Lee Johnson: Dead Symphony No. 6


dead_symphony.jpgThis piece, subtitled “An Orchestral Tribute to the Music of the Grateful Dead,” is considerably classier than most such offerings, because Johnson is an ace arranger with a fine ear for orchestral color. As he strings together ten Dead tunes – some quite familiar, others less so – he contrasts timbres and moods with subtlety, avoiding garishness (and often bringing to mind the words of one of my teachers: “the viola is the workhorse of the orchestra”).

Johnson, who conducts the Russian National Orchestra in the performance, is not merely transcribing notes off of Dead LPs and assigning them to instruments; the songs’ raw materials are used (or omitted) with a discerning ear for taste and proportion, with new elements introduced to abet their adaptation to this very different context. In most of the movements, counterpoint is added and harmonies are expanded or altered; the resulting sound recalls Copland in its sunnier moments, Gershwin comes to mind during bluesy bits, and the darker emoting can suggest Korngold, Goldsmith, Bernstein or, again, Copland.

Critics often work in a vacuum, assuming – or at least acting as though – their tastes and opinions are definitive. It’s easier. But it’s a simplification. It also gives readers the impression that the aspects the critic objects to are mistakes on the artist’s part.

There are things in this piece that I would have treated differently. (Once past accusations of outright incompetence, that’s what a critic’s criticisms usually amount to.) But rather than make assumptions, I emailed Lee Johnson to learn his reasons for doing what he did here. He responded graciously.

First, this may be nitpicking, but to me, while this piece is symphonic (uses an orchestra), it is a suite, not a symphony, which is completely different in structure and process (there’s no thematic development here). In response to this, Johnson writes, “‘What’ is a symphony is almost as hard to understand as ‘why’ another symphony. Even the title of my work seems to proclaim an out-with-the-old-‘symphony board certified’ definition of the term symphony and a ‘Now Taking Applications’ attitude for what might come next.” Okay, one facet of modernism is questioning the old verities, so Johnson’s in good company on this issue (Stravinsky, for one).

I also feel that the Italian tune “Funiculì, Funiculà” used for the movements that open and close the work, “Dead Overture” and “Dead Finale,” lacks gravity and detracts from the more serious mood of the main body of the symphony. Johnson explains, “‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ is an inside joke for the Deadhead listener. It was used by Jerry to signal the band - and the audience - that he was getting on with things as the others may still have found themselves tuning and warming up.” But again, Johnson relates one of his decisions to a modernist precedent, writing, “It starts in a similar manner to [Alfred] Schnittke's Symphony No. 1 (well analyzed by scholar Dr. Victoria Adamenko in her paper Symphony, Anti-Symphony, Symphony) and allows the piccolo to lead the way into the upcoming music by simply starting before the rest of the orchestra has finished tuning.”

One more of my complaints is that the rootsier Dead songs (“Sugar Magnolia” and “If I Had the World to Give”) “stick out from the other material,” as I put it in my email. Johnson says that these tracks as well as "Mountains of the Moon" “are opportunities to breath. You may know that they are also close to being transcriptions; close but not quite. This is an entirely new musical journey for someone who has never conceived of their favorite band being invited into the concert hall. Let's just say that the symphonic world doesn't get praised for being an open and inviting environment all too often. I am making their experience a welcoming one.”

He continues, “This practice is all over the orchestral world. An overture or something lite is good to keep things lively and inviting. Any third movement of a classical symphony was almost a placeholder.” So what I heard as overly contrasted was deliberate.

Johnson’s comments have not changed my opinions of/reactions to his piece. I would prefer it minus movements I, VI, VIII, and XII. (And thanks to technology, I can listen to it that way.) But other people might not. Regardless, I enjoyed most of it quite a bit, and believe listeners need not be Deadheads to appreciate it. – Steve Holtje

Dead Symphony, already available via download, is released on CD May 29.

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sholtje.jpgMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who last year wrote and recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.