Dead Symphony, or, the Orchestral Tribute to the Grateful Dead
Lee Johnson’s Symphony No. 6: Dead Symphony
Oddly enough, the thing that finally made me get off my butt and start the blog that I’d been thinking of starting for a long time now was this post on the excellent blog Unsung Symphonies. True, the novelty of a Dead Symphony seems like an excellent source of material for a site that professes to be “dedicated to exposing and exploring lesser-known symphonies.” But this piece is, at least for me, something that I have a longer history with.
I began writing a response to Matthew Mugmon’s post, but it turned out to be so long that it wouldn’t fit into one comment box. So I created my own blog, and my first posting (other than the obligatory “what I’m doing with this blog” post) is a direct response to Matthew’s post. So, for that, thanks Matthew!!
The first time I encountered this symphony was when I was asked to participate in a round-table discussion on the piece at the Grateful Dead Caucus of the Southwest/Texas PCA/ACA (Popular Culture/American Culture Assoc.). This is a conference where, for the last 13 years, Grateful Dead scholars have gotten together to engage in a particularly GD-inspired form of collegial debate and discussion – an interdisciplinary “jam session” of papers and presentations that runs the gamut from communications theory to music theory, from ethnomusicology to business, from sociology and cultural anthropology to creative fiction and literature studies.
All the members of the panel agreed that we were, on the whole, disappointed with the Dead Symphony, which isn’t to say that there weren’t some aspects we liked. For the most part, what didn’t sit well with us was the rather literal “arranging” or adaptation process that Johnson treats the originals in turning them into orchestral sounds. I believe I said that this sounds, in parts, like “the orchestral tribute to the Grateful Dead” without even realizing that this was the subtitle of the album. The 6th movement, “Sugar Magnolia,” is by far the worst offender.
Mugmon very astutely pointed out that “the Dead Symphony works precisely because Johnson doesn’t care about reproducing the sound world of the Grateful Dead,” and I think he makes an excellent point here that us panelists all took for granted. Johnson doesn’t go for trying to literally reproduce the unique instrumental timbres and arrangements of the Dead. However, he sticks too closely to the Dead’s arrangements of melodies and form.
In almost every movement, you can sing along the lyrics with the piece. And that’s just not, I think, how it should be. Mugmon wrote that “[Johnson] gives a knowing nod to the Deadheads” in using “Funiculi Funicula,” but I wonder if Johnson assumes too little of Deadheads. Taking off my musicologist’s hat for a moment, Deadheads are one of the most attentively analytical music audiences in popular music. We pick up on every little rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic reference that the band makes to their own output, because as active and close listeners, we’ve trained ourselves to do it. The band required us to become like this, because the audience was always an active part in the creation of the live show and the spontaneous energies. Like the band, we had to pick up on non-verbal musical cues, the same ones that told the band members in which song, or in which direction, to move the improvisation.
I think that Johnson could have used the Dead’s music in the sense that 19th and 20th century symphonic composers often treated their outside source material. By using little bits and pieces of melody, rhythm, and harmony as raw materials and allowing his own compositional voice to shine through more, this work would be, in my opinion, a much more successful symphony. The 9th movement, “Stella Blue,” is a great example. Download: LLNNt5I
Johnson’s magic in this symphony is as an arranger and orchestrator, and he wonderfully captures the serenity and spirituality of Stella Blue with the clarinet playing the bluesy vocal line over a Dvorakian backdrop of string chords. But again, you know what’s coming next. You can sing along with the clarinet. The clarinet even follows Jerry’s vocal line into the B section, just where it should be placed. Formally, these are still Dead songs, not symphonic movements. By that I don’t mean that Johnson should have aped the typical forms to force this into being a Romantically-styled symphony.
It’s for the above reasons that my favorite movement from this symphony, the one that I feel works best, is the third: “Here Comes Sunshine.” Download: epRITOj
I think that this approach is what would have worked for all the movements. Let’s face it – pop’s verse/chorus/bridge form just doesn’t translate that well to the symphony. It’s too predictable, and without lyrics, there’s no point. Better to allow the music to breath its own life into a symphony, rather than molding the symphony onto these pre-existing songs. Of course, the most pressing issue in this symphony is the same one that plagues so-called “jazz symphonies”: how do you represent a music that is improvisational in nature in a classical symphony? The Dead were the Dead because of their jamming (despite having written excellent songs, some of which, like “Friend of the Devil,” have made their way into the American folk canon). The great Dead symphony has arguably already been written – rather, was written every time the band played “Dark Star,” their seminal improvisational vehicle. I don’t think that Johnson should have incorporated improvisation into his piece because classical musicians aren’t trained for that, and wouldn’t come close to the transcendence that playing together for 30 years brings. But I think that he could have “improvised” on the Dead’s music a bit more as a composer. He could have taken a Dead riff, and like the band themselves did every night, build on it, react to it, shape it into something else, take it in a new direction, counter it with a new melody, or allow it to point the music into new places.
I could say plenty more about this symphony, including, as Mugmon suggested, track sequencing (closing with “China Doll”??) and hidden references (not that many), but I’ve taken up enough space as is.
More importantly, thank you Unsung Symphonies very much for boldly stating that there are important symphonies out there that need to be heard and exposed. More power to them if they can bring about this kind of scrutiny that I just laid out.