Lee Johnsons Dead Symphony no. 6
Thanks to a musical aesthetic of always moving forward and ignoring repetition, the music of the Grateful Dead became an ever-evolving being, featuring subtle and drastic changes by its members over the course of thousands of performances. The array of styles that mutated seamlessly together to form the Dead’s sound, have, not surprisingly, been broken down into their distinct components for cover versions in the rock, jazz, bluegrass, swing and Celtic worlds. The idea of a classical interpretation may have seemed too upper crust for most Deadheads but not Mike Adams. The recording studio owner sensed that the right composer could make this idea a reality, and after Jerry Garcia’s passing, he felt an urgency to make it happen.
Enter Lee Johnson, Callaway Professor of Music Chair at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. The Emmy award winner had written five symphonies plus musicals, operas and pieces for experimental films and multi-media installations and worked with orchestras and choruses around the world. His open-minded approach as a composer, conductor, teacher, performer and producer seemed just right for the project.
Johnson explains, “As a Callaway Professor of Music, the college expects and encourages me to remain professionally active. I’ve been here since 1989. I teach students in composition. I’m firmly convinced that they are writing the music that is coming next; they and other students.”
“I don’t think that American composers are deficient in any way. In fact, it’s America’s turn to be the dominant force in Classical music. So I’m devoted to my students. I want them to do cool things. I want them to think big. And they do concertos and operas and film scores and all kinds of stuff.”
And just as fate and good karma always played a role in the lives of Deadhead, Adams found in Johnson someone who also had the right approach in life. “I know that a lot of what you do, you need to give back. The more you give back, the more you have to work with for your own hopes and dreams, too.
Ten years in the making and two more before it was released, “Dead Symphony no. 6” shapes the musical notes of the Grateful Dead into new forms. It celebrates the artistry of the legendary San Francisco band members by offering listeners what the Dead always gave them something recognizable and pleasing even in a transformed and challenging state.JPG: How long did it take Mike Adams to convince you to attempt this?
LJ: He started working on me in ’95, right after Jerry died, and the piece was recorded in 2005. You can say I was in school for a good long time. He’d taken his long-standing idea and said, I’ve got to find a guy who can do this.’ And that process ultimately found me.
Initially, I said as long as he takes enough time to school me and if I can learn this subject then I would do it. But I’d say we’re going to have to go until I reach saturation point. I said, ‘There’s no time limit. Let’s make a commitment, and then let time take care of itself.’ He was cool with that. Once that started, there were a couple points along the way when I knew not only was this going to work but I thought it was going to be very, very huge. But I still felt like I was in school. The journey was well underway, but still had to continue.
JPG: I read that you did your ‘homework’ as far as listening to hours of music and reading up on the band.
LJ: Well, you could probably tell that I’ve written my share of music for orchestra and things like that, which is, I guess, its own school of thought. In order for me to make sure that I just wasn’t reacting to just the melody or just a one-dimensional idea, I wanted to make sure by the time the music was going into the composition phase, when the creativity’s flying, that I had taken in all that was available of The Grateful Dead that I could learn, hear about, experience, even fall in love with so that it would come from a deep place within me. I wanted to have some sense of ownership, too, that this was a massive phenomenon that needed to be celebrated and explored in this symphonic way.
JPG: Prior to this you weren’t really familiar with the Grateful Dead’s music.
LJ: I knew of the band. I suppose there are lots of bands I know of, but I don’t have, maybe, the time to know much more than that because I have music to study in the Classical realm, too. Once the CDs, the books, the stories and ‘Here, listen to this bootleg and that bootleg,’ I got a chance to feel like I was part of the community, too. I didn’t care how long it took. Let’s just do it right, and every step along the way let’s make sure that we’re doing it so there are no excuses for it — sounds great, has a great orchestra, great engineers — and no compromise. If that means it takes 10 years (slight laugh) then let’s do it.
JPG: Did you have any prejudices when it was first brought to you that were knocked down during the process?
LJ: My biggest worry was how can a band that has made such a huge legacy off of living in the moment — a jamband, an improvisational band, an experientential band — how does that translate to an orchestra that can’t do that very much at all? How can this even be a good fit as an initial project idea? I did let the orchestra improvise in “Stella Blue,” which they were dying to do and they did a good job of it. In fact, every show will be different, of course. And even in the live version, “Stella Blue” would continue on in a “Drums” and “Space” vibe and then “Birdsong” would actually kick in before “Stella Blue” ever finishes. That would be great for a live show. It would not have worked in a recording session, not for an orchestra. So, we decided just to let that other evolution of it be, find its home in the concert hall.
Prejudice against the band? I’m used to having a lot of prejudice thrown at me because I’m mostly a Classical guy. I live under the shadow of experts saying I should do this or I shouldn’t do that. So, I figured criticism that the Grateful Dead had thrown at them was by the same kind of well-meaning but misguided people. And there is criticism, and I’d certainly became aware of it and decided that all the moving mouths are either uttering lies or truths and it’s up to me to decide. When I put the word symphony’ next to Dead’ that’s my statement of this, to be considered among the highest of the art forms. This is an honest expression of American culture as shared by the world.
JPG: The members of the Grateful Dead concerned themselves more with the live experience and were rarely satisfied with what the band produced in the studio. In your preparation for this, composition-wise, how did you balance your focus between studio efforts and live recordings?
LJ: We had to cut down the number of songs to those that worked for the project. There is a long, long list and many folks have said, What are you going to do next? Are you going to do this, my favorite? And this one, my favorite?’
My criteria was that if I heard the melody, I didn’t care if I heard the song if it was live or studio, if it just had within it something that told me this is going to be flattered by the treatment of an orchestra, not just the arrangement of it or setting of it or transcription, but it could be flattered by the normal compositional process of classical music, which is, Here’s a theme do something with it. Take it somewhere. Continue its journey.’ If it’s a folk melody from Stephen Foster, just don’t put chords to it and call it finished. Make sure you take it farther. And so the first piece that opened the door for that was “China Doll.” Every version I could hear of that I was thinking, Oh, they did that. That’s cool.’
Of course the jams, there’s just endless choices there. So you want to feel like you’ve had good long setting to hear through, take it all in context because you just can’t go in the middle of a piece that’s 25 minutes and say you understand it. Even in a Dead show, if it takes 45 minutes to that point, it was a journey that made that particular arrival so satisfying. All those things together. I knew that if I did that for a long enough period of time and did it well enough that I would get a sense of this is a part of me, too. It’s time for me to say something and that’s when the composition started.
JPG: What was it about "China Doll" that crystallized matters for you, that made you think that this could work?
LJ: The moment I heard that piece, I said, Ahhh, This is the door. This is the gateway. I’m going through it.’ And my hunch was right. And then I found pieces that are not so well known even by Deadheads because they weren’t played very often. Some people are saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t pick my favorite song, but I’ve never heard of this one.’ My answer sometimes is in an encouraging way, ‘Maybe you should know about this piece. This is a great piece. Maybe it was just not always appropriate to do it or maybe it was too complicated or something.’ "Blues for Allah" and "Mountains of the Moon" and "If I Had the World to Give," those are lesser-known pieces, but my gosh, they’re perfectly composed! Those are gems of our culture whether we realize it or not.
JPG: I always thought "Terrapin Station” lent itself for orchestration. And I was surprised when I didn’t see it included on "Dead Symphony." What was it about "Terrapin" that it didn’t make it?
LB: It seemed like it was so hand in glove maybe I ought not go there. Of course, now orchestras that are planning to program "Dead Symphony" are saying, ‘Would you consider doing a suite of "Terrapin Station?"’ I’m thinking, maybe I’ll just do that because then it could be something to add to the evening and because people know it so well. And that’s probably going to happen.
But I didn’t necessarily feel it was my job to go down the path most trodden by the Dead community because I’m kind of a newcomer. When there’s so many people interpreting their contributions to culture, music and everything else that, maybe, the best thing to do is not try to follow a trend but just be honest. These pieces [on Dead Symphony] just blew my mind. And if others have their favorites too then we should all feel comfortable saying, This is my favorite song. That’s my favorite song.’ For me maybe it’s a different kind of compliment to their creativity. I’m saying as a Classical composer, these are undeniable gems of creativity from a global standard, and therefore that’s why they work with the orchestra so well.
JPG: You mentioned earlier your idea of a live presentation incorporating “Stella Blue,” “Drums>Space” and “Bird Song.” I take it that after recording you immediately started working towards a live presentation.
LJ: I knew that was the way it would be done live at the time I composed it, but I also knew that it would not be the right kind of experience from a recording session. I’ve done my share of working with orchestras and I didn’t want to open that door in the recording process. Going to Moscow and dealing with translators and just the effort it takes to make a major recording happen. I knew that there was a line I shouldn’t cross and I should save that for the concert hall.
JPG: For a live situation have you added any other songs that for whatever reason didn’t get recorded?
LJ: A couple that were on the list that I pretty much composed and set aside might actually find their way into the “Terrapin Suite.” I won’t be adding to the symphony. I’ll be adding to a program. There might be an overture. There might be something else. Someone’s even talked about doing a piano concerto. And of course, you know Bruce Hornsby plays with orchestras. In fact an orchestra that has him guest appear quite often said, Please write one for him so he can play with our orchestra.’ There’s lots of folks with really great ideas. The world premiere looks like it’s going to happen in August of ’08. I just can’t say what orchestra. It’s a major one.
JPG: As far as the track “Dead Overture,” when I heard “Funiculi, Funicula” in there I thought to myself, This just might work.’ It seemed that you had the right attitude about it.
LJ: That’s good. That’s good. I felt like that was the inside joke; only the select few would know. (laughs).
JPG: Now, in putting this together, you composed demos on MIDI files. Is that something that you normally do?
LJ: For this piece that was a request of me before I even started, that I do a couple movements as trial balloons. I’m a flexible guy. I’m used to working with all kinds of equipment. In fact, I gave them to Mike Adams to play for all of his close friends and whatever circle he wanted to take em in. He would have people come to his house and say, Hey, I’ve got this thing in, do you want to check it out?’ They’d sit down and have no idea what it was. Of course, listening to symphonic music probably was not the normal thing at Mike Adams’s house and person after person, he’d see their face when the bell went off. He said, Everyone’s responding the way I was hoping they were going to respond.’ He didn’t have to be worried anymore.
How I set it up with Mike was, Once I know that it is time for me just to be the composer, I’ll shut the door on all outside input, but until that points happens, whatever people want to say, whatever they want to tell me, I’m going to be a sponge.’ After he felt like everyone loved it then I took that news and just went to my composition land and stayed there until it was finished.
JPG: One can pick out definite themes and melodies, for example in “St. Stephen,” but what struck me was something like “Here Comes Sunshine,” where the parts that are familiar are more subtle and replaced by a totally original evocative sense of sunrise. Tell me how that came about?
LJ: You just put into words what the music was trying to convey. That’s actually written about a real event and hope under those circumstances would be life-changing hope. So I wanted to make sure that when the sensation of hope like this appeared, hope might apply to me, too. Ever been in the midst of folks and a bunch of people are getting good news and you’re not included? It’s like, Well, I’m glad they can be happy, but there’s nothing for me here.’ I wanted to make sure that when the lyric Here comes sunshine’ is being with the sunrise coming up, you knew it included you as well.
Now that piece actually has…I’m pretty faithful to the melody even though it’s stretched out. So, it’s so slow you can’t really hear it. I disassembled the melody into its modal counterparts. And that’s what attracted me, first of all, to that piece. This is within the first half of a phrase. We’ve already done a modal modulation. That’s just uncommon for any writer of songs. So, I decided there’s got to be more in here. That piece just delivered all kinds of potential and so it made the list. Then, it was a matter of, Now what am I going to say with this piece’?
JPG: Unlike “St. Stephen” or “Sugar Magnolia,” where one’s brain automatically locks in and catches the original melody and theme, it took additional listens on “Here Comes Sunshine” because it’s less pronounced.
LJ: I can say this about the Grateful Dead listener as I was getting acquainted with them. I truly believe that the Grateful Dead fanbase is the best educated fanbase in music because, and that’s a big statement and I’d say it to any group, of the ability of the Grateful Dead fan to stick with it and listen for their tunes, that hint that they’re on the horizon and all the transformations that they’re going to go through and all the jams around it. They know how to listen for the kind of musical information, like you would call a theme or motif. Classical composers are counting on the audience being educated in that way and that used to be the case. Rewind the clock a long, long way. Mozart could know for certain that his audience is going to be listening for the second theme of a sonata. He knew that they knew that they were supposed to be listening for it. Well that skill pretty much went away. And I think it has resurfaced in the Grateful Dead fan because they know how to listen for thematic transformation.
JPG: How did you gain a sense that you got it right?
LJ: There’s a couple stages of that. First of all you’re writing in sort of a vacuum. I’m used to that process. I believe in the compositional phase that I know it’s finished. However, I’m a human that also has this fear of God in my soul that when it goes in front of that orchestra, it’s just quite possible that they are not going to get it. But I’ve done my share of having that experience be good and bad. So the confirmation that everything’s right is when you see what happens to the orchestra.
In the case of the Russian National Orchestra, which is kind of interesting that you’d have a foreign orchestra play this first, when they meet the music from the page, no video, no back story, no cheering section is enough for them to say they’re going to like anything. Add a cultural barrier. Add language barrier. Add the fact that they are all sitting there knowing that they’ve got to record a massive piece in just a couple days. If any magic can happen during that circumstanceyou’re just lucky.
The beautiful thing is they decided halfway through the first rehearsal, they were in. I’ve never seen such commitment. I don’t really know what caused it because I’ve worked with them on two recordings, two big projects before that. This is my third recording with the Russian National Orchestra. I was just stunned. It was their language. They knew exactly what to do. Then, as a composer, I know this piece can work because now anyone can wave a baton in front of any orchestra and it’s going to work. I don’t have to be the one doing it.
JPG: You answered what would have been my next question, which was why choose the Russian National Orchestra
LJ: (slight laugh) It’s probably a better fit than some folks even imagine because this is the first independent orchestra in Russia’s history. They’re only about 16, 17 years old actually. Everything’s state controlled, even post-Communism. There’s not the same kind of capitalist system that we take for granted here. These are free thinkers and they’re successful throughout the world. They are independently funded. These are go-getters. They know the world stage very well. In fact, they’ll probably be the first orchestra to play it in California some time next year. They were in Napa a month ago and I visited with them. They know the San Francisco area really well. They can’t wait to play it for an audience. Again, the culture that the Grateful Dead created, facilitated and celebrated is a global culture. It’s a better symptom of how much they did to see how many people claim ownership over what the Grateful Dead mean. That’s a good checkpoint.
JPG: What has been the reaction to Dead Symphony by Deadheads, your students, faculty, peers…?
LJ: I can answer it this way. First of all, I try to be a rather unassuming, humble guy, so I don’t really need to toot my own horn, but I’ve never seen people take to a piece of mine with such eagerness as they have to “Dead Symphony No.6.” And because of that, certainly, I’m very pleased and thankful. The reaction from the Dead Community, I hope they would see that what I was doing was honest and for their enrichment as much as it was for taking the Grateful Dead’s catalog, the songs, these choice songs, and then pushing them into an arena that they haven’t been really open to in the past. As the audience continues to get older and they’re already three generations, that’s a pretty big family tree there. It needs to migrate through the musical culture in order for it to continue.
I really have had only a few people take issue to me for doing this. The funny thing is the ones who’ve been the most critical have even stated in their own little blog or a story or some kind of review that they really never even listened to it, that I didn’t choose their favorite song. Therefore, they knew the whole reason they didn’t like it. Okay, that’s not that interesting or helpful. I guess it shows that people have very strong opinions and, of course, I wouldn’t be able to change their opinion. But they’ve been in the vast minority, that I guess this means I hit the mark. People have let me know that they’re pleased with how I did this work.
JPG: I was expecting faculty or people in the Classical world to be a little more uptight about it than those in the Deadhead community.
LJ: Here’s another thing to answer that. I’ve been pitching my symphonic music to major symphony orchestras for years and years and years. The closer you are to being dead, We’ll be sure to program your stuff.’ I got there a different way. Now, they’re calling me up, orchestras all over the country to major symphonies, too. The difference being, I guess, that they cannot deny that there’s something about this piece that they just want to be a part of too. Well, that’s good for music. That’s good for the Grateful Dead. But it’s good for new music, as things that are positive open doors for other people. I want my students to believe that they have a chance in the Classical realm, just like I’m trying to pursue one, too. If there’s no evidence that music’s still open and available to them then they need to choose something else. I’m glad there’s evidence that music’s still a prize possession.
JPG: Have you heard if any of the members of the Grateful Dead listened to “Dead Symphony No. 6”?
LJ: I met with Bob Weir about a month ago. He’s the only band member that I’ve had the joy of having some one-on-one time with and I was thrilled to pieces, as you can imagine. He’s a complete gentleman. I was stunned by what a sophisticated articulate and kind person he is. I was blown away. I haven’t had a chance to speak with anyone else. I know that Phil Lesh had mentioned that he was going to actually do a Grateful Dead Symphony of his own. That was announced I think in ’96. That caused me to want to not interfere. If he is working on one, I’d sincerely hope that it so kicks mine so severely in the butt that I leave the face of the earth because he would be the expert, of course. But I don’t know what is going on with that and until such time I offer this in all sincerity. This is who the Grateful Dead are and who they represent as they go into the classical world.
JPG: You’ve written two more symphonies after “Dead Symphony No 6.”
LJ: It’s customary for composers to number their symphonies in the order that they were actually written. It’s also, oddly enough, customary for the sixth symphony of composers to deal with subjects from their own soul. So, I found it very interesting to be doing the same thing quite by accident. The fates had played a role in how that’s supposed to come out.
JPG: What are these two symphonies like?
LJ: A human rights symphony where Jimmy Carter participated in reading a narration. And then my latest symphony was just premiered in Florida and it explores Greek philosophy and Greek Music Theory and expressed through philosophy. So, I do what composers do. (laughs)
JPG: Between that and recording and teaching, you’re a very busy man.
LJ: That’s what makes my life fun to live. Composing is a non-stop activity. It’s a private one. You really don’t have a crowd when you’re writing music. In our culture, there’s a certain sense of being kind of an outcast because new symphonic music is not really on the mind of the American audience that much. So, it’s certainly a massive mission of mine to make sure if I’m writing symphonic music, it’s connected to things that matter. I know that the Grateful Dead matter. I know human rights matter. And I know the music might be fine and dandy but if it doesn’t have any other reason to be heard, maybe people will assume that it’s not required for their experience. I take all of that pretty seriously.
JPG: When you talk of new symphonic music, I’d like to get your reaction to this. Composers of film scores, particularly those who use orchestras such as John Williams (“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Schindler’s List”), why aren’t the results considered symphonic pieces?
LJ: That’s only an issue in the American culture, which says something about our lack of exposure to the whole classical process. We’ve pretty much carried what we understood about that, what we call fine art, and we took it with us. I think we got nostalgic with it as a nation rather than seeing it as something that is ongoing and a true representative of the health of a nation, which is what art is.
John Williams and the other film composers, if they were composers in European countries and even countries that we’ve had dicey histories with, the Soviet Union would be one of them. In the Soviet’s case they’re composing symphonic music too but they also made them do cartoon music and film music and ballets and music to open subways. And it was normal for a Classical composer. It’s normal for Classical composers of other cultures to do a little bit of everything include writing popular songs. Here we’ve decided everyone’s supposed to be segmented or separated and that you are not supposed to do all those things because we’ve turned music into this kind of industry that has so much branding attached to it. I write musicals. I’ve written four musicals. I’m directing “Mikado” right now. I’ve actually contributed to my community by working with a church choir. I’ve been doing that for nearly 25 years. You have to get your hands dirty and you have to serve your community for arts to have, for them even to have a chance to survive. I mentor. I teach, as you know. My behavior would be considered very normal overseas. But here, I take my share of heat. Believe me, for doing film music or even electronic music or my first opera was a Popera. I mixed, at that time, grunge to kind of Ren and Stimpy style musical satire. That’s the behavior of a composer that would be seen as quite to be expected someplace else. Here, not so. It may change. It may not change. But it won’t change my activity. I’m going to continue to explore all that I can.