Score One for the Grateful Dead:
An Interview with Lee Johnson
The Making of Dead Symphony, No. 6
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by John Metzger
Speaking with David Gans on October 17, 1996, Phil Lesh announced, "Iím composing a Grateful Dead song symphony. Itís going to be about 45-minutes long, and itíll be made up of motif-ic and thematic elements of Grateful Dead songs, all woven together in a kind of tapestry."
Although fans have had a decade to consider the possibilities of a symphonic interpretation of the Grateful Deadís music, little could have prepared them for how well a meshing of the bandís free-spirited improvisations with the structure of a classical composition would work. Surprisingly, Leshís piece has yet to materialize, but he did plant a seed in the minds of at least a few Deadheads regarding the possibilities. Around the same time, Mike Adams, a producer in Atlanta, hatched a similar scheme. After searching the local studio community for the right composer, he met Lee Johnson, who currently is a professor of music at La Grange College. Adams soon realized that he had found the right man for the task. There was one problem, however: Although he was a fan of Kansas ó in fact, a few years into Dead Symphony, No. 6, he was flown to Texas in order to conduct a concert for the bandís Always Never the Same tour ó Johnson not familiar with the Grateful Deadís canon. "Of course, Iím studying dead composers at this time, but they had different last names. My last names were Beethoven, Stravinsky, and guys like that," he said.
Still, Johnsonís interest was piqued. "I decided that as soon as I could reach a saturation point of studying and listening and even hearing about concerts and different stories," he explained, "that I would see if this music would just percolate inside of me for a while. Then, I would wait for a symphony to start popping out." And so, he replied to Adams, "Youíre going to have to be my teacher. Iíve got a lot to learn."
Immersing himself within the Grateful Deadís world, Johnson devoured tapes and CDs. He bought every book and song collection that he could find, and he spent a lot of time simply talking with Adams. "We began after Jerry [Garcia's] death, but [Dead Symphony, No. 6] didnít get recorded until 2005. Thatís a 10-year block of contemplation and creative work and meetings and what if-ing," he said.
Nevertheless, his education proved to be daunting. "This is a band that was in perpetual, spontaneous creation all the time," Johnson explained. "The sense of fearless exploration ó thatís an amazing thing. For a while, I was worried: Whatís going to happen if I take these melodies and songs and change them or adapt them? They have to be changed in some ways to fit the world of the orchestra, but is that going to hurt people, offend people, disorient them?"
"There are hundreds of versions of songs to contend with, representing this mood or that mood. Itís like a song has many, many faces," he continued. "So, I started to learn to listen for songs that, in my view, had certain kinds of clever melodic construction, certain kinds of structure or form that were, maybe, asymmetrical enough to lend themselves toward classical treatment."
One day, Johnson stumbled upon the piece that proved to be the key to everything. "Along came China Doll ó thatís when in my mind, Dead Symphony, No. 6 began," he said. "I knew that [this movement] was going to have to have a hallowed place in the composition, and I just trusted that I would figure out what that meant, eventually."
Johnson intentionally didnít complete China Doll. "I wrote it halfway. Then, I stopped and left it unresolved," he stated. "I refused to finish that movement until everything else had been chosen and was underway. I left that big, unanswered question alone until the rest of the symphony started to be conceived. It was kind of special, not just the gateway to the start but also to the conclusion of the symphony. It seemed to want to be the final word."
As his work progressed, Johnsonís confidence grew. He tested several movements on Adams and his friends. The positive feedback that he received not only proved that he was on the right track, but it also liberated him to approach the project at an even higher level. "When I got further into this," he stated, "I realized that, first of all, the music is indestructible by itself ó these great, great melodies and great musical content. I also figured out that [the Grateful Dead] had created the best trained listening audience on the planet."
"I realized that the audience was way more capable than anyone had ever described to me," he continued. "They need something substantial to be thrown at them ó not something that is placating, not some kind of genteel tribute. [Dead Symphony, No. 6] needed to have teeth. Otherwise, it would be an insult."
Enlisting the help of the Russian National Orchestra, an organization with which he had worked in the past, was an easy decision for Johnson to make. "There are a lot of great orchestras in the world ó donít get me wrong ó but I adore the Russian National Orchestra. They are a special, special ensemble," he said.
"They are only about 16-years-old, and because they are such free-spirited folks, they also are the most adventurous," he explained. "These musicians lived under Communism. They didnít know much about the United States or world pop-culture in general. They had to meet this music with no preconditions. If the music spoke to them, this was on."
"Halfway through the first rehearsal," he continued, "we had a short break, and they formed a line and said, ĎMaestro, this is a great opportunity. We will give you all that we have.í They played this music as if it was among the finest in the world."
Johnsonís work, both on his own and in collaboration with the Russian National Orchestra, led him down some interesting paths. In some cases, the Grateful Deadís material essentially was transcribed into an orchestral arrangement. One tune in particular ó If I Had the World to Give ó is something of a revelation. The song always has had the flavor of a composition by Paul McCartney, but problems plaguing Shakedown Street, the album on which it first appeared, meant that it also was never fully realized. Paring the orchestra down to a string quartet, Johnson lent If I Had the World to Give a voicing that sounds so natural that itís a wonder no one had stumbled upon it sooner. In effect, his version is informed quite strongly by The Beatlesí Eleanor Rigby, though this has as much to do with the writing of Jerry Garcia and the way in which the Russian National Orchestra opted to perform the piece as it does with Johnsonís score. "Thatís one of the movements that is almost a transcription," he humbly explained. "I wasnít micro-managing their musical interpretation. If they couldnít feel it from the page as musicians, the recording sessions ó no matter how many rehearsals we had ó would fail. They had to buy it themselves, and they latched onto that string quartet immediately."
Other tunes were treated more abstractly. Stella Blue, for example, contains a moment of orchestral improvisation that perfectly captures the riskiness of the Grateful Deadís high-wire sojourns, while Here Comes Sunshine ó one of Dead Symphony, No. 6ís loveliest movements ó travels far beyond its memorable refrain. "Thereís such an emotional message in that piece," said Johnson. "Itís like there is a spirit to it that is both familiar and new. It was a very, very profound experience to be conducting [the Russian National Orchestra] as they played it. It was music that they understood. They needed me as a conductor in a different way. I wasnít teaching them. I was simply leading them, and when they played that movement ó every note made sense to them. It was just phenomenal."
In addition, Johnson had tried to tackle ó and, in fact, had written ó several other pieces that, in the end, didnít quite fit within the scope of his composition. He declined to name them, though he did shed light upon his process. "Maybe Iím overly sensitive to the idea that you must make a complete experience," he said, "but a symphony is like a novel or a movie. You just donít toss it together and say here it is. If I donít take the time to make sure that the experience from start to finish is cohesive, itís not fair for me to ask an audience member to sit still that long."
Dead Symphony, No. 6 will be released by Jammates Records on May 29, and Johnson already has been contacted by several orchestras who are interested in publicly performing the piece. Although no official announcement has been made ó and Johnson was reluctant to discuss the details of what is in the works ó the compositionís worldwide debut likely will happen in San Francisco. "We want to have the premiere be special ó even as far as the city is concerned ó to the history of the Grateful Dead," Johnson acknowledged.
"The future of [Dead Symphony, No. 6] will be decided by the Grateful Dead community," he added. "It belongs to them. Itís in honor of the band of bands and the poets of our time. I gave it my heart and soul. It already seems ó by all indicators, right now ó to have eclipsed my expectations. Iím stunned and humbled by the response. Future performances and whatever happens to [the composition] are just the miracle side of it."
"Now, itís time for the Grateful Dead fans to say what they want to say about this effort," he concluded. "Itís the only one thatís been done like this, so far. I hope itís not the only one that is ever done because that would be sad."
Of Further Interest...
Dead Symphony, No. 6 is NOT available from Amazon.
It, along with other works by Lee Johnson, can be purchased
through his web site!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box