I cannot help but reflect that the original recordings of most of these songs were popular before the students in the KSU orchestra were born. It seems that very few of them were familiar with the material (may I use the word urtext?) before the charts were put in front of them for a few days of rehearsals. There were many old-timers like myself in the audience for whom these songs hold profound memories and evoke a deep emotional response. (Go back and re-read assistant dean Samuel Robinson’s program notes in the previous blog page, if you don’t understand what I mean.) Furthermore, divorcing the lyrics and melody from Gabriel’s own performance of these orchestral pieces thrusts the performers further away from “getting it” and understanding that millions of fans across the world held Gabriel’s music to be deeply moving, even in a spiritual way. To cut to the chase, the orchestra didn’t play all thirteen of these pieces convincingly, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for everyone involved for tackling such a difficult and rewarding musical project in such an unexpected setting.
The obvious template for Gabriel and Metcalfe’s work is orchestral minimalism, influenced by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as Gabriel explains in the bonus materials of his new blood DVD. This comes naturally from the original studio recordings of these songs in the 1970s through 2002, when Gabriel, very much influenced by classical minimalism at the time, used analog sequencers and drum machines, and later on increasingly sophisticated digital music technology, as the bedrock for many of the compositions. Ostinatos of metronomic sequences and counterpoints, often in odd time signatures, were overlayed with live drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and piano, and in the early days Gabriel’s own flute.
Each of the pieces in the new blood suite sound quite different, but most of them start with a quiet dynamic, with the musicians given the task of reproducing complex patterns transcribed from the original sequenced electronic sounds. This task often fell to the tuned percussion, employing a lot of hocketing between parts to cover what was originally composed with contrapuntal layers of monophonic synthesizers. It’s a big challenge to ask a percussion ensemble to play like a robotic handbell choir, while the movement and breath of the piece is conveyed by the other parts of the orchestra under the conductor’s baton. Yet it was not only the percussion section that had to deal with this. Minimalist melodic figures hocketed between instruments showed up in every section of the orchestra at various times. The ability to pull off this ensemble juggling act tended to dictate which pieces succeeded in performance and which did not.
I’ll digress a moment to comment on the presentation: the score necessitated amplification to be performed successfully. Joseph Greenway, the student sound engineer, was working almost as hard as the conductors, bringing soloists or small ensembles up in the mix at key points, and balancing sections off of each other in ways that would simply not work entirely acoustically. This is in the tradition of late 20th-century orchestral works, with another nod to Glass and composers like John Adams. Mr. Greenway and his team did a seamless job of pulling this off, although to my ear, when amplified, the cello section sounded dry and thin.
The concert opened with “The Rhythm of the Heat,” whose original version appeared on the Security album in 1982. This strong opening unleashed the dark and menacing undertone in many of Gabriel’s songs, with one long crescendo thrusting forward the length of the piece as the strings furtively skittered out col legno patterns and the huge bass drum and brass drove the point home.
In the course of the new blood suite, the student orchestra got a thorough workout in late-20th-century extended performance techniques, especially the strings, being called upon for col legno, Bartok snaps, all kinds of unusual harmonics and left-hand techniques, more than I can catalog. This was no easy evening of playing orchestral classic rock behind a cranked-up rock band, as might have been said about the KSU Orchestra’s performance with the band Kansas at the Cobb Energy Center last year. (Of course I was there and I loved every minute of it; it just represented the conventional approach, which Gabriel didn’t see as suiting his aims).
The next piece, “Downside Up”, from OVO, 2002, is one of the least-well-known tunes, as OVO was not a commercial pop album. The low brass struggled to bring their part together. The piece concluded with a spirited and improvised jazz solo by bassist Britton Wright.
“San Jacinto”, from Security, 1982, started with intricate, delicate and somewhat polyrhythmic tuned percussion ostinatos and brought out Steven Bicknell on piano (he also played celesta later in the program). I could hear the orchestra struggling to come to grips with it, as it worked through another slow crescendo to a wistful ending.
“Intruder”, from Gabriel’s third solo album in 1980, is another of the darkest and most sinister of Gabriel’s works. As he mentioned in his own commentary, Gabriel’s template for this orchestral arrangement was the work of screen composer Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s films: he was pointing straight to the “shower” scene in Psycho (1960).
The orchestra approached this piece timidly, struggling to seize it and imbue it with terror. A valiant viola solo was under-amplified and lost its impact. By the end, they’d managed to create a satisfyingly chilling conclusion.
“Wallflower”, from Security, 1982, is a delicate, wistful piece that Gabriel stripped down to nothing but piano and a quartet of two cellos and two violas (Robert Marshall, Zac Goad, Kyle Mayes and Rachael Keplin) until the rest of the string orchestra very quitely swept in underneath the amplified quartet and piano at the last moment to create a beautiful, serene mood.
“In Your Eyes” from So, 1986, is one of Gabriel’s best-known songs, and also in his live band version one of the longest and most slowly-developing records that ever got played on pop radio in the 1980s or 90s. The original is replete with Senegalise drummers playing deep rhythms, sharp jangling cross-picked acoustic guitar, and most memorable for a passionate descant by counter-tenor Youssou N’Dour, sung in the Serer language. For the new blood arrangement, Gabriel and Metcalfe simply took out every bit of the percussion and any sharp attacks and recast the piece for strings only, in what I can only describe as a Brian Eno-approved “oblique strategy” of swirling melody like feathers in a gentle whirlwind. The KSU strings perfectly captured the mood on this one.
The first half of the concert concluded with “Mercy Street”, from So, 1986, when out came two singers: Jonathan Stewart, to sing the Peter Gabriel part, and Chani Maisonet to provide the counterpart to a meditative melody. Once again, it was apparent that everybody here understood how to convey the beautiful mood of what Gabriel described as the piece that his fans appreciated the most in his concerts over the years.
The intermission ended with the strings marching into the hall from the back and riffing on a demented marching-band arrangement of Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, from 1986, for a bit of comic relief. The orchestra then launched into the epic “Red Rain”, from So, 1986, richly orchestrated throughout, and played with true confidence.
“Darkness”, from Up, 2002, was a piece less-well-known to Gabriel fans. This was another example of Gabriel’s selection of something that was not a “hit” but worked perfectly within the context he constructed for new blood.
The plaintive and heart-rending “Don’t Give Up”, from So, 1986, well-remembered for the contribution of singer Kate Bush on the original, was one of Gabriel’s enduring classics, again well-suited to the wistful, melancholy textures that the orchestra spun out in the highest point of the concert.
“Digging In The Dirt”, from Us, 1992, however, did not gel. It required hard-rocking syncopated rhythms, serious as a heart attack, that the arranger was asking an orchestra to pound out without the help of a drum kit or drum machines. Nobody seemed able to rise to the challenge.
“The Nest that Sailed the Sky”, from OVO, 2002, provided a short, ethereal interlude that brought the orchestra to its conclusion, bringing out the singers again for “Solsbury Hill”, from Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977 — certainly some of the best lyrics Gabriel ever wrote. I can attest that any ensemble playing any arrangement of this quirkiest of songs, almost all in 7/4 time with contrasting emphasis between groups of 3 and 4 in different sections, would have difficulty keeping it rocking like it needs to rock. I’m most sorry to say that the singers took a frivolous approach to a spiritual piece of music whose message they just didn’t seem to understand or convey, in unfortunate contrast to their moving, heart-felt rendition of “Mercy Street” in the first half.
At the end, though, the orchestra earned their standing ovation. Every musician in the production was challenged, stretched, and grew in their musicianship from the application of an unlikely collection of arrangements of obsolete pop songs of the sort that don’t get played on the radio much anymore, revealing the enduring appeal of Gabriel’s music. Bravo.