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Published: 2008/09/23
by Dean Budnick

Trey Anastasio and Don Hart Collaborate on A Disney Ride

On September 27, Trey Anastasio will join Orchestra Nashville for the debut of his new composition, "Time Turns Elastic." The performance, which will take place at the Ryman Auditorium on Saturday evening (an open dress will precede it during the afternoon), continues a collaborative relationship that began at the 2004 Bonnaroo Music Festival. There Anastasio conducted the Nashville Chamber Orchestra (since renamed Orchestra Nashville) for a few selections: “Prologue,” “Coming To” and “Guyute.” In the process of creating a proper score for “Guyute,” the Orchestra introduced Anastasio to composer and arranger Don Hart. Since that first meeting in 2004, Anastasio has enlisted Hart to provide string arrangements for a few songs on Bar 17 as well as a notable version of “Divided Sky” at New York City’s Webster Hall on October 8 and 9, 2006. “Time Turns Elastic” will bring things full circle, with Orchestra Nashville once again performing (joined by the guitarist along with conductor Paul Gambill), while Anastasio and Hart have stepped up their relationship, as Hart serves as co-composer.

In describing his work with Hart on “Time Turns Elastic,” Anastasio has stated, “I’ve never come close to the collaboration I’ve had with Don Hart. We had three-day sleepover sessions like little kids. A lot of work done on this piece consists of conceptual conversations. We talk about writing emotional content and beauty and excitement, so many of our conversations are focused around emotional descriptions, like a line of a song. The thing about it is, like I said, there are certain emotions that can only be called out of an orchestra. The coolest thing is that Don, from his angle, has no interest in changing me, or making me a classical guy. At my shows he would come and stand by the stage and said that he wants to embrace the piece in the way that I normally play, so it shouldn’t sound structurally very different.”

Anastasio adds, “Probably my earliest heroes are [composers like] Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), what fascinated me was that it’s popular music but has the emotional depth of great classical music. What I saw right away was that there were the sounds and textures of the orchestra and the harmonic content that was a lot more advanced, which makes the music more elegant. It had more emotional depth. I’m not interested in writing classical music, because I
don’t think it really exists anymore, I think that what you are going to hear in this piece is something that sounds very much like “Divided Sky.” Structurally I wrote the framework part exactly the same way I’ve written lots and lots of pieces, sounds like other things I’ve done, but Don is composing from his angle, so it’s a true collaboration.”

In the following conversation, Hart, who also has worked with such artists as Martina McBride, Randy Travis and Collective Soul, talks about his development as a Nashville composer and arranger, while offering his own take on working with Anastasio to create a “Disney Ride.”

DB- You’ve had a rather diverse career, working in music publishing, commercials and most recently with Orchestra Nashville. Can you talk a bit about your background as a musician and composer?

DH- When I came to town I started in the publishing industry at a gospel company, working my way into arranging and producing a little bit, mainly arranging. I did lot of record work and jingle work in some of my earlier years here.

I knew I wanted to be a musician, I knew I loved arranging but to be quite honest, I just didn’t know how to get into it. So I was quite fortunate to have a friend hire me at this company and it was a pretty decent jumping off point at the time. Nowadays kids have these music business programs and if you go to the right school, you get taught how to get into the business. You have to have the chops but you get it laid out. We didn’t have that when I was coming up, so I was kind of feeling my way through.

But this is 76 and before all that happened. However, a friend of mine hired me to do some editing and piano transcription work in the company and I kind of worked into arranging from that. It was a good hands on thing, I got to see a lot of orchestral scores and learn some of the trade through that.

DB- Along the way you won a Clio [The advertising industry award]. Who was your client and what did you do?

DH- It was something that got a little short shrifted. We did a Dodge spot, it was a big campaign, and they were going to use “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It came out right before the Gulf War started in 1990, and soon as we went into Iraq that had to pull the whole campaign. But I did a two minute orchestral version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” that won a Clio.

DB- You’ve also worked with a range of rock and country artists, how did you forge those connections?

DH- A lot of those connections have come through what was then called Nashville Chamber Orchestra and what is now Orchestra Nashville. A lot of the people who started Orchestra Nashville were working musicians here in town. I wrote a piece for them one Christmas and they liked it and some other things came from that. After a while doing what I had been doing with commercials, I really was trying to get something with a little more meat on the bones as far as creativity was concerned. So composition was a goal and a next step and it been great from that standpoint.

Every once in a while, just being in town, I’d get some other opportunities but the Chamber Orchestra really gave me a lot of opportunities. We did that arrangement of “In My Daughter’s Eyes” for a Valentine’s Day concert for the Chamber Orchestra when Martina [McBride] was a guest and she wanted to record it. Of course Trey originally was back at Bonnaroo.

DB- How did that come about?

DH- I had been doing a lot of work for the Chamber Orchestra and he called them looking for an orchestra to do “Guyute.” It was a symphonic score at the time, so they said, “Well, we’ll need to have the score reduced to our size group and to a group that would fit on stage too.” So they called me to do that. Trey and I hit off, and we’ve had a great time working ever since.

DB- How familiar were you with Trey and his music back in 2004?

DH- (Laughs) To be quite honest, not very. I had heard of the group but when you’re here in town working long days arranging, it’s tough to listen to everything. Plus, sometimes one of the last things you want to do before you go to bed is listen a lot of different stuff (laughs). There’s only so much you can physically.

DB- What were your first impressions of him?

DH- Trey has always been one of the easiest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. He’s a great musician and not just from the obvious aspects of being a great guitar player and writing all this stuff. He also just understands things really well. Plus, he’s always wiling to jump out on some ledge to make something happen and to me that says it all right there.

DB- You arranged “Divided Sky” for a couple of performances in 2006. Can you talk about the challenges there, as well as working with Trey’s electric guitar tone for the upcoming concert?

DH- “Divided Sky” we originally did for him to do on an acoustic, so we wanted to take a little more rhythmic energy from what he was doing. There was a stretch towards the end where he did more lead stuff and took a little break from the strings and came back to it. The guitar at that point was more the rhythmic drive. Then we had to replace that rhythmic drive when he was playing lead stuff with the strings having that energy so it was a fun arrangement to get into.

I think with the electric playing the lead in this show, the strings will take that more of that rhythmic feature because it’s a bigger group playing it and the electric really will be a lead.
As far as the guitar is concerned, what I like about his guitar sound is that high singing quality that’s almost like a Santana thing. If that’s controlled dynamically, it just plays right into the lap of the orchestra. One of the things we set as a goal was to write it basically acoustically even though it’s amplified. But he’s such a sensitive player and he plays so well and can use the volume pedal. So I’ve written the woodwinds with the full-confidence that he’s not going to cover them up but it’ll be a texture together. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because you get some dynamic limitations with other solo instruments that really you’re not faced with here. I wrote the orchestra full tilt and he can still play above it to and/or with it. I think that’s going to be cool.

DB- What was the genesis of “Time Turns Elastic?”

DH- Trey had been working on this all last year. I hadn’t spoken with him for a while and then he called me in December and sent me this piece. We had talked about doing something and the thing I’ve learned with Trey, and people had told me this, is when he talks about wanting to do something, that it usually, eventually happens. He’s pretty good about getting something in his mind and getting to it and doing it.

DH- So he called and told me he had this piece he wanted me to listen to. It was several pieces actually. He wasn’t sure for a long time whether it was an album with this as part of it along with other pieces. There were several directions in the road that we were talking about at different times.

Anyhow, he sent me this piece and told me he wanted to co-compose it with me. Something came to me one day and I thought well I’ll jot some stuff down and get him an mp3 and see what he links. There’s about a ten minute opening, the first movement of the piece, which is stuff that I brought to him and has him playing guitar. Then comes the piece “Times Turns Elastic” that he brought and I developed it thematically.

We talked about this piece as sort of being a Disney ride. From a compositional standpoint it will be a lot of different things. The analogy being a Disney ride where you don’t know what’s going to come around the corner next, it just takes you through all these unexpected places and stuff. And I feel like that’s basically going to come off to large degree, it’s going to be a lot of fun. There's one section where we got into a tango thing and all sorts of little nuggets of things and they’re all based around the stuff he sent me. There’s also a short section that’s a fugue on one of his ideas, to help propel the piece at one point.

DB- Trey has long spoken about writing fugues exercises for his mentor, Ernie Stires, some of which later surfaced with Phish.

DH- I actually mentioned the fugue to him first. Then he pointed me to a bunch of stuff on You Tube that Phish had done previously. It was fun to go back and listen to what they had done previously too.

DB- You mentioned that you were speaking about the various possibilities for recording the piece. I had heard that Trey and the Orchestra would be entering the studio shortly. Is that still the plan?

DH- No. There was something planned for pretty quickly after the performance that was put on hold.

DB- In describing his collaboration with you, Trey has said that “A lot of work done on this piece consists of conceptual conversations.” Can you talk a bit about that?

DH- I remember him almost lyrically describing some of the things that he was thinking in writing the piece. Where he was in his life was large part of what this piece means to him.

One thing people can look at it that might some kind of indication, are the titles to the various sections of his piece. Some of those remind me a lot of some of the things we talked about and they are sort of in the style of his lyrics. One that comes to mind is “Ruby Shaded Sea.” There’s also “Carousel,” “Funnels”.I imagine the various sections will be printed in the program and they will be something to listen for.

DB- Trey also commented, “Don Hart and I talk about writing emotional content, and there are certain emotions that can only be called out of an orchestra." Can you elaborate on this?

DH- Hearing a great orchestra playing acoustically, I’m not sure if there’s anything any else like it. If you go to hear a rock band and they set the Marshalls on stun, that actually physically sets you back in your chair. The orchestra doesn’t have that sort of volume but what it lacks in volume, a good orchestra, a good piece, a great conductor has emotionally.

DB- Your conductor here is Paul Gambill. When did he receive the piece and can you describe what role he will take at this point?

DH- He received it later that I would have liked, he got it this weeks (laughs). It was like the proverbial plate of spaghetti where the more you eat the more that’s there. It was just an incredible amount of work which I thoroughly enjoyed and I certainly wasn’t going to short change the work by rushing through it. Trey and I had this one conversation talking about my going through this one section and adding something or doing something else to it and he said, “Three weeks from we are definitely going to remember if you don’t do this but we won’t remember putting in the extra time.” I wanted it to be done but I also wanted it to be right so I kept on working.

Paul does a great job, I really love what he does with the orchestra. He works out phrasing, he works out balances. I detail as much as I can in terms of dynamics on the score but there’s always something. The dynamic levels have to be adjusted in each situation, each room they play it in, so he’s very important from that standpoint. And of course tempos and that sort of thing, Trey will drive a lot of that in certain spots.

As far as my role, where the tempo seems off or something that I feel is important is not coming through, I’ll let them know and he’ll bring that out. There are certain parts that hopefully I’ve marked correctly and if I miss something, I might say, “Well, can you bring the oboe out here?” Or if he makes a judgment call that he really wants something else brought out that doesn’t sit with me I can certainly have s discussion. It’s all hand in hand at this point to get to the goal we’re all shooting for.

DB- In terms of Trey driving the tempos, is there any element of improvisation permitted within the piece and to what extent was that a consideration, particularly because Trey isn’t just the composer, he is performing on guitar and that is certainly one of his gifts?

DH- I thought about that too and I thought in a way we’re really not trying to depart too far from who Trey is. That comment was made a number of times over the course of this year but he wanted to do it this way and that’s cool. I was ready to go there for a section or two or an area or two and he really wanted to stay away from that. There’s probably some sections where we could do that eventually if he play the piece so many times that he gets tired of the melody or something like that. I’m sure there are a couple of places that would really be great for that. But I’ve written out all the guitar parts and he’s excited about it and what little bit I’ve heard him play over the phone sounds great. So we’ll go with that for now.

DB- The Ryman performance is said to feature “other new compositions, companion pieces to Time Turns Elastic.” What else will the orchestra perform beyond the original piece?

DH- There are a couple classical pieces, one movement by Ravel which is gorgeous by the way. There is another piece I’m not familiar with by Arvo Part. There’s a piece by a very fine composer who lives out in North Carolina, J. Mark Scearce, a piece I haven’t heard so I’m anxious to hear that. There’s a piece that I wrote a number of years ago for two mandolins, guitar and strings that was commissioned by Orchestra Nashville and Trey’s playing a guitar part on that so that’ll be fun.

DB- They’ve also opened up the dress rehearsal earlier in the day. From your experience, in terms of the logistics, what will take place in that setting?

DH- In that dress rehearsal, the way it’s planned at least, is there will be 45 minute rehearsal period where we actually rehearse the piece and work out some of these balance and other things that are still left to work on from the previous three days’ rehearsals. Then after a break there’s a straight run through. So we’ll spend a good bit of time in that dress rehearsal. It should be pretty interesting for folks to be there. I’m glad they’re opening it up, it’s gonna be pretty cool.

DB- Finally, can you talk about what you have on the horizon, both in terms of your own work and also something potentially with Trey?

DH- I am composer-in-residence for the next two years at Orchestra Nashville and there’s several pieces I have in mind. In that stretch there’s a ballet I wrote a couple years ago on the Velveteen Rabbit, the children’ story and I think we’re supposed to record that so that ballets that don’t have orchestras will have chance to perform it. I’m also thinking of a couple specific works, including a violin concerto. Obviously I’d also love to do more with Trey. He seems so excited about it over the phone and this has been such a great experience.

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