Rock and classical music may seem like strange bedfellows, but if you examine the evidence, they've been having a love affair for quite some time.
In the 1970s, prog-rock bands began using orchestras' epic sounds to lure listeners into intricate rhythms and harmonies. In the past decade, KISS, Metallica and Sigur Rós have collaborated with some of the world's finest symphonies. But while orchestras have influenced the local music scene through chamber-pop groups like Pale Young Gentlemen and Fermata, UW-Madison's string ensembles haven't been staging major rock-outs.
Until now, that is. The catalyst? Middleton's Peter and Tomah Mackie.
The brothers - a UW music composition student and a filmmaker whose recent documentary, Despite the Chaos: In Their Making, has won spots at film festivals - realized that Madison's All University String Orchestra could help Milwaukee rock group Despite the Chaos build the gigantic, lush sound its members have been dreaming about for years.
With 125 string players, the orchestra has more personnel than most symphonies that back rock stars. A big sound isn't all Despite the Chaos is after, though. The band is hoping that violins, violas and cellos will stop listeners from comparing them to Linkin Park for a moment.
Peter was approached by Despite the Chaos guitarist Matt Cole, a high school friend, to arrange some of the band's songs for string quartet. Peter liked the idea but figured it would fade away, as so many creative impulses do. The band, however, had grander plans.
"I met up with my brother at Matt's house, and there was this emergency band meeting going on," recalls Peter. "Not an abysmal, Flight of the Conchords sort of thing but the kind of meeting where you discuss new ideas."
The musicians talked about using a string quartet on tour. "I was like, 'You guys are a rock band. Forget string quartets. You need a big show with an orchestra and a ginormous crowd.'"
A classical and film-score junkie who claims to have "no rock music experience whatsoever," Peter says the biggest local audience he could recall wasn't from Mötley Crüe's gig at the Alliant Energy Center. It was one for a performance by the All University String Orchestra. He has played cello for three years with the group and debuted a Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement with it. Convincing orchestra leader Janet Jensen to add rock to the program was a piece of cake, he insists, since she already knew his work.
"I think she's more into rock than I am," he says.
Once Peter began arranging the songs for strings, he was in his element. He armed himself with a pencil and a cup of Barriques coffee as dark, metal-esque rock pulsed through his headphones.
"I went through the songs only with my ear, finding the chords and the rhythmic ideas," he says of the two pieces he arranged, "Downfall" and "Breathing." "There were some really subtle things going on in the drums and the bass, things that might be lost in a performance, so I tried to amplify those and add some elements of surprise." The band-orchestra combo performs the pieces on Dec. 5 at UW's Mills Hall.
For some, the biggest surprise may be hearing violins rock out. Marty Cherwin, Despite the Chaos' keyboards-and-samples guy, contends that his band could make anybody lose inhibitions, even a violinist.
"Rock is contagious," he says. "We'll be blowing the roof off the place."