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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dead Symphony No. 6 Comes Alive

Road trip to Georgia, anyone? Something good's sure to go down when the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra performs on October 5th, 2010.

The iconic Deadhead adage of "we are everywhere" never seemed more true than when I first heard about Lee Johnson's Dead Symphony No. 6. The Grateful Dead's infusion into the world of classical music was something of a Deadhead community triumph, yet I really didn't know what to expect from this fusion, and I'll admit that I leaned pretty heavily on the skeptic side. Grateful Dead "with strings?" Oh dear, please no.

What is actually transpiring in Dead Symphony No. 6 puts all these fears to rest. You might compare it to the way the Dead's music eclipses the ubiquitous stereotype of "drug music for stoners." This is no mere "Dead with strings" performance.

Having listened, I now find myself hoping that the Dead Symphony caravan somehow makes its way up to Chicago so I can hear it live myself. Lee Johnson's creation isn't something that can be called a Dead tribute. It's more as if the Grateful Dead's muse has manifested itself through Johnson into a classical expression. Lee has allowed the Dead's melodies to seed a final product that is less about Grateful Dead songs being played by a symphony and much more about the intricacies and layers of Grateful Dead creativity finding a compelling voice. Sometimes we can almost sing along, while other times we are given merely taste enough to know which song sparked Johnson to compose and arrange. From there we are treated to a musical experience that reaches its own "gold ring, down inside."

I bring all this up because it is an intriguing element in the evolution of our Deadhead community, and since the music is doing something truly special, I feel compelled to make sure any Atlanta Heads who frequent these pages know about the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra concert on October 5th. It is sure to be an eye- and ear-opening evening. Get there if you can, and come back and tell us all about it.


  1. I saw a performance of Dead Symphony No. 6 as part of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz on 8/9/09. Much of it is very well done, but the overall piece was disappointing. The composer came to this project largely unfamiliar with the GD oeuvre, and, as one might expect, was most attracted to the melodically gorgeous Garcia ballads, so, with very little exception (there is a idyllic interlude of Sugar Magnolia) it is one ballad after another. Of course, the real power of a dead show was in the depth, range and contrast of the songs: rockers, spacey jams, dissonance and weirdness, and the beautiful ballad being all the more powerful after the powerful intensity of what preceded it. Of course, this is no different than some of the finest classical symphonies which also take one through a range of musical landscapes and emotions. This was the music equivalent of a banquet that was one dessert after another, with no protein or vegetables. And, to make it even a bit weirder, it starts and ends with Finiculi Finicula, a bit like a Playing sandwich, but given the limited amount of songs featured one would think that was a core part of the Dead repertoire rather than a rare tuning noodle. How much nicer if it started and ended with Playing and had a couple sections of The Other One in the middle, in all its symphonic glory, to properly provide contrast and balance and context for the gorgeous ballads. I talked with the composer after the show, and it was clear that this was not the first time he had heard such critiques. He did mention the possibility of tinkering with it and and adding in something that would give some contrast, so I hope he does this (perhaps he already has).

  2. An article on NPR from 2008 about Dead Symphony No. 6 with audio samples:

    D'unno, kind of like it myself...

  3. I, too have been EXTREMELY skeptical about this, especially since hearing a studio recording of this piece. At least I think it was this piece... BUT, if you, sir, have heard it performed live, and were able to find the sweet spot, I might have to try again. Unfortunately, I doubt this'll ever get played in Missoula, MT... Anyway, do keep up the great work.

  4. I'm in Atlanta so I plan to attend. I'm curious to see what type of crowd it attracts...

  5. Im coming to Georgia!...i cant wait to see ya so excited for this event!...

  6. I wrote a long blog post about this piece over at my blog Smooth Atonal Sound. Check it out: It seems like this work divides people pretty heavily. Yes, it's nice to see the Dead's sound infiltrate into the classical music world, but is it worth it if the end result is less than exceptional (as I believe it to be)?


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