Strings of techno: DSO joins Derrick May at Chene Park

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

As one of the architects of techno music, Derrick May has been exploring the inner workings of dance music for the past 30 years.

On Friday, his journey brings him home in a quite unexpected pairing when he performs at Chene Park alongside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Derrick May performs with the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014.

May has been teaming up with orchestras around Europe for the past year, including performances in Macedonia, Belgium and France. Friday’s performance with the DSO marks the North American debut of the ambitious, cross-genre, cross-cultural project, which finds May’s original works reinterpreted in an orchestral setting.

“What we’re doing is dance music through a classical forum for young people,” says May on the phone last week from Alameda, Spain. “That’s a paradox right there.”

When May was first approached with the idea, which brings new meaning to his signature 1987 track “Strings of Life,” he wasn’t sure if his music lent itself to an orchestral translation or if he even wanted to find out. But the project — dreamed up by producer Ognen Uzunovski and conducted by Dzijan Emin — has succeeded beyond what he ever imagined.

“Fear can overtake opportunity, and for a very brief time, I was afraid,” says May, who is credited with birthing techno music, along with his high school classmates Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. “I didn’t know if I could pull this off, I didn’t know if I could do this. I was finding myself surrounded by professional, accomplished musicians, people that were much more well-versed than myself. I was being asked to lead a group of individuals that were looking to me for the kind of responsibility that comes with producing an orchestra. This was a heavy thing. But we managed it, we made it happen.”

Emin took about a year re-transposing May’s songs including “Kaotic Harmony,” “Hand Over Hand” and May and Carl Craig’s “Frustration” — so they could be properly interpreted by a symphony orchestra. During that time, May went about his business, continuing his globe-trotting tour schedule that brings him to a different country every weekend.

As the first show approached, May took about three days and dove headfirst back into his material, and a light went on in his head.

“All the songs, the melodies, the rhythms, the keyboard progressions, everything just started coming back to me,” says May, 52. “It was really frightening that I was able to remember these songs and play them the way I could play them. I hadn’t played them in so long, I thought I’d forgotten forever.”

Everything came together at the first rehearsal, May says, and he was shocked hearing his songs reproduced by a full orchestra. “It was not fun,” he says. “It was magical.”

He expects the Detroit show — which will see him joined by classical pianist Francesco Tristano, whom May calls his “twisting, turning, jazz-classical freak” — to be even more magical. May first saw the DSO perform when he was on a school trip in early elementary school and watched DSO musicians perform many times over the years during trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Friday’s show also marks May’s first-ever performance at Chene Park, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary season.

“I wanted to do this at home, I wanted to have fun with it in Detroit, and I wanted to give people in the city a chance to know what it is that I do and what it is that all of us that have been making this music have been striving to do,” May says. “There are a lot of people who don’t know that techno music is born and bred in Detroit, so I think it’s important that this happens.”

The DSO is looking at it as an important performance, as well.

“This is something that is new to us, so we are definitely excited about what can come out of this concert,” says Chris Harrington, the DSO’s director of audience development. “I think we’re going to attract an audience that we don’t typically draw to Orchestra Hall.”

May’s first rehearsal with the DSO is scheduled for Wednesday, and everything will be ironed out by showtime on Friday.

The project which mirrors similar performances by Detroit techno DJ and producer Jeff Mills, who has also been performing his music with an orchestra — is a feather in the cap for May, but he doesn’t have time to slow down and take it all in. He just keeps on moving.

“There’s a moment when you’re doing it, when you’re living it, when you’re breathing it, you don’t have time to think about it. If you do think about it, you just might miss it, you might mess it up,” he says. “So I don’t have time to think about what it feels like to do it. All I know is it’s gotta get done and it’s gotta be the best it can possibly be.”


Derrick May and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Friday

Chene Park, 2600 E. Atwater, Detroit

Tickets $26-$65 or (313) 393-7128