Composer makes Grateful Dead classic
EmptyIt may be the longest, strangest trip the Grateful Dead's music has endured -- a performance by a symphony orchestra under the baton of a classical composer.
But to Lee Johnson, the guy with the baton, the real surprise is that his world of high culture took as long as it did to embrace the world of counterculture for which the Grateful Dead provided so much of the soundtrack.
Born in San Francisco in 1965, two years before the legendary Summer of Love it helped usher in, the band was dismissed by critics for years as a footnote to pop music's Psychedelic Era. But by the time its 30-year run ended with the death of guitarist-composer Jerry Garcia, the Dead had morphed into one of the world's most popular concert attractions.
"The Grateful Dead embodied such a huge swath of the late 20th century ... that they are just a wonderful place from which to have a symphony in which you can explore and come out with a response to American popular culture," says Johnson. His composition: "Dead Symphony No. 6: An Orchestral Tribute to the Grateful Dead."
The work, assembled from nearly a dozen songs and recorded by the Russian National Orchestra, was released as a download in May and on CD on Tuesday.
Although a basic five-chord rock 'n' roll band, the Grateful Dead's multiple-time signatures, harmonies and rhythms have had its fans swearing for decades that they could hear the sounds of Beethoven and other classical composers echoing throughout the music.
No one took them very seriously, apparently, until Johnson; perhaps, he says, because adapting the music to a classical format was no simple task. If there was one constant in the Grateful Dead's approximately 2,500 concerts, it was that the band -- partial to long, experimental jams -- rarely played the same song the same way twice.
"How do you transform that into an orchestra that lives not in the moment but off the page?" he asked.
In the case of a movement based on the song "Stella Blue," Johnson told the Russian National Orchestra to do what the Grateful Dead would do -- improvise.
"They were primed and ready," the Emmy-winning composer recalled with a laugh as he spoke by phone recently from his home in Atlanta. "I explained what we wanted to try to do. They politely listened, nodded their heads and off they went."
For the other movements, he struck a more conventional classical tone. The result: sections based on songs like "Sugar Magnolia," "Bird Song," and "China Doll" will be instantly recognizable to those familiar with the music. Others, like "Blues for Allah" and "Mountains of the Moon," not so much so.
Johnson -- who says he "didn't know any of their music," when he began working on the project 10 years ago -- has become intimately familiar with it since.
The 45-year-old composer -- who has written symphonies, operas, film scores and other works -- was recruited by veteran music producer Mike Adams, a longtime Dead fan who thought the group's music should be preserved in a form that, he said, "will last 500 or a thousand years."
Surviving band members have had little to say about the project, although guitarist Bob Weir indicated he was flattered -- and somewhat surprised it took a classical composer so long to discover the group's oeuvre.
"The music of the Grateful Dead was complex, with intertwining themes of rhythm and melody, rich harmonic development and explosive dynamics; the same stuff one finds in classical music," Weir said.
Adapting popular tunes to a classical format is nothing new, said music historian Joanna Demers of the University of Southern California. The London Symphony Orchestra, for example, has performed Beatles' and Rolling Stones' songs, and Demers noted that Franz Lizst, Frederic Chopin and other prominent composers often took popular tunes of their day and adapted them into their own works.
What is unusual, she added, is to create an entire symphony based on one pop band's work.
Demers wasn't sure, though, whether translating the band's work to a classical form would give it a wider audience -- or was even necessary.
"The Grateful Dead themes that I've liked I kind of thought were great on their own, and I'm not sure I would see any room for improvement," she said.
But Johnson says he believes American composers have to delve into pop culture if they are going to truly reflect the world around them.
"It is the one thing that makes anything classical that comes from this land unique," he said.
The Grateful Dead, he adds, was the perfect place to start.
"I have a profound admiration and deep respect and love for what they did, how long they did it and the fact it was all about making music," he said of the group that defied many of popular music's conventions, shunning elaborate light shows, costumes and other special effects.
"They didn't play games," Johnson said. "They played music."