Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter reveals himself: As a composer

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Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter reveals himself: As a composer
After more than two decades at the forefront of electronic dance music (while in a robot-style helmet), the French artist is releasing “Mythologies,” a score for traditional symphony orchestra.

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- The most shocking part of “Mythologies,” a ballet that premiered last summer in Bordeaux, France, came after the dance was over. It was a seemingly normal moment: The composer of the music came out and took a bow.

What was surprising was that his face and his wild halo of dark curls were showing. After spending more than 20 years in public behind shiny, opaque robot-style helmets as half of pathbreaking dance-music duo Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter was ready to be seen without barriers.

“There’s nothing sensational about it,” Bangalter, 48, said on a recent video call. “It’s down to earth, my relationship to physical appearance that I feel now.”

“Mythologies,” Bangalter’s first major solo project since Daft Punk announced its dissolution in February 2021, is arriving on Friday as an album on Erato, a distinguished French classical label. Conceived in 2019, long before Daft Punk’s breakup, it is a 90-minute instrumental score for traditional symphony orchestra, with nary an electronic sound in the mix.

“With electronic music, it’s so hard and it takes so much time to infuse emotion in the machines,” the soft-spoken and thoughtful Bangalter said from his home in Paris. “So, to write a chord or a melody and have the performers — human beings — play it and have this instant emotional quality to it, is really quite exhilarating. It’s not the fight you have against machines.”

“Mythologies” revels in the palpably human effects of an acoustic ensemble: the trembling friction of bows on strings; the exhalations of breath into brasses; the grumble of bassoon, with audible clicks of fingers on keys. The ballet is a stylized parade of myths from the distant past, but for Bangalter, the project also has a kind of post-apocalyptic, back-to-basics optimism: “After everything, the violin will remain.”

Even without the buffed, gleamingly artificial sheen and pumping tempos of Daft Punk’s trademark sound, much of the sprawling, 23-track new album does have the clean, poised formality and propulsive rhythmic regularity of Vivaldi and Bach — and of techno.

“It was definitely a journey of learning and experimenting,” Bangalter said. “How to orchestrate, as well as the value of trial and error, and also exploring the ’70s or the ’80s. But not the 1970s or 1980s — the 1880s, or the 1780s.”

The 1970s and ’80s are very much in the score, though, in the form of brooding, endlessly cycling small cells of material, like that in the work of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, both favorites of choreographers. Relentlessly repeating small cells of material is also the way many electronica songs, including Daft Punk’s, are built.

No one will mistake “Mythologies” for Bangalter’s work with his longtime musical partner, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. But this new project is as much a continuum with Daft Punk as it is a break or rejection. The duo’s soundtrack “Tron: Legacy” (2010) blended electronic sounds with a symphony orchestra (although, unlike “Mythologies,” Bangalter didn’t arrange those orchestrations himself).

A sense of ambivalence about technology permeates the slouchy, melancholy mood of “Random Access Memories” (2013), the group’s last album, which was lauded for “restoring a human touch to dance music” and celebrating liveness over computerized composition. “Mythologies” is, in a sense, another step in that direction.

“It’s a break of medium, but he’s the same person,” said Romain Dumas, who has conducted the work in its live performances and on the new album.

A large-scale dance score is also a return of sorts to Bangalter’s youth in Paris, where he was surrounded by choreography, both classical and modern. His mother was a ballet dancer, and his father was a songwriter and producer; as a child, Bangalter took piano lessons from a member of the music staff of the Paris Opera.

But from his late teens, he and Homem-Christo began to explore a style they thought of as retrofuturist, borrowing elements from the past — disco, ’80s electropop, R&B — to build an increasingly grand vision of joyful populism, touring with an enormous pyramid-shape stage set and taking on their robot personas in a spectacle simultaneously ironic and sincere. Thanks, in large part, to Daft Punk, dance music went fully mainstream.

It had been six years since the release of “Random Access Memories” when Bangalter was approached, in mid-2019, by choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who had used Daft Punk’s music in his work in the past.

“At first, I was interested to mix electronic music and symphonic, like they did in ‘Tron,’” Preljocaj said. “But I think Thomas wanted to have a completely new experience. He proposed to me to write a completely orchestral score, and, obviously, I respected his desire.”

Marc Minkowski, a renowned baroque maestro who until last year directed the Opéra National de Bordeaux, where the ballet premiered, recalled: “Angelin said, ‘I have a friend who’s one of the Daft Punks.’ And they were so popular in France, it was like ABBA. He told me that his friend was about to start composing, and wanted to do something completely different. And I said, ‘Wonderful.’ I love crossover; I’m a conductor, and my dream is to accompany Lady Gaga in musicals.”

The ballet’s mythology theme and its music arose in tandem: Bangalter sought a kind of story scaffolding from Preljocaj to begin to structure his writing, and Bangalter’s initial sketches inspired in Preljocaj the idea of exploring a range of myths, rather than a single narrative.

Bangalter read classic treatises on orchestration — the art of how to properly use the different instruments and balance them — by Hector Berlioz and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. To write the score, he abandoned not only the computer but the keyboard, at which he would compose during the Daft Punk years.

“Right away, I said I’m going to write everything at the desk,” he recalled. “I don’t want to be limited, both harmonically and rhythmically, by my own limitations at the piano.”

But old habits died hard. “He was coming from an electronic world,” said Dumas, “so some ideas were very odd and very difficult to do for humans. For example, in ‘Zeus,’ that’s one cell that’s repeating for like three or four minutes; that was very hard to do for an orchestra.”

It’s a paradox: Bangalter clearly relished the human touch and immediacy of classical music, the sound of dozens of musicians playing together, unamplified, in Bordeaux’s 18th-century opera house. (Alain Lanceron, head of Erato, said Bangalter insisted on going back to the label’s original logo — “very, very classical and old-fashioned and traditional” — for the album cover.)

But he also, just as clearly, missed the minute control he was used to — and the effects that only technology makes possible. When it came time for making tweaks, Dumas said, they weren’t big ones.

“It was tiny elements that were changing: ‘We’re going to add a dot at this point, or change it to another dynamic and mix it with this little thing,’” he said. “As human interpreters, this kind of subtlety was kind of hard to do sometimes; it’s the kind of precision you can only have with machines.”

Deep in the collaboration on “Mythologies” when Daft Punk’s split was announced, Preljocaj was surprised by the news. “I think these two guys are very, very demanding with themselves,” he said. “They are perfectionist, precise. I think they are not sure they will do something higher than the point where they were. I’m not sure of that, but it’s an intuition. And that shows the honesty of their work. They don’t want to produce something which is less than what they did.”

Bangalter still shares a studio and equipment with Homem-Christo, who saw “Mythologies” in Bordeaux. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“I’m very grateful for the freedom and the creative latitude that I was able to explore with my partner,” Bangalter said. “So it’s behind me now, but I’m really happy about it. I’ve always liked the idea of adding facets and possibilities more than shutting down ideas. The only thing it’s farewell to is Daft Punk, because that is in the past, but beyond that, there are many different things yet to explore.”

Those things might involve more film scores — he has collaborated several times with director Gaspar Noé — as well as work that is released with greater frequency than the sometimes glacial expanses between Daft Punk albums.

“Mythologies” does not represent goodbye to electronics. “I feel I’ve learned some things in this process that I would be happy to integrate in my future creative projects,” Bangalter said. “But what has always driven me is to go in one direction and then to do the opposite.”

There is one thing, though, that he has abandoned, irretrievably and happily.

“My priorities in the world in 2023 are on the side of the humans, not the machines,” he said. “I have absolutely no desire or intentions to be a robot in 2023. There is absolutely not one reason I would want to be one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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