Correcting mistakes

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 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.

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  1. says

    Interesting observations, Greg. It seems to me that the important point is that orchestras need to try things. Although some won’t work they need to take the risk of experimentation – and persuade audiences to take that risk also, in return for the excitement of discovery.

    I must say that the second part of your post and the words:

    “The ACO, I should add, hasn’t sounded very good for quite a while.” gave me a WFT moment, until I realized that you were not referring to the Australia Chamber Orchestra (which you mentioned earlier) universally known here as the ACO.

    Hi, Ken, and thanks for this. Especially that last point. Since I have so much Australia in this post, I’d better make it clear what I’m referring to.

  2. says

    What about Tom Waits’s various musical/theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson (Black Rider, Alice, Blood Money)? They’re not “classical” in style, I suppose, but like, for instance, some of Laurie Anderson’s work, they seem to fuse pop/rock sensibilites and classical attitudes (for lack of a better descriptor) at some level.

    That’s a good direction to go with this, Gabriel. Thanks.

    I think what’s happening in those collaborations is a meeting of pop (or rock, or whatever — this terminology won’t stand still) and art. Or, rather, things that have been certified by the world as art.

    Pop music, in its various forms, doesn’t get that certification, though it ought to. This is all about prejudice, and a lot of more twisted cultural problems, than it is about artistic content or quality.

    And it should have been settled long ago. I remember when Twyla Tharp danced to Chuck Berry on the same program where she danced with Brahms, and it was a revelation. But now we should take things like that for granted, because they happen so often. Pop music has a secure place in every art except — music. It’s long past time to end that.

  3. Brian Wise says

    I think the success of pairing indie rock bands with orchestras all has to do with the quality of the arrangements. I wrote a piece on this for the NY Times this past summer and found that the more artistically successful pairings don’t treat the orchestra as a back-up band but try to integrate the band on some level. It’s easier said than done of course – there is almost no rehearsal time devoted to these types of concerts and the orchestra musicians often role their eyes at the whole affair. The LA Phil is probably the most adventurous in trying to book bands with serious musical chops – groups like the Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, the Orb, etc. Even so, my hunch is these types of concerts will be something of a side-show that the orchestras relegate to their pops series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (and it certainly breathes new life into pops), but it’s different from BAM where Sufjan Stevens is getting top billing in the Next Wave Festival.

    Thanks, Brian. I should have gone to you for advice before writing my post!

    Very impressive about the LA Phil. They seem to be ahead of the game here, as they are in other ways. As you describe in your piece, they work with the bands to develop serious orchestral charts.

    And I agree with your other points. It’s too bad orchestras won’t devote more resources to this. But they think of these things as adjuncts to their main mission, which (of course) is to play the classics. Which means they’re missing the chance to take a new kind of artistic leadership, and to create some excitement (and some dialogue about different types of art) in their cities.

    Brian’s excellent piece is at

    Don’t worry that the link seems to cut off. It works.

  4. Sara Niggleron says

    I have heard more bad performances by ACO than good ones, partly due to the fact that it’s a pick up orchestra and the players sub out all the time.

    The other reasons they sound awful should be obvious: the players and the organization itself doesn’t care enough to put on a decent concert or reading session. If they did they would know their parts before they came to perform and the orchestra would devote adequate rehearsal time for whatever project they were undertaking.

    Yes, ACO doesn’t have the advantages found at BAM – chiefly the desire to perform well or develop professional-level expectations of it’s players.

    I hope they read this, Sara. Very important that they realize it’s not just Steve Smith and me. Thanks for joining in.