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Documenting The Dead: Symphonic Dead

By Nicholas Meriwether

Symphonic Dead

One of the great pictures from the Dead's Europe '72 tour shows the band on stage in what looks like a symphony hall, with a massive pipe organ looming behind them. It's a striking image, one that the band used as the front cover of the liner note booklet included with the original Europe '72 LP release. If they were uncomfortable at the setting, it doesn't show: they look at home, recalling Phil Lesh's oft-quoted remark that what the Dead played was “electric chamber music.”

Fig.1. Front cover image, Europe '72 liner note booklet. Photo by Mary Ann Mayer.

Lesh's comment is appropriate, not least because he had formal classical training, famously studying with avant-garde composer Luciano Berio at Mills College in the 1960s. Years later, Lesh also spent time working on an orchestral work of Dead music called Keys to the Rain. While that project has not come to light, two other classical treatments of the Dead's music have appeared. In May 2011, the Marin Symphony and guests performed a memorable evening of arrangements of Dead songs by Bob Weir and Giancarlo Aquilanti, which delighted Deadheads and classical music fans alike. But the first effort was composer Lee Johnson's Dead Symphony No. 6, whose prospectus, score, and recordings form one of the more interesting supporting collections in the Grateful Dead Archive.

Johnson's opus took a decade to create. The collection at UC Santa Cruz makes an interesting archive since it bookends the project, from the first prospectus to the final score and CD release, conducted by Johnson and recorded by the Russian National Orchestra. As a collection, it provides a unique window into the challenges of mounting this kind of cross-genre creation. The difficulties that the project faced on the production side mirrored those that Johnson faced as composer. For Johnson, the challenge was far more than just transposing a group of songs: it was capturing an oeuvre and mapping a catalog, while making a sophisticated nod to the improvisational acumen that infused the songs with their trademark vitality and longevity. For Johnson's business partner Mike Adams, producing the project entailed navigating the hurdles of securing the band's approval-no easy feat-as well as the mammoth task of funding its recording and performance.

Figs. 2 and 3: The proposal cover, and the score. Illustration by Mike Schulman, after the design by Stanley Mouse.

The caliber and extent of the proposal shows that, as does the timeline. Twelve years after the proposal first reached the band, the Baltimore Symphony debuted Dead Symphony No. 6, the first of four performances across the country that culminated in a performance by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, just outside of Santa Cruz. That performance, held on August 9, 2009, ended with Johnson donating “a road weary copy” of his score to UC Santa Cruz. It was one of the earliest gifts to the Archive, only a little over a year after the first materials from the band arrived at McHenry Library.

The project was the brainchild of Mike Adams, an Atlanta-based producer whose Exocet Productions created the proposal. As Adams wrote in the “Project Overview,” the goal of the project was nothing less than “to give the music of the Grateful Dead its deserved place in the heritage of Western and Word music for centuries to come.” The “formal, instrumental classical approach” he proposed offered several compelling advantages, he believed, chief among them earning the respect of the classical music world. This entailed creating a serious composition that would have a place in the regular schedule of a good orchestra-not something relegated to a summer “Pops” series.

A longtime Deadhead, Adams first conceived of the project after the Dead's show at the Omni in Atlanta, on June 20, 1974. He looked into the idea in the early 1980s and was sobered by the costs and logistics. After Garcia's death, he brushed off his notes and went to work in earnest, researching what producing a symphonic performance and recording entailed. Finding Johnson was the key. Calling him “a serious light-as bright as any I have seen up close,” Adams wrote to the band that “I have a pretty good cosmic mythological Grateful Dead rap and Lee has shown me that he has grokked it in its fullness.”

Fig. 4. Lee Johnson. Photo by John Bazemore, Associated Press.

Johnson had an ideal resume: a professor of music at Georgia's LaGrange College, he had an extensive background in formal classical composition as well as popular music. One of his specialties was bridging those worlds: he had received numerous commissions for arrangements of popular songs from artists ranging from Genesis to Linda Ronstadt, earning numerous awards in the process, including an Emmy and an ASCAP Award. He was the first musician to be named Georgia Artist of the Year, in 1995. But buried in the voluminous admiring press accounts of Johnson's eclectic and indefatigable efforts was a story that explained why the Minnesota-born multi-instrumentalist was a natural for the project. His teachers at Indiana University, where he received his master's in Composition, were dismissive of his interest in jazz and popular music; for his part, he was saddened at the state of contemporary classical music, funded not by popular interest but by organizations uninterested “in matters of the heart and soul.” The music that resulted might impress composers, but it left most audiences cold. This troubled Johnson, one of whose “deepest ideological beliefs” was that “music is a gift of mutual communication.” That belief went to the heart of the bond the Dead forged with their fans as well. Adams had his composer.

Both men went to work, Adams focusing on the production and Johnson on the music. The final proposal was more than forty pages: detailed, thorough, and thoughtful. Adams and Johnson demonstrated a deep awareness of the contexts and factors that would affect the project, especially the tangled history of the classical music world's relationship with rock music, as well as the economics-and politics-of orchestras, performance, and recording. There are no surprises there, only good research, but scholars will be impressed at the range of other issues that Adams anticipated, especially the myriad intellectual property issues the project raised, including merchandising and trademarks. One illustration in the proposal is a creative interpretation of the Dead's trademarked thirteen-point lightning bolt, woven through a treble clef; another showed a Beanie Bear, dressed in traditional conductor's attire.

Figs. 5 and 6. Steal Your Clef, and Conductor Bear.

The two men's research was wide-ranging. One section of the proposal covered everything from published accounts of the band's finances following Garcia's death and the retirement of the name to articles on the precarious finances of the country's major orchestras. Offsetting these gloomy reports were stories on the growing appeal of classical music to Baby Boomers-and these were not rockers who pined to hear 101 Strings-style “interpretations” of their favorite bands.

Some Deadheads felt the same. As one fan wrote, “In many ways the Grateful Dead's music was destined from the beginning to be a symphony, much as the band itself was an orchestra …” Yet the choice of songs that Johnson recorded still surprised some fans. Although he orchestrated more than what appears on the CD, the final recording comprises twelve movements, built around ten named Dead songs (in order of appearance): “Saint Stephen,” “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Mountains of the Moon,” “Blues for Allah,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “To Lay Me Down,” “If I Had the World to Give,” “Stella Blue,” “Bird Song,” and “China Doll.” “Dead Overture” opens the piece, built around the tuning ditty “Finiculi, Finicula,” and “Dead Finale” closes it. The additional songs he arranged were designed to provide orchestras-and especially Dead-oriented audiences-with extra material that would allow each performance to be unique.

Figs. 7 and 8. Lee Johnson, Dead Symphony No. 6 CD cover.

By the end of the project, Johnson clearly understood the band's music and the achievement, but claiming the Dead as an appropriate topic for the symphony was more than just a gesture of respect. The project was a deep expression of his own approach to American music and culture: “we too often ascribe seriousness to cultures other than our own,” he told one reporter. With the Dead, he found the perfect example to make his point. “I think what the Grateful Dead did is such a part of more than one generation,” he told NPR's Scott Simon. “It's long overdue to be taken as a phenomenon beyond the music itself …” And it meant that for Johnson, Dead Symphony No. 6 was nothing less than a work based on “American culture,” as he explained in an interview before the symphony's premiere in Baltimore.

That realization took time. Johnson didn't know the band's music at first; in one interview he called himself “a composer who had become a Deadhead through the process of meeting the music first.” His friendship with Adams made him receptive to the idea, however, and when he heard “China Doll,” he was convinced. The song “answered my first lingering question: is this even possible? Should I embark on this journey? When I heard 'China Doll,' I knew the answer was yes.”

Despite the daunting extent of the catalog, he bought every CD and immersed himself in the repertoire, putting in years of study to find a way to translate the band's songbook to an orchestral setting. The deeper he delved, the more he was amazed. “What I found by studying Jerry Garcia's songs is that there was a master craftsman at work; with the lyrics and with the message of the song, it would embody enough asymmetry or turns of melody or harmony that left the door open for someone to come in and redirect it.” Band historian and longtime publicist Dennis McNally agreed. “People tend to forget how finely composed the songs are. There's an underlying beauty to their structure and content that makes them malleable to be recast while still maintaining their own integrity. Hearing a song like 'Mountains of the Moon' adapted for a full symphony gives you a heightened impression of that fact.”

Johnson varied his arrangements. For “If I Had the World to Give,” he used a string quartet, because “for a composer, I think the string quartet is the ultimate proving ground,” he explained. “If you can't say it there, maybe you shouldn't attempt to say it anyplace else. And I think what Jerry did with that song was so much like a gemstone … so, by setting it with a string quartet, I'm saluting the mastery of what he did.”

Figs. 9 and 10. “If I Had the World to Give” song score.

The greatest challenge was handling the band's legendary improvisatory acumen-not something orchestral music is known for accommodating. Johnson arranged the end of “Stella Blue” to allow the orchestra to improvise. “And that's the great unknown,” he observed, “because even with guidance and with some limitations or some structure, orchestral improvisation is a rare, rare thing and borders on chaotic.” It was a strikingly ambitious acknowledgment, and when Johnson described the section to the Russian National Orchestra, he was delighted, and humbled, at the enthusiasm of their response.

The demo CD included in the collection is particularly interesting, a ten-minute précis of what Johnson was imagining in 1996 that provides a surprisingly good roadmap for what he eventually recorded more than a decade later. Its three songs-“China Doll,” “Sunrise,” and “Blues For Allah”-laid out Johnson's vision for what the symphony could provide, drawing widely from the Dead's catalog and showing how well it lent itself to classical orchestral arrangement. The graphics made an especially nice touch: Mike Schulman adapted Stanley Mouse's iconic Ice Cream Cone Kid from the cover of Europe '72, also used for the proposal's cover, though his design would not be used for the final release.

Figs. 11 and 12. Demo CD graphics.

The demo CD represents a promise that the final recording fulfilled, along with much of what the proposal outlines. Yet Adams' vision was conceived in much broader terms: he imagined an ongoing series of recordings and performances that would score as much of the Dead's songbook as classical orchestration could support, “using America's talented composers, arrangers and great orchestras.” It was nothing less than a shot across the ramparts of so-called “serious music,” something that appealed to Johnson as well. In his view, part of the point of his symphony was to claim the Dead's unique brand of rock as “a legitimate part of American culture.” As Johnson wrote in his appeal to the band, “I believe that the music of the Grateful Dead is so rich and fertile that it will thrive as it cross-pollinates with the language of the symphony orchestra.” And he was convinced that Deadheads could appreciate that cross-pollination, calling them “incredibly good listeners” whose sense of community was “something absolutely extraordinary”. As he concluded, “I am convinced that the Grateful Dead fan will be deeply intrigued with the music they love being propelled into [this] dynamic musical world … And I also believe that the symphonic music lover will be blown away by the power of the music that the Grateful Dead fan has cherished for over a quarter century.”

Critics agreed. Longtime Dead journalist Blair Jackson-initially aghast at the idea-called Dead Symphony No. 6 “a work of great passion, depth, subtlety and imagination.” Saluting the Baltimore performance, one reviewer mused that the Dead's music “is still evolving and great things have arisen from the ashes. Dead Symphony #6 is one of those great things.”

Fig. 13. Poster for the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra's performance of Dead Symphony No. 6, 2009


Time has shown him to be correct, and not just about Johnson's symphony. A few years later, Bob Weir and Giancarlo Aquilanti presented their own orchestration effort, one that advanced an even more ambitious approach to scoring songs from the band's canon (and also documented in the Grateful Dead Archive, in the form of a score and several drafts donated by Aquilanti). Both efforts are more than just proof that Adams and Johnson were right, they are testaments to how the Dead's music participates in the traditions it drew on, even long after its composition. Most of all, these orchestral treatments show how even the most demanding traditions and contexts can offer fresh lenses for reinterpreting the band's songs, letting them find new ways to be heard. That's true of archives as well: collections like the one documenting Dead Symphony No. 6 help us understand the sweat and labor and inspiration that underlies and creates art, and defines culture. Though the archive documenting Johnson's symphony project is slender, it too offers profound insights into the Dead's achievement, and how it extends far beyond their own archive, in often surprising ways.


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Joined: Oct 1 2007
brain fry...

Too hot this last week where I live, and so my "pen" was not an accurate tracker of my mind! Nicholas' work here, and in the archive itself, is fantastic, and the fact that the archive has seen the light of day, in the context of modern day funding constraints etc is amazing. It is also a place where both scholar and fans can find value, and learn, itself a wonderful thing, and in keeping with the Dead's high/low aesthetic. My complaints were directed at the symphony itself, and the report of the original motivations behind it, and the "role" it was expected to play in acts of legitimation of the Dead more widely. For my taste I would prefer directing readers towards these questions (regardless of what one thinks might be the attitude to take towards them), but then again perhaps we should all simply find our way into the issues behind these materials--that's what archives are for--shake them different ways, and different, perhaps even contradictory, narratives emerge. It is the job of all users of archives, from scholar to casual visitors, to creatively conjoin the materials they find in interesting and suggestive ways. I rather crassly suggested one way to conjoin some of this material, that is as a launch pad to investigate issues of aesthetic hegemony in the reception and legitimization processes at play wrt the Dead, others will of course see different themes and problematics. This is what makes the Dead Archive so valuable, and Nicholas' work so effective. It was wrong of me to suggest that "Documenting the Dead" is mere advertising, when, of course, it is intended to, well, advertise the materials in the collection, and the exhibits emerging out of the collection. Only when this work is done well, as it obviously is, can we then collectively dialogue about the narratives that emerge. That this post brought out strong views from me speaks to its effectiveness, not to any shortcomings! Guess I was piloting the Ship of Fools, when I should have been saying thank you for a real good time!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

I can't speak for Nick. But, based on long observation, I think that one of the core things about Grateful Dead is a sort of bloom-where-you're-planted tendency to take what you yourself have gotten from the shows and put it to work/apply it to the world you yourself are in. So it is that we have Dead symphonies and books about Dead business practices and untold numbers of businesses with "Grateful" in the name. Why, my neighborhood taco place has Jerry art all over the walls.

Not every one of all these expressions will resonate with everybody, but we've kinda been dealing with that for a long time. Grateful Dead culture is not monolithic. I mean, we can't even agree on what era is best. Or whether a particular show was transcendent or seriously off.

There's a lot of "let's see what happens if we do THIS" in GD DNA, to my mind. So somebody said, let's see what happens if we do a Grateful Dead symphony. And here we are.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
a bit more...

....I apologize for my occasional tone. It is the love I feel, like everyone associated with this site, for the Dead, that can bring out strong emotions! To simplify, this post does invite a discussion of aesthetics and the Dead. I do not think this symphony honours any of the central tenets of the Dead's musical practices, and I believe it is not an interesting piece of music. For me at least, discussing the Dead with a critical eye brings into even sharper focus just how high their heights were. If you default into the "it is all great, everything about the scene was great, every note was perfect, every show was a little miracle," then you flatten out the whole Dead experience, which is neither a credit to their creative peaks, or, I think, in any sense accurate. There is much that is tragic about the history of the Dead, which in many ways makes their musical successes that much more impressive, but this one misses by ignoring "the dark side". There were many nights (and I, at least, think these were not equally distributed throughout their touring career) when they were just plain "off", and recognizing this puts into even sharper focus those nights (and, as we all know, there were many, many of these!) when it just all clicked. So, for me the rose coloured glasses approach to the Dead makes everything, well, look the same, and who finds that interesting. And in a funny way that is exactly what, to my ears, this symphony does, it reduces the fantastic variety of the Dead's musical practices to a rather banal lowest common denominator generic style of classical orchestration.

Joined: Jul 5 2009
Great responses

Really was provoked by your critiques Grateful Prof.

I haven't heard the symphony and appreciate Mr. Meriweather's continued column which always interests me.

I suppose the Dead is the antithesis of symphony. Sure there has been sheet music published on the basic structure and chords, but the whole core of Dead musical philosophy is the spontaneity of the moment. Granted it's a daunting task to take on a symphonic interpretation of Dead music. But again I can't help but agree with Grateful Prof. that this legitimization is really pointless.

And they didn't even include Terrapin? lol.

Thanks all for your responses.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
I have to say

that Aquilanti's presentation last year at So Many Roads was a real eye-opener/window into another world. I particularly felt the guy's pain at having to deal with Weir going "hey, let's do this instead!" and playing a few bars. Apparently Aquilanti had an ongoing problem explaining that every time you do that it takes about two weeks to rewrite all the music for the orchestra. It was a serious worlds-collide kind of deal, and really interesting to hear about.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
so much worth talking about here....

from the very odd, and worth contesting, motivation behind the Dead Symphony--which buys into a certain aesthetic hierarchy of taste utterly anathema to that which the Dead advocated, and embodied. And the symphony itself, one must say, is a banal, trite arrangement of Dead tunes which--a piece of music firmly rooted in tried and true, and totally unoriginal, symphonic tropes, none of which any composer with any creative instincts would ever employ. It is not the Dark Star of contemporary symphonic composition, it is more like a top-40 hits from days gone by. I would think we were at last beyond the need to valourize music at the font of western art-music standards. It has become, and deserves to be, I fear, a "summer-pops" standard for aging deadhead. The claims above about "critics" being in agreement that this work is an aesthetic success are somewhat disingenuous, seeing that the only critic mentioned is a member of the Dead inner circle, and to my knowledge at least, not someone well versed in contemporary new music. I view this project not as one of "legitimization" (worth thinking about that trope, in the context of the Dead), but buying into a form of aesthetic hegemony that they Dead fought against. Will there ever be a critical moment in Documenting the Dead--is the research collection simply extended advertising, is that the mandate of a University based collection?

Joined: Jan 13 2015
It's the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

You might as well identify the venue- the Concertgebouw is widely considered the greatest concert hall in the world.


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