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Moby, cultural polymath, on a life of affinity with classical music

Travis Schneider
/
Deutsche Grammophon

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the name Moby was practically synonymous with the pulsing rhythms and edgy genre-blurring of electronic dance music. From crowded nightclubs to glossy TV commercials, Moby’s hits — including “Go”, “Move (You Make Me Feel So Good)”, and “Porcelain” — occupied a rare niche in the musical ecology, equally at home at the top of the charts and in the experimental underground.

Underpinning Moby’s success is an abiding passion for classical music. His journey as a musician began at age nine, when he started learning classical guitar, and later piano. After dropping out of college, he worked in a record store, deepening his knowledge of the classical canon while shelving classical LPs. On Saturday, Moby makes his debut with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of a concert celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Deutsche Grammophon. His set climaxes in a full-circle moment: Moby will join the Orchestra in his arrangement of Handel’s Sarabande, the first piece his childhood guitar teacher challenged him to transcribe.

This week I caught up with Moby over Zoom, where we discussed his love for Vaughan Williams and Debussy, his favorite memories of Philadelphia, and what it means to be a Deutsche Grammophon artist.


It's okay to call you Moby? I don't know what you actually go by in real life. 

Oh yeah. I've been called Moby since I was 10 minutes old. My legal name is Richard Melville Hall, but my parents had a sense of humor. After I was born, my dad decided that Richard Melville Hall was a great name for a lawyer or an accountant, but maybe not a 10-minute old baby. So, as I'm related to Herman Melville, they jokingly called me Moby. And now 58 years later, I am still stuck with my infant joke nickname.

I love it. It's evocative and memorable. When you were eight or nine years old, you started playing classical guitar, right?

Yeah. So what happened was… my mom dated some musicians. And one of the musicians she dated when I was growing up was a classical guitar player. And he kind of disappeared, but he left behind his record collection and his classical guitar. When I was around eight, I just started banging on this classical guitar. I came from a very musical family. My great-grandmother taught classical composition. Her claim to fame was that she actually taught classical composition to Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops.

No way.

My mom was a pianist, my uncle was a flutist. So I grew up surrounded by classical music. I had this classical guitar, and my mom ran into some guy, I think in the supermarket, who was giving guitar lessons. She signed me up for $5 a lesson and he gave me the most remarkable, idiosyncratic musical education. He played in a heavy metal band, but he loved jazz fusion and he loved music theory and classical music. One day we'd be looking at an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. The next day we'd be deconstructing Weather Report. And then the next day he'd ask me to transcribe Handel’s Sarabande.

That's fantastic. And unorthodox in the best possible way. It's funny you mentioned Handel’s Sarabande, because I saw a video you posted on Facebook a few months ago in which you play the Sarabande on both guitar and on the piano. And your own arrangement of the piece is being played at the Deutsche Grammophon 125th Anniversary Celebration with The Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend. What is it about this piece that still transfixes you? It seems like you've lived with it for a really, really long time.

When I was around nine or ten years old, as I mentioned, my guitar teacher asked me to figure out Handel’s Sarabande on classical guitar. The chord progression, the voicings are conventional and unconventional. So it's a really good lesson, going from D minor to A major. Up until that point, granted I was 10 years old, I didn't know you could do that. I didn't know you could incorporate dissonance in that way. And then I played it for my mom, who was a pianist, and she gave me this fun challenge. She said, “OK, now play it on piano.” But I didn’t know how to play piano. And that was my introduction to taking what I had learned on guitar and applying it to piano. Of course, it's a beautiful, iconic piece of music, but for me subjectively and personally, the fact that I get to, 50 years later, play it with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the first piece of classical music I ever had to learn on both guitar and piano…

Travis Schneider
/
Deutsche Grammophon

Quite full circle.

Yeah. I'm cautiously hopeful that my guitar teacher, Chris Rizzola, will actually be at the show. He's a bit older now, as we all are, but I've reached out to him and I'm hoping there's a chance that he'll be there. Fifty years later, he would get a kick out of seeing his student play Sarabande.

How did you go about making the orchestration?  

About six or seven years ago, I did my first ever orchestral concert with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I had done minor arrangements and orchestration before that, you know, working on film scores, et cetera. But this was the first time I ever was writing arrangements and orchestrations for an orchestra. And I fell in love with the process. Maybe this is cheating, I don't know, but given the fact that I have all these remarkable orchestral libraries at home, there's no guesswork. You're sort of writing the arrangements and the orchestration with orchestral libraries. So you get a sense of what it's going to sound like. I hope that's not cheating. Like maybe that's paint by numbers…

Orchestrating is very hard. There's no such thing as cheating.

I just love the process, and also coming at it from an unconventional perspective. I did a Deutsche Grammophon concert in Los Angeles about nine months ago, and it was with a quintet. I was intentionally writing parts for the quintet that were very unconventional — you know, having the bass playing high melodic parts, and having the viola playing the bass parts, and doing this swapping of what instruments would traditionally be playing. You can create dramatic tension with that.

Do you find arranging a natural extension of everything you've done in music so far? Is writing for orchestra daunting?

Well, that's what I found so interesting when I made my first record with Deutsche Grammophon. It was an orchestral greatest hits collection called Reprise. As I started opening up some older pieces of music of mine, I realized they'd already been arranged for orchestra just accidentally, because I had a lot of string parts and a lot of orchestral parts that on the original recordings were being played electronically. And so it was an interesting realization to recognize that the songs had already sort of been rudimentarily orchestrated and arranged. It's a process that — and I hate to say this — is not my day job. So I get to just have fun with it. I'm just trying to make something beautiful.

Besides Handel, are there other classical composers, pieces or styles of classical music that you find yourself referring back to? Or mining for inspiration as you make music? 

In the late 20th century, I was raised to love experimental fiction and experimental theater and experimental 12-tone classical music. But deep down, I didn't really like much of it. You'd go to these recitals or these theater performances, and deep down, you just wanted to be home watching The Simpsons and listening to Bach. And so I finally accepted I'm sort of a populist. You know, I remember before we did the show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I had dinner with Gustavo Dudamel, and he asked me that question. And I almost was embarrassed to say my favorite composers are people like Ralph Vaughan Williams. I don't even know if you're allowed to admit that in public these days, but it's so beautiful and so generous. My feelings about a lot of experimental art is that it had a very fascinating utility when you're casting off the shackles of convention, but ultimately it wasn't very generous. It doesn't really accommodate an audience. You don't need to patronize an audience or placate an audience, but at the same time, if you have the ability to create beauty and to create grandeur, why not do that? So, yeah, so my favorites are people like Georg Muffat and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

I was not expecting to hear Muffat.  

Yeah. And even Peter Warlock. People who created this sort of generous, melodic beauty. And of course Satie and Debussy and Ravel. Debussy to me is arguably one of the most interesting composers because he created beauty, but it was challenging at the same time. What an accomplishment. It's intellectually challenging, but it's also beautiful. I mean, I remember the first time, when I was like 12 years old, hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and thinking, “What is he doing? What are these chord changes? What are these intervals?” Because no one in the world of rock music or pop music was doing anything that experimental.

Pierre Boulez said it was the beginning of modern music, that opening flute solo. 

You listen to Rhapsody in Blue and it's basically George Gershwin writing this fan letter to Debussy.

That's an interesting way of putting it. You're a Deutsche Grammophon artist now, and obviously DG has tremendous clout and historical resonance in the world of classical music. How did you end up signing to DG? And what does it mean to you at this stage in your career to be on their roster?  

After my first orchestral show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a woman from Deutsche Grammophon named Hannah came backstage and said, “Wow, that was really special,” and asked if I wanted to make an orchestral record with Deutsche Grammophon. And I immediately remembered being 19 years old. When I was 19, I was a college dropout. I was sleeping on my mom's couch. I was broke. And the guy who ran our local record store gave me a job, and one of my jobs was putting away classical records. I remember holding these Deutsche Grammophon records with the giant yellow logos and the paintings of Vienna and Leipzig and just thinking to myself how exotic and elegant they were. I had grown up on food stamps and welfare. I was a poor kid in the suburbs. I was a college dropout. I'd never left the United States. And there I was holding these elegant Deutsche Grammophon records. And then fast forward a few decades. Suddenly I'm being asked to make a record with Deutsche Grammophon. To me, it just seemed like some strange hallucination or magic. I never imagined there was a world where I would be making orchestral records.

Wow, that's an amazing story. That yellow label really means something — it's synonymous with quality. Have you had a chance to work with The Philadelphia Orchestra yet? Have you spent much time in Philadelphia? 

I've been to Philadelphia many, many, many, many times, because I grew up in Connecticut and I lived in New York for a long time. And obviously New York and Philadelphia are two seconds away from each other. So I've spent tons of time in Philadelphia, you know, as a tourist going to the Mütter Museum. I remember in the ‘90s at one point, I was in the Essene Grocery, and I had this great celebrity encounter. I saw Danny Glover buying groceries and I just thought this was so interesting. What’s Danny Glover doing in a health food store in Philadelphia? So, yes, I've been to Philadelphia countless times, but I've never worked with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The plan at present is to arrive on Friday, do a rehearsal, and then go to my favorite vegan restaurant in the world.

I can't think of a single musician who, in the span of a few years, has collaborated with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Kris Kristofferson, the classical pianist Vikingur Ólafsson, and the singer Gregory Porter. That's a testament to your range as a musician and as a listener. How do you approach working with such a disparate group of musicians? Do you have a unified philosophy of collaboration? 

Well, it comes back to the old idea of necessity being the mother of invention. In a perfect world, when I was really young, I never wanted to collaborate with anyone. I wanted to be the greatest musician and the greatest vocalist, so I could just be celebrated for my remarkable voice and my remarkable music prowess. And I learned, “OK, my voice isn't bad, but it's not phenomenal. I'm a decent musician, but I'm certainly not a great classical guitarist or a great pianist.” And I learned that if I want to have really special voices and really special musical interpretations on my records, I had to learn how to work with people. So, you're absolutely right. It's such a bizarre, long list of people I've worked with. Everybody from Michael Jackson to Kris Kristofferson to Ozzy Osbourne to Britney Spears to Vikingur Ólafsson to David Bowie. The amazing thing is, having worked with so many people, I've learned so much about how people approach creativity and the creative process. Seeing how people work is so interesting. I'm sure it's affected me in myriad ways, but it's hard to sort of deconstruct what those myriad ways might be.

You have memoirs to write yet, I'm sure. Thank you so much for giving us your time, and best of luck here in Philly.

Moby performs with The Philadelphia Orchestra on Saturday, Dec. 9 as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s 125th Anniversary Celebration. Tickets and more information here.

Zev is thrilled to be WRTI’s classical program director, where he hopes to steward and grow the station’s tremendous legacy on the airwaves of Greater Philadelphia.