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Rocking the orchestra

A composer's new concerto for electric guitar aims to unite rock 'n' roll and classical music - without making the result sound like elevator music.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000

When the Florida Orchestra teamed up with Bogus Pomp, a rhythm and blues band, to play music by Frank Zappa, their success was not a total shock. Zappa, after all, was the first rock 'n' roller of any stature to think like a classical composer.

Then the San Francisco Symphony joined Metallica for a live concert recording that is surprisingly listenable, even to ears unaccustomed to heavy metal power chords. Who ever dreamed Master of Puppets could sound like Shostakovich?

And now the Scorpions, a German glam rock band, have made a recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, a tradition-rich virtuoso orchestra, the epitome of classical music. And it's not a bad CD.

Something is going on here after years of misbegotten projects like the London Symphony Orchestra turning Rolling Stones songs into Muzak. Does the marriage of rock 'n' roll and classical music actually have a future?

If it does, then the knot was tied in perhaps the most meaningful way on Miami Beach in April.

The New World Symphony and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas premiered Steven Mackey's Tuck and Roll, billed as the first fully composed concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. Mackey, born in 1956, a onetime rock guitarist turned classical composer and professor of music at Princeton, was the soloist.

Mackey's concerto didn't really rock. Instead, his aim was to showcase the electric guitar as a lyrical instrument. Except for a riff quoting Eric Clapton from Cream's Sunshine of Your Love or a bravura cadenza or a bottleneck slide guitar passage, the solo part was delicate and restrained.

So Tuck and Roll, named after the flashy leather upholstery popular in customized hot rods of the 1950s, would probably disappoint diehard rockers. Fans of contemporary classical music would feel right at home with its ever-changing time signatures, mild dissonance and extensive percussion. For all the inventiveness of Mackey's 30-minute score, it was not particularly moving.

But that was still the instrument of Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman and T-Bone Walker up there onstage with a symphony orchestra. As a cultural landmark, it was exciting. It was about time a composer of sophisticated art music embraced rock 'n' roll in a smart way.

"Like most everyone my age and younger, I love the sound of the electric guitar, but at root I'm a composer of notated music for acoustic instruments," Mackey said after the concerto's premiere, for which he wore a jumpsuit-style outfit that wouldn't have looked out of place on the bandstand of a rock club.

"I always wondered why there should be a schism between the two. Since the Second World War, the electric guitar is it. It's the violin of its age. It has a place in people's lives that no other instrument does. Why not combine it with the orchestra?"

Seed started with Yes

Many rock guitarists have asked the same question over the years. One of them is Steve Howe, lead guitarist for Yes, which revolutionized rock in the 1970s with its pseudo-symphonic sound.

"There are difficulties with the kind of reality that the guitar creates and the kind of reality an orchestra makes, and they're not entirely compatible," Howe said. "But I think the kind of reality I make as far as guitar goes might be able to make that jump, because I don't play like everybody else."

Of all the rock guitar gods, the self-taught Howe was the most classically oriented. His finger picking and phrasing were in the tradition of classical guitarists Julian Bream and John Williams.

Howe is now on a solo tour and plays the State Theatre in St. Petersburg Friday night. His program is as likely to includes pieces by Bach or Vivaldi as the expected arrangements of Yes hits.

Yes, which had a U.S. tour this year, is toying with the idea of performing with a symphony orchestra, but Howe is not sure it's a good idea. He remembers the reaction of other band members to The Symphonic Music of Yes, a 1993 album that he and drummer Bill Bruford played on with the London Philharmonic.

"Yes said it was rubbish," he said. "All that taught me was that bands generally can't agree on how to arrange their music for classical orchestra. That's why somebody else has to do it and take full responsibility. But inevitably the band won't like it."

Melding musical forms

There have been lots of efforts at this sort of thing, with symphony orchestras putting out albums of songs by Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Sting and others. The latest is Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto, with violinist Kennedy taking the place of Jim Morrison's vocals.

Though some of these post big sales -- 400,000 units for Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd -- purists look down their noses at them.

"In general, most of the experiments that fused rock with orchestration haven't worked real well," said Archie Patterson, who produced Rhino's definitive progressive rock compilation, a boxed set called Supernatural Fairy Tales.

"If there was something to the claim by critics that prog rock was pompous and pretentious, it was in the attempt to mix orchestra with rock. I think orchestra music is more of a cerebral phenomenon. Symphonic music tends to appeal to the top half of your body. Rock music, as we all know, appeals to the lower part. It's got the beat, the primal energy and symphonic stuff is more ethereal."

A key to making the rock and classical marriage work lies in the orchestra arrangements. Typically, when a rock band plays with a symphony orchestra, they use the most banal orchestrations imaginable, loaded with lush, lazy strings. Even a classic like Procol Harum's 1972 album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is embarrassingly close to elevator music.

Michael Kamen, who wrote the arrangements and conducted the San Francisco Symphony for Metallica, pushed the orchestra players to take the project seriously.

"The orchestra had a lot of hard work to do because the parts were written with very little remorse," Kamen said. "They were given every trick in the book to make them sit at the edge of their seats and really saw away, because that's what Metallica does. Metallica never just sits back and relaxes. They are going for it 100 percent of the time, and I needed the orchestra to do the same."

The amplification of rock bands used to be an impossible barrier to overcome, but technology has solved a lot of the balance problem between electric and acoustical instruments. With effects processors, specially designed loudspeakers and a cornucopia of new digital sound devices, it is possible to create a mix that works at nearly any volume.

Still, adjustments had to be made for the San Francisco Symphony's concerts with Metallica. For one thing, the sound onstage was not as loud as the sound projecting through speakers out into the hall, but it was still plenty loud.

"Fiddle players need to hear what they're playing in order to be in tune," Kamen said. "We had to figure out ways of making that possible, so the string players were to a certain extent cushioned from the full impact of the band by baffles and barriers we put on stage, and by the band's willingness to wear headphones and curtail wiping themselves out with sound. But you can't turn down the drums in a rock 'n' roll band, and Lars Ulrich is one of the world's hardest hitting drummers, and he plays a lot of notes."

San Francisco Symphony members, used to polite applause in the concert hall, were bowled over by Metallica's fans.

"Orchestra players don't often get a chance to share a stage with a pop group, which is an entire different world for them, another universe," Kamen said. "I'll never forget the orchestra's reacting to the first sound of the audience, who were screaming at the top of their lungs."

Kamen has had a foot in both the rock and classical worlds for almost 40 years. As an oboe student at Juilliard, he helped to form one of the earliest progressive rock bands. The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble made some good albums and was featured in one of Leonard Bernstein's concerts for young people.

Today, his resume includes more than 20 movie scores (Brazil, Mr. Holland's Opus, Diehard), ballet scores and arrangements for albums by Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and the Eurythmics, among others. He wrote an electric guitar concerto that Eric Clapton performed at Royal Albert Hall in London.

"It was a life ambition come true to have been asked by Eric to write him a concerto for his instrument," Kamen said.

"I left lots of holes in it for him to improvise and make Eric Clapton material. We tried to record it, and tragically his life was bent in circles by the death of his son. I think, understandably, he abandoned any pretentions at trying to change his music. He went back to his roots, went back to the blues."

Who's the audience?

S&M, the Metallica/San Francisco Symphony two-CD album, sold like hotcakes, but mostly to the band's fans. What many people in the music business are hoping for is something like the rock equivalent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which joined jazz and classical in 1924 to become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

Is there a rock 'n' roll Gershwin?

"There's somebody out there who's going to do it," said Glenn Branca, an underground composer in New York who has written a dozen symphonies that feature electric guitars. "It's just going to take a guy who's a really, really good composer. When you find a guy as good as Gershwin, you'll get Rhapsody in Blue with a rock sound."

Part of the problem, though, is that symphony orchestras don't encourage new music -- not to mention new instruments.

"Look, the saxophone still hasn't been integrated into the orchestra, and it's been around 150 years," Branca said. "When somebody writes a piece for sax, they have to bring somebody in special to play the part. So it's going to take a while before the electric guitar is embraced by the orchestra. It's going to take one guy who writes something gorgeous, and then you'll have it."

Perhaps the most likely candidate to write the great rock-classical piece is no longer around: Frank Zappa, who died of prostate cancer at 52 in 1993.

"Zappa is the missing link," said Dave Coash, a percussionist in both the Florida Orchestra and Bogus Pomp, which specializes in Zappa's music and is named after one of his compositions. "He fills in the middle spot from hard rock 'n' roll to classical. Zappa is like the bridge between the two mediums. He took his rock knowledge and created orchestra compositions out of that."

However, Zappa's finest works for orchestra are more symphonic than psychedelic. He flirted with 12-tone music, the kiss of death for a composer's popular appeal. Even he probably wondered if the basic impulses of classical music and rock 'n' roll are just too different to mesh.

Mackey teaches a course at Princeton in which he analyzes the differences. Classical music is written down; rock 'n' roll is improvised. Classical music is based on the composer; rock, on the performer.

He makes the point by playing recordings of Leontyne Price, Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin each singing Summertime from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess.

"With Leontyne Price, it's all about Gershwin, it's about the notes," he said. "Ella Fitzgerald is somewhere in between. But Janis Joplin's Summertime is completely about Janis Joplin. It's her persona. It's the music squeezed through her."

Mackey may have composed the first notated rock guitar concerto, but he understands as well as anyone what a contradiction in terms that is.

"Rock is one-dimensional, though it is a very cool dimension," he said. "I write pieces in which the narrative, the ebb and flow of the music, goes all over the place. It doesn't just get in your face with one attitude, one groove.

"Let's face it, the best rock is the music of adolescent rebellion, and I'm not 17 anymore."

Marrying rock, classical

Many marriages have been made between rock and classical music, from the syrupy strings and heavenly choir on the Beatles' The Long and Winding Road to the match between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony. Here are six recordings that suggest how the union is working out.

* * *

Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era (Rhino) -- The taproot. Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- they're all here, along with many more in a five-CD compilation that covers the glory days of prog rock, 1967-76.

S&M: Metallica; San Francisco Symphony/Michael Kamen, conductor (Elektra) -- Heavy metal meets the symphony orchestra in this two-CD set from 1999 concerts in Berkeley, Calif.

Moment of Glory: Scorpions; Berlin Philharmonic/Christian Kolonovits, conductor (EMI) -- The German rockers join up with the mighty Berlin Phil in hard-driving hits such as Rock You Like a Hurricane.

Joe Jackson: Symphony No. 1 (Sony) -- Onetime popster Jackson (Look Sharp!, Night and Day) has gone longhair, with a symphony for 10-piece ensemble featuring jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and the Paganini of rock guitar, Steve Vai.

Glenn Branca: Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven) (Atavistic) -- Symphony for 10 electric guitars by avant-garde composer and guitarist Branca.

Riders on the Storm: the Doors Concerto: Kennedy, violin; Prague Symphony Orchestra/Peter Scholes, conductor (Decca) -- Kennedy's solo violin takes the part of Jim Morrison's vocals in People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You and other Doors hits in Jaz Coleman's arrangements.

* * *

Guitarist Steve Howe gives a solo concert Friday at the State Theatre, St. Petersburg. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., show at 9:30. Tickets are $17.50 advance, $22.50 at the door. Call Ticketmaster at (727) 898-2100 or (813) 287-8844.

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