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!