Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Conclusion

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.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Part Two

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.

Samuel Robinson, Assistant Dean

new blood

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.

–Peter Gabriel

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.

Michael Alexander, Director of Orchestras
David Kehler, Director of Bands

Personnel

Flute/Alto Flute/Piccolo

Catherine Flinchum
Dirk Stanfield

Oboe

Alexander Sifuentes

Clarinet

Kadie Johnston
Tyler Moore

Bassoon

Sarah Fluker

Horn

David Andres
Kristen Arvold

Trumpet

John Thomas Burson
Justin Rowan

Trombone

David Lennertz
Michael Lockwood

Bass Trombone

Joseph Poole

Tuba

Melinda Mason

Percussion

Katelyn King
Erik Kosman
Michael Standard
Harrison Ude

Piano

Steven Bicknell

Violin 1

Emily Ahlenius
Jarred Cook
Saraha Hoefer
Grace Kawamura
Danielle Moeller
Jonathan Urizar
Anneka Zee

Violin 2

Rachel Campbell
Michah David
Amanda Esposito
Terry Keeling
Meian Butcher
Joshua Martin
Kimberly Ranallo
Brittany Thayer

Viola

Justin Brookins
Ryan Gibson
Hallie Imeson
Rachel Keplin
Kyle Mayes
Aliyah Miller
Perry Morris
Alishia Pittman
Samatha Tang

Cello

Kathyrn Encisco
Rachel Halverson
Zac Goad
Robert Marshall
Avery McCoy

Bass

Jarod Boles
Jared Houseman
Matthew Richards
Neal Rodack
Nicholas Schoelfield
Nick Twarog
Britton Wright

Vocals

Chani Maisonet
Jonathan Stewart

Sound Engineer

Joseph Greenway

Next up, my review, in Part Three.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite performed by the KSU Symphony Orchestra, Part One

Review of

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Orchestral Suite

Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

Michael Alexander and David Kehler, conductors

Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University

Thursday, January 10, 2013. 8:00 pm

new blood

Composed by Peter Gabriel

Arranged by John Metcalfe

Program

  • The Rhythm of the Heat
  • Downside Up
  • San Jacinto
  • Intruder
  • Wallflower
  • In Your Eyes
  • Mercy Street
  • Red Rain
  • Darkness
  • Don’t Give Up
  • Digging In The Dirt
  • The Nest that Sailed the Sky
  • Solsbury Hill

Tonight I attended a fascinating concert by the KSU Orchestra, a suite of pieces that stretched and challenged all of the 58 student performers in unexpected ways, from an unconventional source.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite, which was presented by Gabriel with a professional orchestra in a globe-hopping tour that spanned months, has never been performed outside of Gabriel’s direct involvement until now. The KSU music faculty took it upon themselves to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization and obtain clearance to do their own production, for one performance only.

A couple of years ago rock star Peter Gabriel commissioned John Metcalfe to work with him in arranging a number of his songs, spanning 25 years of recordings, into an orchestral suite which he could take on tour, singing with the orchestra in a decidedly non-conventional context. What I mean by that is they dispensed with the way that countless classic rock acts have approached performing with an orchestra. They made a decision not to use any rock band instruments or rock musicians, not to use any electronic instruments or pre-recorded tracks, and they decided to make each piece in the suite sound completely unlike any of the others, by means of the techniques of 20th and 21st-century orchestration. Moreover Gabriel made an exceptionally wise choice not to orchestrate his “greatest hits”; he chose a suite of pieces with a few titles that even his most ardent fans might find obscure. He selected the pieces from his body of work that seemed to him would sound the best when adapted to a symphony orchestra. All of these turned out to be the right decisions.

He also decided to record and present, on a bonus CD in an album package, entirely instrumental arrangements of each of these pieces without anyone singing the melody and the lyrics. These arrangements, largely without melody and song, put the focus on the orchestration and the moods.

Tonight at the Bailey Performance Hall at KSU, directors Michael Alexander and David Kehler took turns with each successive piece, challenging their students to accomplish some prodigious musical achievements on what appears to be very little rehearsal. In the concert program, Assistant Dean Samuel Robinson waxed rhapsodic in a two-page essay about his lifelong admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel, and how important it was to various music faculty members to expose their students to these works.

Peter Gabriel covered a significant amount of territory in musical growth and innovation in twenty-five years. In 1975 he left behind the baroque complexity of his band Genesis, one of the most popular rock bands in England and Europe at the time, spent a lot of time in the United States, and started over with a sound that had more to do with punk than the folk-infused progressive rock for which he was known. Almost immediately expanding upward from his own new stripped-down, dark and angry sound, his music quickly came to incorporate intricate electronic music elements through the programmed sequences of electronic synthesist Larry Fast. Throughout the rest of his solo career, Gabriel’s compositions continued to incorporate sequenced and programmed technological elements, including plenty of drum machines, incorporating more and more sophisticated electronic music technology as he went. At some point in a strange juxtaposition he also began to incorporate world music, especially African drumming and singing from Senegal. But at no point, except perhaps for the instrumental soundtrack that he composed and performed for the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, did his music depart from being recognizable as rock music, played by a live rock band.

Adapting this sort of material into the form of the symphony orchestra — that’s where the fascination starts.

I happen to know musician Larry Fast, so when I heard that the KSU Symphony Orchestra was performing new blood, I wrote to him to ask him his opinion on the work. Larry said, “I was very impressed with the orchestral arrangements. Some were new, but interesting takes on the originals. But for some the orchestrator studied the original synth parts and just nailed them perfectly. I saw the two tours and really enjoyed them.”

Next up, my review of the KSU concert. I’ll have as much to say about the pieces themselves as I will about their performance of them.