To say that I was skeptical when I heard that there was a new CD with the imposing title of Dead Symphony: An Orchestral Tribute to the Music of the Grateful Dead would be an understatement. After all, there is a long and ignoble tradition of butchering rock songs by rearranging them in lame and unimaginative “classical” settings. If you’ve ever heard some of the patently mediocre symphonic tributes to bands such as Pink Floyd, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The promise of someone giving that sort of soulless Mantovani/Muzak treatment to my beloved Grateful Dead frankly turned my stomach—particularly as it’s been rumored for many years that Phil Lesh was either working on or planning some sort of orchestral suite based on Dead songs.
So what a delightful and unexpected treat it was when I finally popped Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony #6, which was released in late May, into my CD player and discovered that the Georgia-based composer and educator had succeeded in creating a work of great passion, depth, subtlety and imagination. It wiped away my cynicism real fast, and made me curious to find out more about the man who put it together, and the thinking behind this extraordinary work.
Rather than merely being straight orchestral transcriptions of famous pop tunes (see the Floyd, Beatles and Stones discs referenced above), Johnson has used ten Grateful Dead songs (dubbed “movements”) as jumping-off points for an imaginative and emotional journey through both obvious and suggested melodies, harmonies and motifs in the various tunes. After opening with a witty in-joke “overture” I won’t spoil if you haven’t heard it, Johnson dives into “St. Stephen” by concentrating on the beautiful legato bridge (“Lady finger dipped in moonlight….”) rather than the galloping main riff (which is certainly quoted, as well). Right away, it’s clear Johnson is going to take a fresh approach to the repertoire. The following track is billed as “Here Comes Sunshine,” but where is the familiar sing-song riff or the joyous chorus? Instead we have a darker, more thoughtful piece that merely hints at fragments of the song we know so well, and in doing so takes it in a bold new direction. “Mountains of the Moon” is played fairly straight—almost like a courtly dance—hewing closely to the original Aoxomoxoa arrangement; it’s quite lovely. As is the string quartet reading of “If I Had the World to Give,” which is surely one of Garcia’s most enchanting melodies, finally given its due here.
The composer is clearly most enamored with Garcia’s ballads: he does brilliant, moving work with such perhaps unlikely choices as “To Lay Me Down,” “China Doll” and a splendidly melancholic “Stella Blue,” which even breaks down at the end into an intriguing “space” jam. Another highlight is his fine condensation of the “Blues for Allah” suite. But it’s all fascinating and expertly performed by the Russian National Symphony, with whom Johnson has worked on other symphonic works the last few years. The disc was recorded at Mosfilm in Moscow, with Johnson conducting.
A professor of music at LaGrange College (an hour south of Atlanta), Johnson has written numerous original works in all sorts of different styles through the years. In addition to his symphonies (now numbering eight), he has penned concertos, chamber works, vocal pieces, ballets and film scores. He has worked with orchestras and small classical groups both nationally and internationally. But he was not a Dead Head.
Lee Johnson composed and conducted the Dead Symphony
He says it was the encouragement of his good friend Mike Adams, an Atlanta producer and owner of Exocet Studios there, that started him down the path to creating his Dead Symphony. “He loved the Dead and he’s the guy who heard the Dead in a symphonic way from the earliest shows he went to,” Johnson says. “He felt like what he was hearing in the Dead’s music was classical and symphonic in a multitude of ways, and he’s the one who said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would come along and do this?’ Then, when Jerry died, Mike decided it had to be done, so that’s when I started to get involved. He really taught me so much and sort of pointed the way for me.
“To get to where we’re at, we started with a couple of tunes—two or three movements, sort of as a litmus test—and sent them to Ice Nine [the Dead’s publishing wing, headed by Alan Trist] to see if there was any possible interest.” “China Doll” was the first song he tackled with a synth mockup of his symphonic voicings—“It was the way in to this world of potentialities,” he says—“but for some reason it didn’t stick [with the Dead] as we had hoped it might—the response was not overwhelmingly warm—so we wondered if we should pursue it further. In the meantime, I’d made a good number of recordings with the London Symphony and the London Session Orchestra at Abbey Road, and ultimately started working with the Russian National Orchestra at Mosfilm in Moscow, so we were far better prepared to tackle this when 2005 rolled around and we found ourselves in the studio recording it. And this time the response was much better.” Mike Adams is listed as producer of the album “and he was always there giving me suggestions, making comments and all, since he’s the one who really knows that world and knows the context of every song.”
From the beginning, Johnson knew he wanted to avoid, as he puts it, “the type of symphonic treatments that tend to be labeled ‘easy listening’ or ‘Muzak’ or ‘sounds pretty.’ I wanted to know for myself, if I did it, would I have enough poetic or creative license not to fall into those sort of treatments? I can do an arrangement and transcription—in fact, if you listen to the Symphony there are a couple of movements that are deliberately next to that transcription camp: ‘If I Had the World to Give,’ ‘Mountains of the Moon’ and ‘Sugar Magnolia.’ But for the others, I figured if it was going to be a real symphony I had to do something creative with them. So I really studied them, and Mike Adams was my guru/mentor, telling me stories, and I bought every CD that existed and carried them around in a shopping bag—I felt like a homeless person with a complete discography of the Grateful Dead! That was my ‘graduate studies’ time you might say, and after having done all the homework, I felt I was ready and basically told Mike it was time to go and try it again.”
Asked how he decided which tunes out of the enormous Dead canon he would work with, Johnson says, “If I was going to work with the melody and the harmony of the original, the melody had to have enough of a sense of continuing destinations, and not just be cadential—going back to ‘one’ all the time. A certain inconclusiveness needed to be a part of it, and the more artful that aspect of it is, the better it is to make it evolve into something else. In the case of ‘Here Comes Sunshine,’ there’s a great modal modulation in the second phrase of that tune, and all I had to do was see that shift and it implied a whole different harmony all by itself. I don’t need to use the original harmony because the modal nature of the melody screamed for other potential treatments. So I would go through the tunes looking for interesting stuff like that. With ‘China Doll, which has an introduction you might not think sounds like the song, I’m pulling off a very short riff of a recording and taking it out of context and expanding on this slow-growing gesture that ultimately ushers in the tune. There’s a riff that implies this mode and it’s got the echo of the melody in it.”
I mention that I like the way he uses woodwinds—particularly oboes—to capture the innate sadness and beauty in some of Garcia’s ballads. “There’s a plaintive quality of the solo winds that’s unmatched by any other instrument,” he comments. “If you had the whole first violin section doing it, for instance, you might not feel you’re hearing the voice of a poet in your ear—it might be too large, too powerful. Everybody was asking me while I was writing it, ‘Who’s going to be Jerry? Who’s going to be Bob?’” he adds with a laugh. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not putting nameplates on the instruments of the orchestra and say, pretend you’re so and so.’ Because the beauty of what the Grateful Dead did is that it can be separated from the original source, and if it can be flattered by that transition, that’s evidence we’re dealing with real art. If a song can only survive if the band is performing it, it still might be fantastic, but it cannot go further down the artistic journey.
“In some cases I picked tunes that barely had much of an audience experience,” he continues. “Songs like ‘If I Had the World to Give,’ ‘Blues for Allah’ and ‘Mountains of the Moon’ might not have had the same life as others onstage, but gosh, they’re masterpieces. And maybe the orchestra is the perfect vehicle for a re-introduction of those songs.”
Johnson says the reaction to the Dead Symphony has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and he’s heard both from Dead Heads who know traditional and modern “classical” music extremely well, and fans who have had little or no exposure to it. “The thing about Grateful Dead audiences,” he notes, “is they’re super well-trained in listening to thematic transformation. I think they’re the best-schooled audience for their canon, bar none. They love spontaneity and they know how to listen to small details and that’s the perfect garden for a classical composer, because the little details that the maestro is trying to bring out are supposed to matter; they’re not just background.
“The response has been quite amazing,” he continues. “I’ve never had people so touched by a piece. I’ve written a few other things I think are pretty good, too, but this has an audience that is a different universe, and to see how they react to new symphonic music that belongs to them—this is their music—has been really interesting and, so far gratifying. Believe me, if I’d screwed it up I think they’d be bold enough to tell me that, too. And there have been a couple of folks who don’t care for it. I’d expect that. But generally people seem very open to it, which is what Mike said would happen.”
Johnson says that he’s been approached by a number of different orchestras to perform the Dead Symphony live, and he teases, “It will get its world premiere by a major orchestra on an important day next year related to the Grateful Dead calendar, but I can’t say anything else about it right now.”
Much as I love the work, I couldn’t help asking Johnson about a song I felt was a glaring omission: “Terrapin Station.” But as the question was tumbling out of my mouth, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps it wouldn’t have been right for this project because it already had been orchestrated (in part), which might have made it either too obvious or too limiting to Johnson.
“It’s interesting you should mention that. Two of the movements I went down the road to see if they might work were from ‘Terrapin.’ But you know what—I set them aside because it seemed like someone had already been here. I feel like if you’re going to touch something, you better shed light on it rather than just put your foot in the footprints in front of you, and I really felt that with ‘Terrapin,’ especially. That said, some of the orchestras that are asking for scores now are also asking for a suite—‘Give us 12 minutes of “Terrapin” to warm up the crowd.’ I might do that, but I’m not sure if I should. I haven’t decided yet. We took ten years to put this together get it released, and I’d be wounded to the soul if someone saw me as an opportunist or pandering.”
And then there’s the matter of “Dark Star,” Lee….