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.
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