Derrick May, Strings of Life, and Me

Dzijan Emin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Derrick May & Franceso Tristano at Chene Park, Detroit

The people of Detroit love their fellow hometowners who have gone out into the world and done well. The list of successful artists and entrepreneurs is long, and it seems like every time I turn around I learn some famous person is also from the city, or at least nearby.

Derrick May is one of the famous people from Detroit. He, along with a trio of friends know as the Belleville Three, created a musical sensation known the world-over as Techno. That was almost thirty years ago. Derrick’s first releases are now considered classics, the most revered is a track called Strings of Life.

I knew before Derrick before was famous. He was just a guy living down the hall in the apartment building I had moved to in the Cass Corridor. I was just a shy girl fresh out of high school. A mutual friend introduced us and Derrick, being the gregarious personality that he is, invited me over to listen to the music he was making.

One night I went to visit. The apartments in the old building were small. Spread out on the floor of his living room were several little machines and keyboards. A very cool sound unlike anything I had heard filled the room. I really liked it. From an open window I looked out over the night skyline; the city lights were sparse. The music filling the space became haunting as if telling the story of abandonment and decay. The beats began to pulse and urged me to dance. I felt my spirit soaring over the empty lots and empty buildings, and the people who lived out there. I felt a sense of hope.

Derrick said, “Listen to this one I’ve been working on. A friend of mine is playing the piano, I made a loop from a snippet, and I can’t stop listening to it.”

He put on Strings of Life. I loved it.

I left Detroit soon after that, and was unaware of the whirlwind Techno music was throughout Europe. I remember when I first learned Derrick had become famous. It was the mid-90s. I was at a party out in the deserts of New Mexico. A young man was there. Somehow he learned I was from Detroit. He became animated telling me of how much he loved Techno and asked me about a Detroit club called the Music Institute – which was founded before I left the city. Back then Derrick, along with Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and others, spun in that barebones club.  The young man talking with me just about passed out from excitement when he heard I had danced there, telling me that place was legendary – it was the first Techno club in the world. I felt my ego inflate a bit just because of who I knew and where I had been. Funny how that is. But it is.

On August 14, 2015, Derrick brought his latest project to Detroit – he would play his music with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Chene Park. The amphitheater filled with people who shared that same intimate pride I felt back in New Mexico talking with the young man. Only this time the energy of sharing in the glory of success was exponential. And we were not let down. Derrick’s show with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was epic. History was being made again.

The concert was a magical moment. Strings of Life came from an acoustic piano and created a genre of electronic music, and then an acoustic symphony orchestra played the music that came from Strings of Life, creating a new genre of music – symphonic fusion.

The story of this collaboration has its roots across the Atlantic Ocean. A bold conductor from Macedonia named Dzijan Emin composed several scores of Derrick’s music for classical musicians. The event debuted last year in Macedonia and has played around Europe. I’m so glad it finally made it to Detroit. The sensation of hearing trumpets, clarinets, violins, and drums play what was once synthesizer music was amazing, genius really. And the finale of Strings of Life crescendo-ed the whole concert right out of the park. Everyone was on their feet. It was a celebration of everything we here in Detroit are proud of – innovation, our musical tradition, and someone from our city who goes out into the world and does great things.

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here’s a video of one of these concerts: http://concert.arte.tv/fr/derrick-may-ft-francesco-tristano-et-lorchestre-lamoureux-au-weather-festival

Post edited by Christopher Ross. And Michael James is Derrick’s friend who wrote the piano piece.

You can buy my travel memoir, A Blue Moon in China, here

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Filed under Detroit, Essay, Music

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