I’m withdrawing my “Indie pop footnotes” post. It had some mistakes, some due to my carelessness, some from misinformation. What follows is (I hope) more accurate. It follows up on my earlier post about Sufjan Stevens making history — maybe — at BAM.
Other indie rock people have done work with orchestras. I’ve heard, for instance, about this happening in Australia. Ben Folds has appeared with many Australian orchestras, with whom he sometimes improvises, even in songs where they might simply be backing him. The DVD of him playing with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra isn’t obscure, as I’d wrongly thought, but is widely available. (I’ve just ordered it.)
Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz), has appeared with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, as has Tim Freedman (of the Whitlams) and Katie Noonan (of george — no capital c). Nick Cave has worked with the Sydney Dance Company. There’s a sydneysymphony.bigpondmusic.com video on the web of the Whitlams with the Sydney Symphony. And the Australian Chamber Orchestra does say, on its website, that it has “multiple identities: as a chamber group, a small symphony orchestra, and an electro-acoustic collective.” Also on the Australian tip,check out an excerpt from an orchestral piece by Matthew Hindson, Homage to Metallica. At least in this excerpt, it’s one of the most effective classical treatments of rock I’ve ever heard. Note the 1/8 size violin, amplified at the start to recreate, in orchestral terms, the scream of an electric guitar. (Thanks to Andy Rantzen, of the Australia Council, for this link, and to Georgia Rivers of the Australian Chamber Orchestra for much help.)
I also know a well-known American orchestra where one of the top administrator wants to co-produce concerts with pop people, both by having them play, and by inviting them to help curate some concerts. And I’ve heard that the music director of yet another notable American orchestra is interested. All this is tricky, obviously. You need to have a pop artist with enough knowledge and imagination to think up viable and interesting things for an orchestra to do. Note that the Baltimore Symphony, too, has has played with Ben Folds. (Though note this, from the newspaper review the link takes you to: “The setting was a bit awkward and unusual at first, but eventually the conductor and orchestra lightened up and looked like they were enjoying themselves as much as Folds and the audience were.” Some orchestras, possibly, might never relax.)
Nick Cave, wrote the music for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and it’s very effective, in a classical style, though a collaborator is credited, so Cave might have had help. There’s no shame in that. How much help would Elliott Carter need to write a rock song?
(OK, throw things at me.)
And then there was a piece by Ken Thomson, Wait Your Turn, a fabulous romp for Thomson’s band gutbucket (again no capital letter) and orchestra, which I heard and loved at an American Composers Orchestra concert in New York not long ago. gutbucket plays a wild mixture of punk, jazz, and — to my ear, and I really loved this — metal. The orchestra part doesn’t sound difficult; here’s a piece that any orchestra could program, and have lots of fun with the new young audience Thomson might attract, or at least delight.
Though I have to note one serious problem. The ACO (that’s the American Composers Orchestra, not the Australian Chamber Orchestra!) played Wait Your Turn well enough, because the orchestra parts weren’t too hard. Other pieces on the program sounded like a mess. Steve Smith of the New York Times quite rightly blasted the concert in his review. I agree with everything he said. Concerts like this do no favors for composers. It might even be better not to play their works at all, if they’re going to be done this badly.
The ACO, I should add, hasn’t sounded very good for quite a while. And what’s especially sad is that they’re playing world premieres, often — as on the concert I heard, and Steve reviewed — by composers who haven’t written for orchestra before. There isn’t nearly enough rehearsal time. That’s one reason the performances are bad. But for premieres like these, you need a lot of rehearsal time, maybe many hours.
Even experienced composers make orchestration mistakes. I’ve heard players in major orchestras excoriate — there’s a big, fancy word — big-name composers, for problems in their orchestration. So we can assume that composers writing for orchestra for the first time might have many problems. But when you commission them, don’t you know that? Shouldn’t you give them acres of time, so the problems can be worked out, and mistakes can be fixed?
Compare BAM, with Sufjan Stevens. Stevens had never written for orchestra. So BAM, I’m told, hired orchestral musicians for three solid weeks, so Stevens could try out ideas, and learn what worked. The result was a triumph. The ACO might object, not wrongly, that it doesn’t have BAM’s resources (and especially BAM’s money). But then what does it have? What can it do, given the resources it does have, to produce concerts that treat composers fairly?
I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface here. Classical music is changing. There have to be pop-classical collaborations I haven’t heard of.