Composer Introduces A 'Dead' Symphony The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs work next week inspired by the music of the Grateful Dead. Composer Lee Johnson, who wrote Dead Symphony No. 6, discusses the piece's origins and talks about learning to become a "Deadhead."
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Composer Introduces A 'Dead' Symphony

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Composer Introduces A 'Dead' Symphony

Composer Introduces A 'Dead' Symphony

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What will symphony orchestras do next to fill seats? Well, next Friday, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will feature the music of - or at any rate, a symphony derived from - the Grateful Dead.

(Soundbite of song "Saint Stephen")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Saint Stephen with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes, Country garden in the wind and the rain, Wherever he goes the people all complain.

(Soundbite of orchestra playing "Saint Stephen")

SIMON: Next Friday, on what would have been Jerry Garcia's 66th birthday, the BSO is performing an orchestral tribute to the Grateful Dead by composer Lee Johnson. It's called "Dead Symphony No. 6, " and each movement is based on a Grateful Dead song. We've been listening to the second movement, "Saint Stephen." Lee Johnson joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Mr. Johnson, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. LEE JOHNSON (Composer, "Dead Symphony No. 6"): Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

SIMON: Is this a gimmick?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: A symphony based on something from American culture, I hope not. Then too many people will try it.

SIMON: OK. I noticed you said "American culture," and not the Grateful Dead. So like Aaron Copland taking Shaker melodies.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there's more than one that have participated in this tradition of exploring your time, your place. I think what the Grateful Dead did is so much a part of more than one generation that it's long overdue to be taken as a phenomenon beyond the music itself. And in my case, out came a symphony.

SIMON: You're a Deadhead, aren't you? I wasn't expecting that.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I didn't start off as a Deadhead. I just started off working with dead composers of other names.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Touche. I say, you've won this interview on points already.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well - but this is a new step, because I wasn't a Deadhead. I knew the name of the group only. But I took my time, about 10 years, to go from the commission to the recording session, which we did in Moscow with the Russian National Orchestra, and two more years to go from there to the premiere.

SIMON: Let's listen to your version - can I call it your version? Your take on "Sugar Magnolia."

(Soundbite of "Sugar Magnolia" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: How did you decide what songs to use?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the list was hard to even begin with because the repertoire is so massive, and I had to start at the beginning. So I bought everything. I was given everything people have in their record collections and CD collections. But it had to be something that would be flattered by the use of the orchestra or just fit for further exploration by a composer who, you know, had to become a Deadhead through the process of meeting the music first.

SIMON: When you say you had to pick songs that would be flattered by a symphonic rendition, what qualities does that imply?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, a lot of pop-culture music, in the broadest sense of the word, can be constructed from things that are - maybe very limited. Composers would call some songs those "three-chord wonders." And so there has to be enough in the music. And what I found by studying Jerry Garcia's songs, in particular, is that there was a master craftsman at work in harmony with the lyrics and with the message of the song. It would embody enough asymmetry or turns of melody or harmony that left the door open for someone to come in and kind of redirect it.

SIMON: Now forgive me for not knowing this, Mr. Johnson. But I mean, you're not the kind of composer who would ordinarily do this or write a symphony around the theme from "Leave It To Beaver" or "The Jetsons," right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I haven't done that. No. But in my other symphony, "Symphony No. 7," it's about human rights, and President Jimmy Carter narrated the universal declaration of human rights that was signed in 1948. And other symphonies, other works are looking at history, the plight of Cherokee through the Trail of Tears. So I'm looking for things all the time that have maybe misunderstood meaning or maybe assumed meaning, and then try to put them into the concert hall for re-examination or sometimes just upliftment in general.

SIMON: Let's listen to another piece of music, if we could. You have only one string quartet play, "If I Had the World to Give."

(Soundbite of "If I Had the World to Give" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: Now why did you choose to orchestrate it this way, Mr. Johnson?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, for a composer, I think the string quartet is the ultimate proving ground. In fact, I'm a teacher. I teach at LaGrange College in Georgia. And you direct students toward string quartets because if you can't say it there, maybe you shouldn't attempt to say it anyplace else. And I think what Jerry did with that song was so much like a gemstone no matter how you sliced it.

(Soundbite of song "If I Had the World to Give")

Mr. JERRY GARCIA: (Singing) Could I ever give this world to you Could I ever give this world to you

Mr. JOHNSON: And so, by setting it with a string quartet, I'm saluting the mastery of what he did. And actually, that tune, it wasn't actually performed many times with the Grateful Dead, which makes me feel like, well, maybe some of these tunes will be better known with other adaptations of them than they maybe were when the band was playing for millions of folks.

(Soundbite of "If I Had the World to Give" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: Do you think it's possible that there are, let's say, season ticket holders of the BSO who might turn up their noses just a bit to think about a symphony being made of music from Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, who might just like the music if they could manage to separate it in their minds from who composed it?

Mr. JOHNSON: Then they probably forgot they grew up at some point, too. I mean, it's not - this is a legitimate part of American culture. I think one of the mistakes we might make is that we too often ascribe seriousness to cultures other than our own, as if we somehow still have a, you know, supportive role to the world, rather than being a legitimate partner with the global scene. I'm speaking in artistic terms, certainly.

SIMON: Listen to, if we could, your treatment of another Dead song, "Stella Blue."

(Soundbite of "Stella Blue" directed by Lee Johnson)

Mr. JOHNSON: That piece, in particular, answers one of the questions that a lot of Deadheads ask me, is how can you have the orchestra read all the notes and then talk about the Grateful Dead? They were about improvisation. "Stella Blue" is the piece where I actually have orchestral improvisation at the end. And that's the great unknown, because even with guidance and with some limitations or some structure, orchestral improvisation is a rare, rare thing and borders on chaotic.

(Soundbite of "Stella Blue" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: Well, I think they make your point. I have to ask carefully, what kind of reaction are you expecting in Baltimore?

Mr. JOHNSON: I guess I'll just be as eager to see what happens as anyone else. But the Deadhead community is something absolutely extraordinary, and I won't be surprised about the reaction from the audience because when I hear comments on the recording, they hear things that I didn't think were maybe possible to find, just because I think they are incredibly good listeners.

SIMON: Anybody going to sell T-shirts?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm planning on wearing one, I hope, if I could find the one I like the most.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: A tie-dye T-shirt?

Mr. JOHNSON: I have heard of tie-dye cummerbunds and bow ties, so who knows? Who knows what's going to happen? I think there'll be a little bit of a fashion component of this that will be a lot of fun.

SIMON: Let's listen, finally, to your rendition of "China Doll."

(Soundbite of "China Doll" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: Now, why did you choose to position this as the last song before the finale?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it was the first - it was a gateway piece. "China Doll" answered my first lingering question: is this even possible? Should I embark on this journey? When I heard "China Doll," I knew the answer was yes.

(Soundbite of song "China Doll")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) A pistol shot at 5 o'clock, The bells of heaven ring

Mr. JOHNSON: And "China Doll" became the gold standard. I composed half of "China Doll" and stopped. And then I finished "China Doll" at the end of the symphony and placed it as the second-to-last movement. And the lyrics are very poignant.

(Soundbite of song "China Doll")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Take up your china doll, take up your china doll, It's only fractured and just a little nervous from the fall.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm assuming that a Deadhead knows the lyrics note for note. And so "China Doll" ended up being the piece that made it all happen for me.

SIMON: Mr. Johnson, good luck to you, sir.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

SIMON: Lee Johnson, talking about his orchestral tribute to the Grateful Dead called "Dead Symphony No. 6." It will have its live world premiere with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next Friday.

(Soundbite of "China Doll" directed by Lee Johnson)

SIMON: To hear more of the Dead Symphony, you can go to the music section of our Web site,

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