Devolution (2004) · 29 min

Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra

3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussionists, harp, electric guitar (doubling electric bass), DJ solo, strings

Commissioned by and first performed by Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony

Program Note

Devolution, Concerto for DJ and Orchestra, was specifically conceived for and tailored to DJ Spooky’s talents. It was written for the Oakland East Bay Symphony and conductor Michael Morgan, who premiered the piece on March 19, 2004. Although cutting-edge DJ turntables these days are actually digital, using digital sound files with interfaces that mimic the platter-mixer setup, the basic idea of turntable performance hasn’t changed since the early 1980s. (Spooky’s art is an expansion of the kind of turntablism that saw its first virtuosic solos in such performances as The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, a three-turntable improvisation from 1981.) The turntable artist creates a library of sound sources appropriate for the occasion and draws on those sources to create collage textures, beats and, importantly, a conversation among musical references meant to tap into the collective experience of the listener. It’s an improvisatory art with many pre-made ingredients. De Ritis provides a range of expressive cues to the soloist — “ambient,” “chaotic,” “trip-hop,” etc. The soloist also modifies and manipulates the source material.

The orchestra, too, works from pre-made material, in the form of Ravel’s Bolero and the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, chosen because both pieces were performed on the concert featuring Devolution’s premiere. But the two pieces also have similarities: a kind of cyclic, repetitive, steady-state quality. A third main “source” is De Ritis’s own music, which dominates the first part of the piece. Like the Ravel and Beethoven works, De Ritis’s own music employs ostinatos — that is, repeating patterns — and expansions of sustained harmony and orchestration that create a sense of organic growth, a sense that the music is “blooming” from a limited source. The big structure, linked to source, is De Ritis/Ravel/Beethoven/all of the above. In addition to enhancing the orchestral sound with various samples and sound effects, the DJ can supplement pre-recorded material with sampled and modulated music from the live orchestral performance in cadenzas that separate the episodes, somewhat like the idea of the ritornello/solo alternation of a Baroque concerto. The size of the orchestra is based on that required for the Ravel, plus electric guitar (doubling electric bass guitar) and extra percussion — five players, including three drum kits. The additions “update” the ensemble the better to mesh with the turntable sensibility. The appearance of Bolero immediately lends Devolution a surrealistic quality, not unlike Berio’s appropriation, in his Sinfonia, of the scherzo of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Spooky’s deconstruction (or devolution) intensifies the displacement of the familiar Ravel; the listener is both comforted by that familiarity and made uneasy by the new surroundings. The third episode is concerned primarily with the Beethoven Allegretto, which is followed — classical concerto-style — by a big (four-minute) solo improvised cadenza for the turntable artist. An orchestral coda, with a crescendo in homage to the gradual crescendos of the Ravel and Beethoven works, is an intense final mash-up. Although this recorded version of the piece is fixed in time, each new performance has the potential to sound quite different with the same basic musical elements. 

     – Robert Kirzinger, Director of Program Publications at Boston Symphony Orchestra

De Ritis’ “Devolution,” featuring DJ Spooky; OEBS, Michael Morgan, and G4 Tech TV (2004)

“In Devolution, De Ritis, essentially, creates a type of musical composition that gives space for the DJ (Paul D. Miller) to create, in real-time, an unexpected contrast between pre-recorded samples and real orchestral instruments; a kind of struggle between the profound nature of orchestral history and the potential of remixing. The result is a powerful musical reconstruction. Perhaps such steps can be significant towards bringing larger audiences to classical music?”

     – Ettore Garzia, Percorsi Musicali: Pensieri sulla musica contemporanea [Musical Paths: Thoughts on contemporary music] (February 24, 2013)

“What is important here is the layering and mixing of disparate materials. The almost half-hour composition gradually thickens and it turns into a kind of psychedelic chaos in which Ravel and Beethoven bite into each other like fighting dogs, a funky rhythm starts under the atonal orchestral surface, and the DJ scratches furiously. It’s as if there was a magical transformation…”

     – Matěj Kratochvíl, His Voice (December 31, 2012)

“Using warhorses as familiar as Ravel’s Bolero and Beethoven’s Seventh as fodder for sampling and remixing (by soloist and ensemble alike) fairly ensures that the manipulations are going to be noticeable, the fragments effortlessly grabbing one’s attention. But De Ritis has a knack for translating some measure of that composerly prerogative into a listener’s experience as well; Devolution is a musical evocation of the tactile malleability of music itself, the finished product explicitly indistinguishable from the act of assembling the parts. (The performance, under the direction of Gil Rose, is a blast, hitting the score’s marks with a kind of joyfully volatile precision.)”

      – Matthew Guerrieri, New Music Box (August 14, 2012)

“The collaboration between De Ritis’s score and Miller’s real time live manipulations and interjections makes this a work that is truly organic and can be heard differently each time it is performed. The resultant sounds – collision of styles, really – are all tonal but takes the listener through components that resemble minimalism, hip-hop, techno, aleotory and even some oddly appropriate direct quotes from Ravel’s Bolero and the Beethoven 7th! … There is almost no way to describe this music; it must be heard.”

      – Daniel Coombs, Audiophile Audition (July 31, 2012)

“Listening to Anthony Paul De Ritis’s Devolution is somewhat akin to watching a Tarsem film: The mixture of influences, references and textures is both blindingly apparent and blindingly gorgeous.”

     – Olivia Giovetti, WQXR (June 11, 2012)

“Miller’s and De Ritis’ collaboration yielded some awe-inspiring results. The audience spent much of Devolution immersed in an oozing sonic collage.”

     – Phillip Ratliff, The Birmingham News (January 17, 2010)

“The concerto is a minimalist discourse that dispels any notion that music is divided into categories. Hip-hop, classical, crossover, it doesn’t matter. Electronic samples from pre-recorded music are digitally manipulated and remixed, creating a surprisingly balanced blend with the orchestra.”

     – Michael Huebner, The Birmingham News (January 15, 2010)

“De Ritis’ composition was a fantastical experience.”

     – Janet Elizabeth Simpson, Pavo Magazine (January 15, 2010)

“De Ritis’s Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Orchestra was the most flashy in its mash-up of styles, especially with DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) as soloist. De Ritis gave Miller free reign, within an existing structure, to slice up samples of dance music and show off his virtuoso turntabling. Behind Miller, the composer interwove his own music with parts of Ravel’s Bolero and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony… the piece felt like a rich tapestry in the spirit of Charles Ives, who once composed the music of two colliding marching bands. De Ritis’s collision entailed two symphony orchestras, a new music ensemble, and a sophisticated rave.”

     – Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe (May 21, 2007)

“Then came Anthony de Ritis’ Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Orchestra. That’s when delight was joined by wonder and deep pleasure. DJ Spooky, aka Paul D Miller, accompanied the orchestra through a world that was sometimes lush and resolved, but more often with layers and tropes that clashed or played over each other in a way that evoked the feelings I have in my everyday engagements with media, technology, and life. I felt the past brought right out on stage with the present.”

     – Rekha Murthy, Punctuated Equilibrium (May 20, 2007)

“This work seized the audience by the ribs and tickled them silly until the ending… The audience loved it, and for good reason.”

     – Peter Bates, Stylus (May 19, 2007)

“De Ritis’ concerto is everything you would expect from a work that features a DJ – brash, rhythmic, propulsive and, at times, completely engaging… There were moments when Devolution evoked a sense of time stopping, reversing, accelerating and finally sliding off the tracks and breaking through some kind of invisible barrier, and the combination of live performance and sampled sound was undeniably arresting.”

     – Georgia Rowe, Contra Costa Times (March 22, 2004)

“…a technological update on the quotation tradition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and Ives’s Fourth Symphony. But beyond bowing to the pressure to hip up the orchestra, De Ritis and Spooky widened the palette of that tradition, as well as imbuing it with a new kind of hall-of-mirrors logic that could pave the way to a submersion of the orchestra in a world of technology.”

     – Kyle Gann, The Village Voice (October 12, 2004)

Devolution combined orchestral storm warnings (a la the Beatles’ A Day in the Life)… Devolution confirmed that the turntable has been reinvented as a bona fide musical instrument, and that the worlds of classical and futuristic pop are not, in fact, mutually exclusive.”

     – James Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2004)

View Score

Devolution was recorded on December 20, 2009 at Mechanics Hall (Worcester, MA) by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose; and released on BMOP/sound 1022, on April 30, 2012.