Dead Again

Jonathan Bellman

There is a symphony on Grateful Dead songs, the Symphony No. 6 of composer Lee Johnson (here are the AP and Playbill stories). It is recorded by the Russian National Orchestra, currently released and available as a download. Yes, I’ll have to hear it, sure. I like some Dead stuff, think some goes on too long, etc. etc. They were never among my favorites, but I never disliked them either. No, I never saw them.

It is hard to shake the feeling that this symphony is pandering, or cashing in, or condescending. It is hard to put something like this in the same category as Vincent D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air or Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune, where the idea is using a single song as raw material. I remember once seeing a recording of a concerto for two pianos and orchestra based on Lennon-McCartney songs. No, I didn’t buy it. This is all reminiscent of Rifkin’s classic Baroque Beatles Book, but that was an acknowledged goof, a beautifully crafted, lighthearted bonbon. There seems to be a bit more high seriousness in this case: the Associated Press coverage stresses the composer’s Emmy (for what I don’t know), his position at La Grange College in Georgia, etc.

On the one hand, I know I should not prejudge. On the other, I’m not sure what my reaction would be to hearing the melodies to which the lyrics “If you got a warrant, I know you’re gonna come in…busted, down on Bourbon Street,” and “we can discover the wonders of nature rolling in the bushes down by the riverside” were originally sung. The available, democratized, free-rambling, and carnivalesque atmosphere always associated with the Dead and their performances (and—er—entourage) seems an odd match for the discipline and resources associated with a symphony orchestra. Never mind the supposed high culture/low culture divide; orchestras have always ranged widely, rock bands (as I argue periodically) often veer far to the cultivated/high art side, and that isn’t the point anyway. It’s the formality and regimen of the orchestra (regardless of how they’re dressed, folks, almost all orchestras require a conductor) and the hippie ethos of the Dead that I find to be…dissonant. It will be the responsibility of the music to convince me that it is not pandering or cashing in.

A modest proposal for Symphony No. 7:  Symphony for the Devil, based on Rolling Stones songs. Perhaps the rondo-tune for the last movement could be the chorus of “Star Star” off Goat’s Head Soup

In other news: we’re leaving on July 5 for a couple of weeks on the road. I may get something posted before I leave; I may not. Enjoy the long summer days, everyone!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Dead Again

  1. Robin Wallace says:

    Since I recently admitted here to liking the Grateful Dead, let me just say that I agree this sounds pretty appalling.
    – Robin

  2. Between 1969 and 1971, I was a massive Dead Head, saw them 33 times and stopped because they were getting too big. I think of almost several different musical entities they were, starting as an almost meth freak bluegrass outfit, the psychedelic jam band and the roots group post Workingman’s Dead (oh those lovingly sung if horribly intonated vocals). But the intense magic, for me, were those moments when the great intent of the musicians, to play together, transcended even much of the free jazz of the day. The incredible connection between the musicians as they improvised as one. The heart and soul of the Dead was improvisation. An orchestra is the antithesis, a power structure of the old church, things done on earth as in heaven. Little shits begging for directions of the demigods (composer, conductor). I have known so many “classical” musicians in my life, who have to be taught to improvise! I consider classical musicians like women with bound feet, or people who have survived basic training, horribly maimed by a culture ((probably for life, but I am not opinionated). I have not heard this orchestral Dead yet, so I will reserve judgment, but the idea creates an image in my head of a tutu wearing hippo. Yeah, they could dream of flying like the Dead could, phfftt.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Golly. How open-minded. You know I’m a classical musician, right?
    A phrase like “Little shits begging for directions from the demigods” suggests, frankly, chemical imbalance. Yeah, people who don’t improvise naturally need to learn how, and often they don’t get good at it. Is that somehow less noble than a self-taught folk-rock musician who can jam endlessly in *a very limited number of styles, as long as a drummer is keeping the beat and s/he knows the chords*? Nothing against it, but it sure as hell isn’t morally or artistically superior to a trained virtuoso who interprets others’ music. If you want to make the parallel case about drama–pro-playwright and pro-improv but contemptuous anti-actors who work from scripts–that doesn’t stand up either.
    So the interview I heard where Jerry Garcia threw one of the other band-members down the stairs because he was too coked-out or paranoid or whatever to know what was going on is an illustration of…what? A nobly independent spirit doing what he needed to do? A gentle freak just, y’know, trying to get high and get by? I have never and will never valorize that kind of self-indulgent, autocratic crap, regardless of how much of an icon Garcia was. I don’t know of a case where a conductor has actually gotten violent with his collaborating musicians.
    And as for your obvious and profound authority problem (not to mention lack of comprehension) regarding symphony orchestra as an entity, is there *no* artistic endeavor that requires an executive view, and guidance? Like, say, a play with a director, or a film? Does that also make the actors little drones?
    My point was that the the discipline of the symphony orchestra and the Dead’s aesthetic (your description accords with what I was trying to get at) seem like irreconcilables. My point was NOT hating on my students, colleagues, training, and life’s work.

  4. I apologize for sounding so harsh, it was unnecessary. I grew up playing violin in school orchestras etc. and graduated as a performer (guitar) from a conservatory, so most of my friends and loved ones are “classical” musicians. And you are right, I have an authority problem, especially when it comes to music (but I gave up extra-chemicals many decades ago, so it might just be a natural mental imbalance). It is the huge structure of institutional musical authority that, I suspect, throttles the natural act that is music, early on, in many. If music is protospeech (and not the genetic accidental froth as Steven Pinker might have it), it is possible to imagine that music is a language we are all capable of using in our formative time. It is the censoring by the established institutions that might inhibit this.
    The Grateful Dead, of whom I have no opinion on their personal lives, succeeded through the intent to create democratically, as a dialogue. This is what made their jams so exciting, the almost impossible amount of group listening that had to occur to make it come out at all (and they often failed in the attempt). I would not characterize them as particularly talented instrumentalists but their intent raised the music to a greater experience (that they were brave enough to sing, so out of tune, might not be considered so kindly by me 😉 ). I agree with your fears about this “pandering” and “condescending”, as these are almost always in attendance when “good” musicians go slumming (and I used to park Arthur Fiedler’s car at the Beaconsfield garage). It is like someone whose knowledge of the classics extends to Tacobell and The Four Seasons thinking they have an understanding of the classics.
    I am sorry if I can’t help but take a whack at the institution, it spends so much time trying to explain itself. In the end, the arguments are really about financial resources. A single full time symphony orchestra, in a city, guarantees there will be more “classical” musicians making a living wage there, then all the other types of musicians combined. But the orchestral managers earn their keep getting the money from the corporate sources, so it is theirs by rights.
    “…is there *no* artistic endeavor that requires an executive view, and guidance?” That question demands many definitions. As one who worked for twenty years in the film/television “business/industry” (in music), I may not be very understanding of “art”. Yet I would say, in that “field”, that many times there is a sense of collaboration rather then the militaristic sense of a private whose job is simply to follow orders. This is often because the “executive” is not sure what he wants, but will work with what is presented, the “executive” aspect being one of the last word. It is the “classical” music’s long established institutions, the bowings and scrapings (har), the warehouses full of pedestals, that has helped to create the, possibly very unnatural, musical entity that has no idea except what it is told (the orchestral musician). On YouTube, there is a film of Luciano Pavarotti singing with James Brown ( It may just be my interpretation, but is there not a look in Pavarotti’s eyes “please, someone tell me what to sing”. No, not orchestral, and completely subjective speculation, and it is Brown’s band. So to answer the original question, I would say that, if a woman choses to have bound feet to suit her aesthetics, I say fine, but do not impose it on her in youth, before she knows what and why. To quote Roland Kirk “Volunteer slavery, is something that we all know”.
    My recent research into music cognition and perception in multimedia, deals with an audience of expert consumers from infancy. I believe there is an intrinsic role of music in our social selves, that doesn’t need professors to improve, the growing awareness of which may be at some odds with the “classical” establishment.
    Once again, I apologize for the tone of my last comment.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Peter–can’t resist flinging one back, though pre-departure madness is in crescendo/accelerando. Pavarotti–well, who cares? Taking no issue with your assessment of him, I’d say that he is emblematic of *nothing*, and certainly not solid classical training. When I was doing my master’s in piano at the University of Illnois (1980-82, though I was there for another two years), one of Lucianissimo’s main accompanist/coaches was John Wustman, who was the head of vocal accompanying there. The gossip among Wustman’s students was that JW had to teach the overgrown set of vocal cords his parts, no matter how diatonic. Please; *that* is not what I mean when I talk about the training that produces a fine orchestral player.
    As far as the orchestra as Institution: at least this Institution does seek to explain itself. That is a PLUS, not a minus. I don’t see the Church (whichever institutionalized brand you feel like excoriating) or–umm–totalitarian governments explaining themselves. Apologiae (a random shot at a Latin plural; I never had Latin) may seem tedious, but I’ll take it over dismissive fiat any day.
    As far as the utopian spirit of collaboration in the film/soundtrack industry: I have no personal experience, but I know that Randy Newman (one of my heroes) does not talk this way about his experience of *Seabiscuit*. There are probably advantages and disadvantages to any artistic situation, and my whole point is that we should be wary of validating one over any others.
    For the snipe about “professors,” ANY language needs teachers and other speakers. That might be parents, tutors, or…professors. My father was a professor, I got three degrees at different institutions, and have taught at two more, and–admittedly, given my personality, which is not actually of the deferential, shrinking-violet type–I have never been forced to conform or assimilate. I’m sure I was frustrating in various ways to the people giving me guidance, but I was only smacked down when I really had it coming, and was almost always treated with respect. If one approaches the institutions of higher education properly (with an appropriate mix of humility and self-confidence, say, and boundless energy and interest in new opportunities), one leaves expanded, not diminished. I won’t deny that I met people who had an unhealthy love of their own authority, but–frankly–I avoided them. At every place I have ever been, the top scholars and teachers were NOT those petty-minded, insecure people.
    Incidentally, the person who really blew my mind about music as language in the art-music arena, eighteenth-century music especially, and expanding into the nineteenth, was Leonard Ratner at Stanford. True, this is the cultivated idiom as a codified language with vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric (which may be something quite different from Music Cognition, Psychoacoustical University-of-Washington-type stuff), but it was a professor at an institution who had authority over me. Maybe I’m just obscenely lucky, but I have no recollection of anyone trying to make me repress or unlearn anything I knew intuitively (and I’m a much more natural by-ear, improvising player than reader, which means that learning performance repertoire was always uphill for me).
    As far as the classical establishment, I think in some ways it’s a chimaera, especially with the younger generations of musicians, who appreciate and play a variety of styles.
    Time’s up. Must run. A thought: let’s all (myself included) see if we can conceive the musical world in less binaristic, adversarial ways. It’s too easy, and easy things make me distrustful.
    Thanks for the lively exchange!

  6. And thanks for taking the time. Sometimes I think that the act of commenting on a blog, often sitting alone in a room, brings out a careless tone in my writing (I am usually escaping, for a moment, what I am really supposed to be writing). I shoot first and aim later. You have been gracious with me, thank you.

  7. Didn’t Philip Glass write two different symphonies based on David Bowie songs? Even though the ideas are similar, I can see how structure and plotting out in a Bowie song would be diverse with that “feel” that makes a Grateful Dead tune a, well, Dead tune. I haven’t heard either the Bowie pieces or the Dead piece, but there must be some sort of potential there – perhaps potential simply to draw inspiration? It’s hard to say what direction you could take when it’s less about a melody and more about a little world that toured the globe for almost ever.

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