This weekend at the Westword Music Showcase for the first time anywhere, the Colorado Symphony will perform songs from Beck's Song Reader. But not only does this mark the world premiere of these pieces, which were arranged by Jump, Little Children's Jay Clifford, it's the first time a professional ensemble of any kind has taken on these tunes which were published solely as notes on a page and open to creative interpretation. Buy your tickets now: this ground-breaking performance is one not to miss.
See also: - Photos: Colorado Symphony and Nathaniel Rateliff rehearsing Beck's Song Reader - Erik Berry of Trampled By Turtles on why they don't do O Brother Where Art Thou? - Michael Vincze of the Mowgli's on what it means to be a Mowgli
The distance between pop and orchestral music isn't so great for Nick Recuber, bassist and assistant principal with the Colorado Symphony. "Beethoven and Mozart both started their careers by arranging popular songs," notes Recuber, who honed his chops in Philadelphia jazz bands long before joining the Colorado Symphony three years ago. "Beethoven put a lot of those songs in his symphonies. There's no excuse for a classical musician not to be aware of what's going on in pop music."
That's part of the idea behind this wholly unique collaborative performance: bringing Players from different musical worlds together to perform selections from the twenty tunes included in the transcribed "concept album," Song Reader, first published by Beck this past December. At the Curious Theater, the Symphony will be joined by some of Denver's biggest names, including Nathaniel Rateliff, Otis Taylor, members of the Hollyfelds, Julie Davis and Joseph Pope III.
"The musicians in the orchestra love this," says Tony Pierce, vice president of artistic administration for the Colorado Symphony. "It's us being a part of the community." This collaboration caps other joint projects with pop artists, such as DeVotchKa and Amanda Palmer, who, of course, played this past weekend at Red Rocks. "We have an ethical responsibility to be educating and playing and impacting all parts of the field," he adds. "We've got a string quartet playing with Trampled by Turtles the same day. I think the Colorado Symphony needs to employ itself in that way."
With its novel ties to the history of written music, this project offers a different kind of bridge for classical musicians. Beck published the Song Reader sheet music in December as arrangements solely for guitar and piano, but it didn't take long for the project to land on Recuber's radar. To him, the project hearkened back to the early days of popular music in America, a time before advents in technology made recordings readily available to the masses.
The idea was also closely linked to the history of orchestral music. Great masterworks by the Western world's most accomplished musical geniuses from centuries past persisted thanks to sheet music. That strain is what drove Recuber to float the idea of symphonic approach to the music to Pierce last winter. "I think it's such a cool idea," he declares. "You can't hear the album unless you know people who read music. It puts the symphony in a really cool position."
The idea caught Pierce's interest, and following discussions with representatives from Beck's camp, the project started taking shape. Once Pierce and the other administrators at the Colorado Symphony agreed to take on the project, it fell to a veteran of the classical and pop world to help hammer out the arrangements.
Jay Clifford, the guitarist and vocalist from the South Carolina-based outfit Jump, Little Children, had met Pierce through the professional orchestra based in Charleston. Clifford's work with Children, a blues, folk and rock band that officially broke up in 2005, made him an ideal candidate to fill out the rough song sketches provided in Beck's transcriptions.
That was no simple process. The final arrangements came out of casual rehearsals between the Colorado Symphony and Rateliff, Taylor, Davis, Pope and the Hollyfelds. They sent recordings of the sessions to Clifford in South Carolina, and he worked to find the ideal patterns for strings, horns and percussion. Out of the twenty transcriptions that make up the Song Reader, the musicians worked with Clifford to finalize versions of less than ten songs, including "Just Noise," "Eyes that Said I Love You," "Rough on Rats," "Old Shanghai" and "Do We? We Do."
"We have different artists who are doing their own versions," notes Clifford. "They needed to establish key, tempo, all of these aspects of their version of the songs. There were definitely a lot of moving parts. Traditionally, the way that I've worked with songwriters has been from a definitive version of a song to work with. I think that's amazing about what Beck has done."
It gives the artists the leeway to forge their own definitive versions of the tunes, Clifford notes. Like the Tin Pan Alley standards of old, like the folk melodies that informed the work of Beethoven and Mozart, these songs are open to interpretation. "Obviously, that's a challenge," Clifford admits, "But it's one of the amazing things about it, too. It's very democratic, very open."
Finding the right forum to premiere this blend of musical democracy was a no-brainer for Laura Bond, the Colorado Symphony's special projects manager (and former Backbeat editor). The performance may very well show up at a different venue later this year (the recent collaboration with DeVotchKa could be a good template), but Bond says the annual Showcase offered an ideal starting off point. That is largely thanks to a built-in, dedicated musical audience. The tone of the festival may be solidly rooted in pop, but there's plenty of passion to go around to other genres.
"There aren't a lot of places where you could appeal to people from both worlds," Bond notes, adding that the Song Reader project can be seen as an important test case in a new approach to programming. "We are building up an argument that there a lot of music fans who would love symphonic music."
Similarly, there are a lot of people from the symphonic world who would find plenty to enjoy in the realm of rock. Working through the basic sheet music provided by Beck was a learning experience for the most seasoned members of the orchestra, including conductor Scott O'Neil, Bond recalls.
"He comes from the furthest part of the spectrum you could possibly be on," Bond points out. "Otis Taylor came in for the first time. Scott was looking at Beck's music for cues ... He looked at where the time signature would be. Beck used the word 'rhetorically.' Scott was like, 'I don't know what tempo rhetorically is.'"
But O'Neil and the rest of the orchestra figured it out. There was a certain degree of freedom in the simplicity of the sheet music, a liberation that let the Colorado Symphony and the collaborators put their own stamp on the songs. And there's no reason that creativity won't appear in other venues and in other ventures.
"Who knows what a community's orchestra becomes in the future," Pierce concludes, adding that there may be room for a string quartet at a venue like the hi-dive. "There's no reason it can't serve all of these purposes."