Thursday, September 13, 2012

Concerto for Group and Orchestra

I dimly recall, way back around 1970, owning a recording of a truly crazy musical endeavour: a concerto for rock group and orchestra by Deep Purple. At the time I was in the throes of converting myself from a mediocre rock musician (electric guitar and bass) to a neophyte classical musician. So I had every reason to turn up my nose at this kind of thing. Apparently, the orchestra in question, the Royal Philharmonic, felt much the same at first. Here is a fascinating account of the project by Paul Mann, the conductor of a new recording of the work. Here is how it got written:
The 28-year-old Jon Lord, with no experience at all of writing for orchestra, had a matter of three months in which to produce a full scale Concerto armed with nothing but Cecil Forsyth’s Orchestration, his prodigious imagination and a lot of coffee. Returning to his London flat each night, often after a Deep Purple gig, he spread himself out on the floor (he didn’t have a desk big enough) and composed in ink, straight into full score. (“I later learnt to use a pencil”, he said, somewhat ruefully.)
Those were crazy times, the late 60s. I can remember sitting up all night once writing a play--something I never did before nor since! Sometimes the muse just takes you by the neck and you don't have much say about it. Some things to note about this: obviously everyone involved has to be enormously competent. Assuming Jon Lord, who just passed away in July 2012, the organist and composer, was indeed touched by the muse, you would need a rock band whose members were well-trained enough in music to integrate with a symphony orchestra and you would need an orchestra and conductor broad-minded enough and enthusiastic enough to bring the piece to performance level. Believe me, most rock bands (and probably most orchestras and conductors, too) could not bring it off. The Beatles couldn't have for the simple reason that none of them could read music.

After two performances, one in London in 1969 and another in Los Angeles in 1970, the piece disappeared. And I mean that literally: the score was lost! Someone had to go to the enormous work of transcribing it from the recording.

My a priori sense is that aesthetically this kind of thing is a mistake--but I have learned not to trust this a priori instinct. As with most things aesthetic, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Here is the last movement of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969) by Jon Lord:

Now I have just listened to this a bit and I want to go through the whole piece rather more thoroughly, but I just don't see anything wrong with it! It works, and I'm surprised to hear myself saying that. This is, of course, an example of what is now known as "crossover", the blending or combining of two different forms, styles or genres. But crossover now seems to be largely a kind of marketing ploy. This is what crossover sounds like when it stems purely from an aesthetic urge: let's see what we can do. Frankly, I don't see a darned thing wrong with it and I'm looking forward to studying the rest of the piece.


RG said...


RG said...

Seriously, though, intriguing. That is the sort of experiment that one does have in mind. Does it work? I'll take your word for it.

I grant that it is (startlingly) not horrible. Quite fascinating at first. But in joining two distinct things, there can be either a mix or an alternation. At first, this starts off being an alternation, with the bits skillfully fitted together. But, as the composer indicates in/by the opening, "classical" is the frame and standard. The "other" is added like patches [Matthew 9:16]. And the effect is at least intriguing to listen to. However, at about the 6 minute mark, the "other" begins to assert itself and to emphasize its "otherness". Then we need your expertise and authority.

The drum solo which comes after 7min is as impressive as the earlier one in the classical mode, and the transition which follows is smooth. (What thought is entertained or emotion felt by the listner at 10:12 with her finger in her nose?)

I look forward to your comments based on your projected more thorough analysis.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was quite surprised myself! The last movement is an effective take on the conventional final movement form, even though it includes two drum solos (one tympani, one drum set). It's a dashing romp in (probably) 12/8 time, something like what one usually calls a "tarantella". I will have more comment after I have had time to listen carefully to the other movements.