The classical treatment; Conductor Lee Johnson offers a new vision of some Grateful Dead tunes.
COLUMN: SCOTT MCLENNAN
Composer and conductor Lee Johnson called the music of the Grateful Dead an "American treasure."
And over the years, those jewels have been given various settings outside of the band's own handling. You can find Grateful Dead songs worked into a cappella arrangements, done as jazz journeys, whipped into Celtic jams and even rendered as punk rants.
Johnson stepped into the fray by producing "Dead Symphony, No. 6," a classical treatment of 10 Grateful Dead songs performed by the Russian National Orchestra. Johnson started the project in 1995 at the behest of Atlanta music producer and Deadhead Mike Adams.
"Mike started asking around about who the local Mozart was and another studio owner recommended me," said Johnson, who teaches at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga., and has composed various contemporary symphonic works that now number eight original pieces.
Yet Johnson proved an interesting choice for the project as he had never seen the Grateful Dead perform live, never met anyone in the band, and essentially started from scratch to learn all there is to know about group.
"Mike had wanted to get this done, and once Jerry Garcia died (in 1995), the project took on an urgency for him," Johnson said. "Mike Adams took the time to educate me, and it was like swimming in a pool."
As Johnson soon found out, not only are there loads of songs created by the Grateful Dead, there are multiple versions of any given song.
But the project snapped into focus once Johnson found "China Doll," a haunting ballad with baroque overtones that appeared on the 1974 album "From the Mars Hotel."
"`China Doll' was the door-opener," he said. "Musically there were enough component parts in the song and clever turns of melody to make it work with the orchestra. `China Doll' has this Edgar Allen Poe short story feel to it that I just love."
With "China Doll," Johnson and the orchestra simply blew up the song, riding its inherently majestic attributes to greater heights.
But "Dead Symphony" does not rest on formula, as other songs underwent interesting treatments that did not necessarily exploit qualities already in the Dead's rock 'n' roll versions, but instead studied the songs anew. "Here Comes Sunshine" and "To Lay Me Down," for instance, enjoy exotic rearrangements that make the songs feel reborn.
Johnson said that he chose the Russian National Orchestra for this project precisely because it would be willing to experiment in such a manner.
"The Russian National Orchestra is full of free thinkers. They are considered rebels over there. They had to approach this as more than reading notes on paper," Johnson said.
That sense of fun and exploration is present at the outset of the project as the symphony's overture dabbles in "Funiculi Funicala," a happy little melody the Dead itself would noodle on to tune up. From there, Johnson and the orchestra fused and forged various eras of Dead music into a cohesive whole, meshing the medieval underpinnings of "St. Stephen" with the Eastern strains of "Blues for Allah." The orchestra gives in to the bounce of "Sugar Magnolia," and under Johnson's direction reveals what a truly great song the often-overlooked "If I Had the World to Give" is.
Now that "Dead Symphony" is done and recorded (available on Jammates Records and online at www.leejohnsonmusic.com), the next step is to see it get performed live by other symphony orchestras.
Since orchestras tend to program in two-year cycles, Johnson said it is likely "Dead Symphony" is a way away from its live debut, but he is encouraged by the response he has received from conductors who want to tackle the project. Given that it took a dozen years to prepare, write, record and release "Dead Symphony," Johnson is not concerned too much by the time it will take for the next phase of this project to be completed. As the Dead itself proclaimed in song, things that are built to last don't fade away, and Johnson is certain Grateful Dead music is built to last.
"I'm fascinated by American culture and the stuff that is `real,'" he said. "Grateful Dead is a huge window through which people see us. I never went to the shows, but you hear all the stories from people who did, and you know something real was going on. I never saw Beethoven, but I know his music is real. My heart tells me there was something right about doing this project."
Scott McLennan can be reached at email@example.com