'Grateful Dead Symphony' Released on CD

Classic Arts News   'Grateful Dead Symphony' Released on CD
 
A new recording of American composer Lee Johnson's Dead Symphony No. 6: An Orchestral Tribute to the Grateful Dead, performed by no less than the Russian National Orchestra, was released yesterday.

Last month the work was made available for download from iTunes, eMusic, Napster and other outlets.

Johnson says he aims to convey the spirit of the Grateful Dead in the 12-movement orchestral work; he has woven themes from some of the band's familiar songs, such as "St. Stephen," as well as less frequently performed songs like "Blues for Allah." There is also an improvised section based on the tune "Stella Blue," recognizing the fact that the Dead, as the Associated Press put it, was "partial to long, experimental jams [and] rarely played the same song the same way twice."

The symphony's overture and finale include echoes of "Funiculi, Funicula," the old Italian song that the Dead sometimes used as a tune-up riff.

When the piece "finds its way into your local concert hall, dancing might be a slight problem but the listening will be sweet," says the website for the work, www.deadsymphony.com. (There was no word about cigarette lighters.)

Said Johnson to Reuters, the Dead Symphony is "a musical embrace of American culture" and a continuation of the band's spirit. "The Grateful Dead lived in the musical moment. Theirs was a world of perpetual exploration and endless possibility."

The work was the brainchild of Atlanta producer (and Deadhead) Mike Adams. "He thought that what he was hearing was way beyond what a band should be able to do. It could have symphonic possibilities," said Johnson, who was recruited by Adams.

An Emmy-winner composer who has written symphonies, operas, chamber works, stage musicals and film scores, the 45-year-old Johnson was unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead's music when Adams approached him.

"The music of the Grateful Dead was complex, with intertwining themes of rhythm and melody, rich in harmonic development and explosive dynamics; the same stuff one finds in classical music," said Johnson to the AP.

"I grew up studying 'dead' composers, but the other kinds — the Stravinskys, the Beethovens and all those," he told Reuters, adding that the Russian players liked the symphony. When asked to improvise for the movement "Stella Blue," they were reportedly eager to jam.

According to his website, Johnson has previously conducted and made recordings with the RNO.

"The Russian National Orchestra is full of free thinkers," said Johnson in the Worcester Telegram. "They are considered rebels over there. They had to approach this as more than reading notes on paper."

Dead Symphony: An Orchestral Tribute to the Music of the Grateful Dead is released under the Jammates label.

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