Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter on embracing a new musical challenge: writing a ballet
Wednesday, June 21, 2023
The former member of electronic music duo Daft Punk on writing his ballet Mythologies
My mother was a ballet dancer, one of the dancers at the founding of the Ballet-Théâtre Contemporain, the national contemporary dance company that started in 1968. So being surrounded by dancers, choreographers and this atmosphere, was my first confrontation with classical music. I started piano lessons when I was six, and my teacher was the pianist for the ballet rehearsals at the Paris opera – he was almost a character from another era.
My first memories of symphonic music were through films. When I was three or four years old, my parents had this old video recorder and they would play Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Chaplin having written the music along with David Raksin, and I was fond of this very lyrical and sweet symphonic music. And my grandparents on my father’s side had this ritual that they would do with my father when he was a child, one that we continued, which was on Christmas Eve to listen almost religiously to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for me to create music without the use of machines – music that could have been performed 100 years ago
I stopped piano classes around 12 – I don’t think I had the discipline, and I don’t think I was playing particularly well, although I realise now that as soon as I stopped the lessons I kept on going towards the piano and improvising or writing music and ideas. But I’m a really poor player, and for this ballet project I decided to actually not write it on the piano – I’ve written a lot of music, pop songs and things, on the piano before, but they were usually just four or eight chord loops. Here I didn’t want to be limited by this idea, so I wrote it directly on the score.
Angelin Preljocaj [the choreographer] approached me and asked if I was interested in the idea of writing a ballet. It was definitely my first time writing for the orchestra per se. I had worked with orchestras in the past but always with orchestrators and arrangers. That was what was the most appealing part of this invitation, to really delve into this process and to crack this code of what writing for an orchestra is.
I must say that I was very scared and reluctant initially. I went to Bordeaux to meet the company and visit the theatre – which was built in 1780, so has a soul of its own, and this was the first source of inspiration for me when I considered what kind of music I would want to hear, or would want to write to be performed, in that place. Then I said I’m going to go away and experiment, and will come back in a few months with some sketches – I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page, as the last thing I would want is to work on a project where we would have a different perspective, a blind date which would not lead to a common vision. So at this point, before writing a note, I opened Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz’s treatises and spent about six months delving deeply into them, and listening to a lot of music. There’s about 90 minutes of music in the final work, but I initially wrote about 20 sketches of 1 minute each.
I’m aware of references in the music, but they’re spontaneous and instinctive. From the start I liked the idea of something that would sometimes be quite minimal and at other moments anti-minimal, almost, and to have these colours co-existing – sometimes being quite simple harmonically and other times quite dissonant. Angelin had an initial desire for it to involve some electric elements, but I was pretty anxious to have to confront myself with the orchestra as a whole, and to create a work that would not involve amplification or electricity. And philosophically, at a time when electricity is the basis of the technology that we live with now, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for me to create music without the use of machines – music that could have been performed 100 years ago, and could be performed many hundreds of years from now. I’ve written melodies and harmonies for 30 years but the orchestra is definitely a different beast, so I went in with humility, ready for the accidents and surprises I’d face.
Interview by Martin Cullingford
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today