Photos by Hedi Slimane; courtesy Final Fantasy.

Can you approach a symphony orchestra as though it’s an analog synth? That’s a question composers have asked since the first time they heard electronic sounds. It’s impossible to hear the 20th-century technology alongside the 19th-century technology without the one reframing your view of the other. Now, it will be tackled by the new album from composer/singer/violinist Owen Pallett, with an interesting cast of characters onboard, plus one imaginary ultra-violent farmer.

Pallett, who performs confusingly under the band name best known as a Japanese video game, Final Fantasy, is something really different in the artist scene right now. For years, the “new music” or “art music” landscape had begun incorporating elements of rock and pop songwriting, but his work seems to find an ease and intimacy that’s entirely his own. He’s also evidently a Max/MSP fan – see the site:

Final Fantasy gets filed clumsily under that catch-all “indie,” but the artist’s work is heavily influenced by contemporary chamber music and classical gestures. I imagine some people may actually find they hate the results, in asymmetrical combinations of ideas and wordy streams of lyrics. To me, though, those quirks can grow on you, carried by utterly gorgeous string writing. “He Poos Clouds,” with piano and string quartet, is an imaginative operetta inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Then there’s his video single from the beginning of this year, “Horsefail Feathers,” seen below. It epitomizes Pallett’s unusual tastes, mixing quasi-surrealist lyrics, lush, movie musical-style arrangement, and a dose of self-aware awkwardness that could upset everything else but instead becomes charming.

It certainly made me wonder what would come next. At a time when many of us eliminate instrumentalists altogether, the upcoming “Heartland” will be 45 minutes of orchestra music, courtesy the Czech Symphony. To me, the relevance to this site is thinking about how to construct music, whether for instruments electronic or acoustic. In today’s announcement, Pallett says:

The album was compositionally modeled upon the principles of electronic music. The principles of analog synthesis informing symphonic writing, like an inversion of a Tomita record. These songs, too, were designed to be as dense with polyphony as the Final Fantasy live shows can become. While writing it, I kept an image in my head of putting so many notes on the page that the paper turned black.

The first album for Domino, Heartland has an unusual subject matter: the lyrics are sung from the perspective of “a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator” in the fictional realm of Spectrum. There are some fascinating collaborators, too: ongoing collaboration with Arcade Fire’s drummer Jeremy Gara, a guest appearance by composer Nico Muhly (whose new music is strongly influenced by his work with Philip Glass, without being derivative), mixing by Animal Collective producer Rusty Santos, and a number of others.

After our extended discussion in comments about what constitutes an appropriate artist for CDM, Final Fantasy is not really digital music. But it does promise an interesting interview on the “creation” side, and – given that many brilliant artists find it tough to be articulate in interviews – I know that’s what matters when I have my choice.

The new album is due in January.

  • Lutins

    The orchestra as synth thing is generally called Spectral Music: first seriously explored by Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail in the 70s

  • @Lutins: Well, that'd be one way to approach it. Spectral music's answer was essentially to interpret the resulting sound spectrum in the instruments. Of course, if you're thinking of a modular, you might think more in terms of the components in the signal chain – filters, etc. I have no idea what he means here, so I look forward to asking him. There have been more ideas about translating back and forth between orchestra and electronics than I could count, so I wouldn't even try to scratch the surface in a story like this… and Owen's stuff is worth checking out on its own.

  • FailedSitcom

    Great article Peter, Mr Pallett has been a big influence on me musically for a long time now and I think everybody can learn something from what he's doing.

  • Joel

    I saw Owen open for the Arcade Fire in Atlanta a few years ago. At the time I'd never seen anybody use a loop pedal/program to make live overdubs to build an arrangment. The gimmick was that it was just a guy and a violin, but as the layers built up the sound he got was phenomenal.

  • Karl P

    I had the pleasure to help with the monitoring setup at one of Mr. Pallets gigs some weeks ago. Yes, an orchestra was involved (Radio Symphony Orchestra Austria), and they played Live together with Mr. Pallett. I can assure you, Peter, that Owen Pallett qualifies to the highest extent as an "electronic musician". I have never seen anyone using loopers, pedals, his laptop and his audio interface as musically and dynamically as Owen Pallett live. I couldnt believe how he build up complex textures with his voice and violin, balanced this whole loop-texture throughout a song, and gradually brought it back to silence. absolutely amazing. And yes, the orchestra had to catch up his live loop tempo (no click track), which worked remarkably well (with the help of a conductor and a couple of small monitor wedges).

  • s ford

    I'd seen quite a few people with loopers before I saw Final Fantasy live, and I was a little underwhelmed by his live set. Not that I couldn't appreciate his talent, but I felt there were others not only who's music appealed more but used the looping thing a lot better.

    If he's ever playing live again, I cannot recommend Manyfingers enough. In his live sets, he loops acoustic guitar, drums, piano and cello to name a few instruments. I cannot recommend him. Often plays cello with Matt Elliott/Third Eye Foundation.

  • Looping has, of course, become pretty common – but that's all the more reason not to judge him on his loops alone. Should be an interesting conversation, and most importantly, I get to hear an advance of whatever the new album sounds like. Right now, I have no idea (other than knowing about the ultraviolent farmer), so until then, all bets are off!

  • Final Fantasy RULES. I sound like a beer guzzling idiot (which I am only on occasion), but I mean it. The two times I've seen Owen play live were in our tiny little den of wonder, The Phog Lounge, here in Windsor Ontario. Both times he absolutely blew my mind and heart wide open.

    What makes his looping approach different is that the phrases are really really long… so long that you forget he is looping. When parts come around he adds strange little fills that take you by suprise. Simple genius.

  • Parker

    I don't really get how this is supposed to be modeled after an analog synth. Seems like the article dances around the idea for a bit but then doesn't explain what, exactly, that means.

  • @Parker: It dances around it because I'm not sure yet what he means; when I talk to him, I'll ask!

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