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.
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.” The gentle minor key opening sounds nothing like the Dead song’s immediately recognizable opening, and the vocal melody is slowed down so much and placed in the strings that it is barely recognizable. But that’s just the thing – Deadheads DO recognize it. It doesn’t need to be a literal translation for us to know this symphony is legit. The rest of the song is transformed into an idyll – the chorus vocal line goes to the oboe over a harp ostinato, but Johnson embellishes the vocal melody, making it into something new. The rhythm is augmented to such an extent that the phrase regularity of the original song’s melodies seem to elide, and not until halfway through the song do we hear the original’s signature opening riff – but again, transformed (at about 3:24 on that track), inverted or something like that, in the flute and bassoon. When the brass takes up the main “theme,” it is just that – it’s not the next line of the next verse, but a segment of melody from the verse treated as a symphonic theme. When the flute comes in around 5:00 over a Milhaud-like aural landscape, it plays the verse melody at normal speed for the first time, and it’s only now that we hear the song in this movement, rather than bits and pieces from the song.

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.


~ by Jake on September 24, 2010.

2 Responses to “Dead Symphony, or, the Orchestral Tribute to the Grateful Dead”

  1. Very interesting Jake. Glad you’ve started a blog I’ll definitely keep following and will give some of the classical music you write about a chance.

    As to this piece, I think you make the key point. It is just not that interesting to hear an instrumental version of a Grateful Dead song played by an orchestra, and Deadheads (and I suspect classical music fans) would appreciate the music all the more if he had written his own music utilizing some of the tempos, melodic lines, etc. of various Dead songs. As you say, Here Comes Sunshine captured my interest much more than Sugar Magnolia, because it was actually a creative use of the Dead’s music.

    This is the problem I have with much of the music of the band Jazz is Dead, which tries to do a similar thing in the jazz-fusion context. While some of the songs are interesting, most are merely instrumental versions.

    This might have benefited from something like the Beatles “Love,” which I know is a controversial album, but the mashing up of pieces of various songs and jams in orchestral form would be something I’d love to hear.

    • Ben – I agree with pretty much everything you said on here, and a good point about Jazz is Dead, I feel the same way about them. I love the Beatles “Love” album, which I think is just absolutely brilliant. The point when “Mr. Kite” seamlessly slams into the outro to “I Want You” is one of my favorite moments. The funny thing about that album adapted to the Dead is that the Dead pretty much did that type of “mash-up” every night live, in the segueing into and out of songs, jamming other songs during another song, or teasing songs. One of my favorite examples of that is on Hundred Year Hall, when the band is trying to negotiate between GDTRFB, NFA, and Lovelight. It’s just amazing.

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