Heated criticism accompanied the ARIA FinE Art & Artisan Awards last week when Sydney electronic dance music duo Flight Facilities took out the award for best classical recording for their album Live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The win prompted incredulity from The Australian’s Matthew Westwood, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel and Tone Deaf’s Greg Moskovitch among others.
ABC Classics manager Toby Chadd told The Australian: “It feels like something is potentially wrong with the ARIA system to allow an album whose credentials are clearly in no way classical to win the classical award. It has the potential to damage the integrity of that award.”
Zuel said it was a controversy waiting to happen, given the way the ARIA classical category is defined: “There is nothing in the wording of the criteria for the best classical album category that specifically addresses the question of what would constitute a classical recording”.
The criteria for any album submitted to the ARIAs are simply that it must have been made in Australia and that at least 50 percent of the personnel involved are Australian nationals.
Flight Facilities with their MSO collaborators clearly passed that test, but the question really concerns the nature of the orchestra’s contribution. Is it merely fulfilling the role of an expanded synth, does it contribute in a more substantial capacity, or does it form an equal partnership with the band? An example of the latter is Hilltop Hoods’ The Restrung Tour earlier this year, in which arranger Jamie Messenger enlarged the orchestral role to become a counterpart to that group’s use of loops. Listening to Flight Facilities’ new album suggests something similar might have achieved here.
Hugo Gruzman and James Lyell, who make up the band, were probably surprised themselves by the win. When they found out they’d been nominated they said, “we don’t know how but thanks very much”. So would their fans be, one imagines, and anyone else in the electronic, dance and indie scenes.
On first blush it’s a really odd decision, but one that shows that these things don’t necessarily fall down into neat categories.
Flight Facilities themselves are eclectic. Their long list of collaborators, including Reggie Watts, Emma Louise and Kylie Minogue, attests to that. They may not have a “standard sound”, as Zuel suggests, but they do have a characteristic sound – spare, minimally produced, beat-oriented – and they have used orchestral synth in the past along with a large palette of other sounds.
Their win is indicative of a blurring of boundaries. Coming from the opposite direction, the MSO has been collaborating with numerous rock bands from at least as far back as 2003 when it teamed up with Kiss. We may take ‘classical music’ take to mean what all orchestras were doing historically, while accepting that they are no longer confined to doing this. Increasingly, the term refers to a large umbrella of different stylistic possibilities and permutations.
Indeed, nothing may have changed at all.