Flashback: deadmau5 performs “where’s the drop?” with a full orchestra at the Wiltern on 03.31.18

Last month, I started posting some old concerts that occurred before this blog’s inception. January’s always been a slow month for touring, so the opportunity to showcase these past performances seemed timely. And had the blog been up and running before last October, I definitely would’ve included them in one post or another. So far, I’ve featured former Talking Heads frontman and soloist David Byrne and the French downtempo electronic act Air. Today, I’m going to take us in a different direction, courtesy of renown Canadian electronic artist deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse,” if you didn’t already know). Also, the lowercase thing is really a thing, so don’t jump to any punctuation conclusions.

I’m going to skip over all the background details of deadmau5, who’s secret identity is DJ/Producer Joel Zimmerman. There’s plenty written about him, all readily accessible on the internet … or from the links at the bottom of this post. He boasts an extensive catalogue in the electro and progressive house genres, spanning nearly two decades. He’s Grammy nominated, collaborated and remixed numerous artists, worked on film soundtracks, the latest being Netflix’s “Polar,” and headlined more festivals than you can count, with an upcoming show at Beyond Wonderland in San Bernardino on March 22.

This particular event, aptly titled “where’s the drop?,” offers a distinct take on deadmau5’s electronica, completely reimagined as classical compositions with a full orchestra. This exclusive performance was one of two held at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on 3.31.18 and 04.01.18. I attended the first show. The second was live streamed on the Tidal music platform, followed by an exclusive limited release of the studio recording. You can now get the “where’s the drop?” album on most streaming platforms, but for a brief while, it was hard to come by.

The official program and insert from deadmau5’s “where’s the drop?” @ the Wiltern Theatre on 03.31.18.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know anything about contemporary orchestral composition. Probably the closest I come is original film scores … you know, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, James Horner, all the old school blockbuster composers. Or maybe the once in a blue moon contemporary act that opts to perform with the L.A. Philharmonic – i.e. Sigur Rós at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or M83 and Dead Can Dance, both at the Hollywood Bowl.

So I approached “where’s the drop?” with that naive, yet open mindset. What I encountered was infinitely more fulfilling, electronic music that’s completely reinterpreted, reinvented, and fully realized as its own equal creation. There was no gimmick here, nor relegating orchestration to simple background support.

Zimmerman collaborated with composer Gregory Reveret to conceive this orchestral interpretation of deadmau5 classics. Although some electronics were present, with Zimmerman seated stage left in front of his keyboard and laptop, most of it was stripped away in favor of a full 50-plus person complement of strings, horns, and percussion. If you came expecting a full-on symphonic dance experience, akin to Pete Tong’s 2017 Classic House tour, you were no doubt disappointed. But if you zeroed your expectations and opened your mind, the evening was absolutely magical, transcendent and full of surprise.

Many of these adaptations come from deadmau5’s 2014 concept album, “while (1<2),” which features a fair bit of electro ambience to go alongside the upbeat numbers. Tracks such as “acedia” and “gula,” lift directly from their original intros, expanding synthesized atmospherics into lush soaring scores. The piano melodies remain intact, less processed, completely organic, with exquisite elaboration from soothing strings and warm brass. Here’s those two tracks, with footage taken from the Wiltern’s balcony section. Zimmerman is located to the foreground left, seated in front of a monitor, mixing board, and a few other tools of his trade.

deadmau5 performs “acedia” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

deadmau5 performs “gula” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

“avaritia” follows in a similar vein, yet the synths are completely replaced with naturalistic instrumentation, borrowing the original’s progressions, slowing it down, and flushing it out in a rejuvenated bit of atmospherics.

deadmau5 performs “avaritia” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

The shorter singles, “ira” and “superbia,” receive moody string-enhanced extensions, melancholic and moving. These lean closer to their source counterparts, lengthened for spatial exploration, allowing the touched-upon melodic themes to grow, expand, and breathe. I particularly like this rendition of “superbia,” which feels epically sad, yet ultimately uplifting and hopeful.

deadmau5 performs “ira” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

deadmau5 performs “superbia” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

The symphonic version of “coelacanth” is an elaboration on “coelacanth I,” and brings a sense of urgency to an already tense instrumental, thanks to the added brass and wind prominence. This one feels most like it could reside amongst a film’s dramatic score, communicating an ancient quality and timeless weight.

deadmau5 performs “coelacanth” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

I’m not entirely sure about the origins of “luxuria,” but it sounds a heck of a lot like “coelacanth II.” It’s mainly a piano piece, simplistic and elegant. If it’s based on “coelacanth II,” there’s far less intensity to its proceedings, almost like a soothing calm after a bitter storm.

deadmau5 performs “luxuria” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

There’s also some older favorites, like “strobe,” originally from the 2009 album “for lack of a better name,” which reconstructs the longer version of the original’s first few lo-fi minutes with a spectacular string crescendo. It’s rather faithful to the source’s spirit, yet revitalized through an airy, open calm, almost sounding electronic in its composition. And where the progressive beats would typically kick in, this one peaks with rising violins, an appropriate substitute that surges to similar effect.

deadmau5 performs “strobe” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

The 2011 single “hr 8938 cephei” is a curious one, as the orchestral version essentially strips away the rhythm section, retaining the somber synthesized aura, while quietly crafting a classically-minded sensorium of understated gravitas and emerging emotions. This version seems well-suited to a track named after a star that’s 307 light years away, and probably more than 900 million years old.

deadmau5 performs “hr 8938 cephei” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

Taking a similar approach, “fn pig” retains some of the synth-based sounds, while introducing a whole unexplored level to this track that’s loosely inspired by Minecraft. Again, this rendition replaces the original’s beat-based elements for sweeping symphonic strings that tend to meander more than not, yet still return to its source. Once past the intro, it’s hard to believe it’s the same song that appeared on the 2012 release “> album title goes here <.” As a sidebar, I have to admit, Zimmerman’s album titles do have a playfully subversive sense of humor. Anyway, this version does a spirited job of sticking to the source, even when its fully engaged in wandering exploration.

Please excuse the out-of-focus quality of the first half of this footage. At the time, I used an older iPhone to film shows. And the strobing stage lights wreaked havoc on the focus. Sorry.

deadmau5 performs “fn pig” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

As one of the shorter tracks, “imaginary friends” stays fairly faithful to the first couple of minutes from the 2016 original on “W:/2016ALBUM/.” I found that many of these adaptations draw from the slower, more ambient moments that precede the bpm’s of these sourced singles. “imaginary friends” offers a clear example of this. Also, it’s the first track performed at “where’s the drop?,” making it an effective starter for the uninitiated, while offering a glimpse of what to expect for the next ninety or so minutes.

deadmau5 performs “imaginary friends” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

Lastly, at least from what I was able to capture, is a more recent deadmau5 single, “monophobia,” from last year’s “mau5ville: level 1” EP. This one obviously doesn’t feature Rob Swire’s vocals, nor the energetic percussive beats. But the underlying melody remains intact, with a minimal metronomic piano as substitute for a rhythm section. And a bit of the original’s modulated synths creep in towards the conclusion, which as you’ll see, the audience clearly responds to.

deadmau5 performs “monophobia” with a full orchestra @ the Wiltern on 03.31.18.

I realize I’ve offered quite a few loose comparisons to deadmau5’s originals to describe these orchestrated renditions. And unless you’re familiar with those electronic dance-based compositions, all of this might seem mute. So in an effort to offer some clarity, I’ve included embeds of the complete studio recordings for “where’s the drop?,” as well as a playlist of the original versions. For the album release there’s two additional tracks, “unjaded” and “caritas,” which aren’t included in the featured footage. And on the sources playlist, neither are included, as I’m pretty sure they’re exclusive to “where’s the drop?” Also, Spotify didn’t have them in any other version.

So here you go … “where’s the drop?” on album, which is essentially the setlist as well, albeit in a different order.

And the original deadmau5 tracks that inspired “where’s the drop?” …

That about does it for this lengthy post. Honestly, I had no idea I was going to write this much about deadmau5’s experimental foray into classical orchestration. But I’m kinda glad I did. “where’s the drop?” is not an immediate listening experience. And chances are, some of you might glance right over it, relegating these interpretations to mere oddities in Zimmerman’s catalogue. These tracks do take time to work their magic. Of course, experiencing the live performance offers some shortcuts to that effect. Either way, it’s a worthwhile affair, offering a unique perspective on one of electronic music’s most influential artists. Enjoy!


Gregory Reveret: