin Sholar plays on that one too.
So I guess it's like orchestral music, in that sense—no two versions are the same, depending on the players, the arrangement and the instruments. Was that always the intention, to create music that evolved over time?
I've always tried to do projects and music that wasn't the same. Technically, I could've made the same record over and over again from the time I started until now. Many people do that, where they have 20 songs that sound exactly alike. I never wanted to fall into that rabbit hole.
You set up Planet E fairly early on in your career. Do you think having that independent outlet has given you the freedom to do what you like?
Sure, yeah. I started out with the idea that I wanted to be on all the labels that I love: Warner Brothers, Wax Trax, any of that stuff. By starting out with [Derrick May's] Transmat, I managed to make records myself and not worry about anybody else.
Besides Versus, what's the release schedule for Planet E looking like?
I'm concentrating on Versus right now. We do have some current releases on Planet E like Niko Marks' Day Of Knowing album which is out now and Terrence Parker's, which comes out soon. Then the next step of what we're going to do with label releases is dependent whatever incredible music comes my way. That's the vision for the future of Planet E.
What about you, Carl Craig? What else have you got coming up?
Well, I still do my remixes, renditions of people's music... I'm just taking my time, because Versus was a big project—it took a lot out of me. I'll be focusing on more music, but I have this addiction to looking for new sounds and next level stuff so that's still my pursuit. When I find that point, then I'll bang it all over the world's head!