Part Two of my review of the Kennesaw State University Orchestra’s performance of Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite.
Here are the program notes from the printed concert program.
A note from the Assistant Dean of the College of the Arts
I have been an ardent fan of Peter Gabriel for over thirty years. I began listening to him as a college student in the early ’80s when I stumbled across a used copy of Security at my local record store. Since that time, I have followed each step of his career, each new album he recorded, with admiration and anticipation. Of course, it was as a live performer that Gabriel truly shone. I will never forget the first time I was able to see him live, during the So tour of 1986-87. The concert was equal parts theatrical spectacle, fantastic rock show, and spiritual experience. I remember, particularly, when he performed “Mercy Street”, a song dedicated to Anne Sexton. The lights, music, and performance all combined to enhance the impact of an already emotional piece, and I can still feel the goose bumps on my arms as the song ended.
So, it is against this backdrop of nearly thirty years of avid fandom, that I welcomed the news of Gabriel’s newest project with great excitement. Early press about new blood and the New Blood Orchestra was very positive, and due to the “miracle of the internet,” I was able to hear some of the recordings before it was released I eagerly pre-ordered the CD from a very popular online media outlet, and through some happy circumstance (kismet, fate), received two copies of the CD. I decided to pass the extra copy on to my friend and fellow classic rock fan, Michael Alexander. I didn’t know if he would like it, but it seemed to be the right thing to do as the piece is entirely orchestral. As with many such seemingly innocent acts, I could not have predicted the direction that this was going to take.
Where Mike got the gumption to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization about the possibility of KSU performing new blood, I will never truly know. What I do know is that all of a sudden a dialog began about how we could make this happen at Kennesaw State. I watched with utter amazement and joy as Mike copied me on his email correspondence with folks in the “Peter Gabriel Administration.” My favorite exchange involved Mike presenting three options for the performance, the first of which involved Gabriel performing with our orchestra, to which my dignified response (in blind copy) was, and I quote, “Option 1! Option 1! Option 1!” Sadly, Gabriel’s schedule did not allow for this, but it is a mark of his significant generosity that he agreed to allow us the rights to perform new blood, making tonight a reality. Beyond my utter fanaticism and excitement about the fact that we are now going to be connected to one of my absolute heroes in a very tangible and intimate way (this is, after all, the first time that this work will be performed in its entirety by anyone other than the New Blood Orchestra), there are other reasons why tonight is important to me personally and, I think, to the students about to perform for you.
For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those musicians who is utterly unafraid to take chances in order to serve his art. He is constantly striving to say something of significance; to walk a line that is both consistent with who he has always been as a musician and artist, and at the same time stretch out into new areas and break new ground. This spirit of curiosity, commitment, craft, fearlessness and drive is something that our faculty constantly strives to inculcate in our students. Our students have much to learn from the example that he has set. There is a deeper dimension to him that is important to recognize as well. Gabriel has long been someone who has seen a greater role for his art than just as entertain- mint. His commitment to social issues, awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the world, and his willingness to use his talents in the service of a greater good represent the best of what musicians and artists can achieve. (See, for example, his work with WOMAD [the World of Music and Dance], Real World Studios, Amnesty International, and the Witness Project, not to mention the subject matter of many of his songs.) Again, this is an ideal that we, as educators, wish our students to strive for; to see something larger and more important in what they do than just playing to make people happy — we want them to be fully engaged in the world around them and to seek ways to effect positive change. After all, artists with integrity endure.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that there is another purpose to this specific artistic endeavor we undertake this evening; one that, I think, is entirely consistent with the spirit of Gabriel’s work. Proceeds from this concert will be used to enhance the scholarship opportunities available to our students. The commitment you’ve made as audience members will make it possible for many of these young musicians arrayed on the stage before you to pursue their dreams where they otherwise couldn’t. Our students are different from many who pursue careers in the arts. They largely do not come from privileged backgrounds. They do not have endless resources to support themselves throughout their college careers. They have chosen a path that is not greatly valued in the larger society, and, for the most part, do not stand to earn incredible salaries upon graduation. And our world will be a better place for the decision and sacrifice that they have made in the face of great odds. What they do they do out of passion, dedication, and commitment, all of which are values present in the work and life of Peter Gabriel. So it is apt, I think, that we present this concert for you this evening, not only because it is a unique musical experience, but because it is part of something larger. I am reminded of the lyrics of one of Gabriel’s most popular songs, “In Your Eyes”. This is a love song, but the spirit of the lyrics seem fitting. So, with great apologies for the liberties with Gabriel’s lyrics, let me conclude by saying: “In your eyes, we are complete; In your eyes, we see the doorway to a thousand churches; In your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches. Thank you for your support of this unique event and of our students.
The idea of working with an orchestra began with the Scratch My Back project. This was a song exchange concept, i.e. you do one of mine and I’ll do one of yours. Initially I had thought of working with home-made instruments, but as I explored the sounds we could use, I didn’t find the range of tone and expression that was clearly available in existing instruments that had been developed over time, with years and years of improvements.
I had never really explored an orchestra as the sole sound palette for a record, and that seemed very fresh. Although I had lots of ideas of what it could be, I didn’t have the breadth of knowledge or experience with the full range of orchestral instruments to do the job as well as I wanted, so I began checking out arrangers. I really liked the work of John Metcalfe who had been working on a project at our studio, and had been doing some very interesting live composing for a project The Bays and The Heritage Orchestra. We met and discussed favorite composers and approaches. I then asked if he could arrange a couple of tracks with me and loved the results.
My intention was to work outside of traditional rock arrangements or instrumentation, for us to be bold, innovative and to work with dynamics and extremes where possible, i.e. still and stark at one point, fat, fleshy, and emotional at another. The process was to discuss what each track needed, and then John would prepare a first draft, which we would bounce around a few times before settling on a final version. As this project evolved it grew into something different from anything else I’d done or heard, and I really wanted to take it out live — on its own terms and not as a support for “Scratch” — which we did.
There are fairly radical takes on some familiar and less familiar songs. We are proud of what we have done on this record. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.
KSU Instrumental Ensembles
We are proud to present Peter Gabriel’s new blood to you this evening. This marks yet another milestone for the instrumental program at KSU in that we are the first university to be given the rights to perform this music. It also marks our continuing effort to give our students a wide breadth of experiences that will prepare them to be versatile musicians committed to great art, in whatever shape or form it may appear. A concert like this does not happen without a lot of help. We owe huge “thank-yous” to the staff of the Bailey Center and especially Joseph Greenway, who was a driving force in the lights and sounds you will experience tonight. We also want to thank Peter Gabriel for taking on such a bold project and his amazing management team, who were so supportive of us having this opportunity.
Tonight’s concert is also important because the proceeds go to supporting scholarships and opportunities for our students. We have remarkable students and we owe them the very best. They will be leading the cultural experiences in our region for years to come. Please consider making an additional generous donation to the Mattie Borders Proctor Fellowship for Undergraduate Instrumentalists, which supports these activities.
We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work in a great place with great students and colleagues. Thanks for sharing this experience with us tonight.
John Thomas Burson
Next up, my review, in Part Three.