INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
BBC JULY 27, 2016 - by Jonathan McAloon
IS DAVID BOWIE THE ULTIMATE CROSSOVER COMPOSER?
Prom 19 celebrates Bowie with a reinterpretation of his music by the Berlin-based, genre-defying musicians' collective Stargaze and its artistic director André de Ridder. We remember the influence Bowie took from classical music, and what he gave back, with the help of five of the Proms' special guests, including John Cale and Amanda Palmer.
By 1976, David Bowie's early years of success and excess were taking their toll. He decamped to Berlin to sober up and after a run of albums - including Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans and Station To Station - that straddled the styles of folk, glam, rock and soul embarked on his so-called Berlin Trilogy that would see him embrace European electronica and become as much of a classical composer as a pop musician.
When we think of the Berlin albums - Low, "Heroes" (both 1977) and Lodger (1979) - we think of ex-Roxy Music innovator Brian Eno as leading Bowie into these experimental and erudite territories. But Bowie had always been intrigued by classical music in its many guises. An early introduction to Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring and Holst's The Planets taught him that "classical music wasn't boring", as he said when he was interviewed in 2003 by Vanity Fair about his favourite albums, which also included Strauss's Four Last Songs. The chaotic bass tuba riff in The Rite Of Spring was, for a young David Jones, as effective as any in pop: he even devised his own dance to it.
His 1967 self-titled debut album was dominated by orchestral instruments. He and a friend taught themselves basic classical theory from a book over a couple of weeks and presented their scores to the London Philharmonic. The result sounds like a Cockney Scott Walker with a marching band.
In Berlin, Bowie and Eno were using methods influenced by experimental and minimalist classical composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Eno wrote down instructions on cards to be picked up at random, or pointed to chords on a blackboard for the band to play. Composing under imposed limits had previously opened up new vistas of inspiration to twentieth century masters such as Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez.
What initially resulted was Low, half a pop album (it included the hit Sound And Vision) half a series of tone poems. The final track Subterraneans is a stand-out piece of music, striking and unlike anything else in his career; unlike anything else on Low, even. At one point it stumbles upon what sounds like a futuristic update of Elgar's famous Nimrod theme from Enigma Variations.
He didn't just take inspiration from classical, he inspired it. Twenty years after Low, Philip Glass, who Bowie had known in the 70s, turned its second side into his own first symphony, The Low Symphony, repaying the compliment of his own influence. His fourth symphony was a take on "Heroes", which Bowie even added a vocal to. It was performed at Glastonbury this year conducted by Charles Hazlewood.
As late as 2010, Bowie told the Observer that he was listening to Steve Reich and named two works by John Adams on his iPod playlist. Also on there is Gavin Bryars's strangely moving Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which includes a loop of a homeless man in London singing to a short orchestral riff and sounds like something Bowie might have come up with himself during the Anthony Newley years. Eno had released it on his Obscure label in 1975.
The dialogue with different musicians in different styles continues after his death, as Bowie's legacy is celebrated by pop and classical luminaries at Prom 19. Ahead of what promises to be an emotional night of music, we spoke to five of those involved.
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JOHN CALE, FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, ON TEACHING BOWIE THE VIOLA
"When I was a kid, going to the Proms was the apex of my year. I played viola in a youth orchestra in Wales; I'd play Christmas oratorios and Easter Handel pieces and was listening to Radio Moscow, or anything on a short wave radio that had classical music on. Once I got a taste for that, my uncle brought me up once a year to London. I was in heaven. I'd watch people perform and it gave a sense of how exciting performing was. I haven't been at The Albert Hall for years, but it's going to be something looking out from the stage.
"Pop musicians now seem to have curiosity about other kinds of music in spades. We worked hard in The Velvet Underground to make sure nobody could figure out what we were doing and we did pretty well on several levels. Sometimes too well. Anybody who really liked us was always inquisitive.
"I like to take things apart and put them back together in a different way, which was essential to me in reimagining David Bowie's music for the Proms. There are distinct phases of his music - it fits into so many distinctive categories - which means you can take liberties.
"The first time I met Bowie was at the Tibet House concerts in New York. He absolutely wanted to play and join in, so I taught him a viola part: a riff to Sabotage. He was game and picked it up straight away. Otherwise we did a lot of drinking, a lot of running round at the Mudd Club. Most of that's a blur."
AMANDA PALMER ON TURNING BOWIE INTO STRING QUARTETS
"With Bowie, it was always clear that you weren't dealing with a mainstream pop artist but a capital A artist. The day after he died Jherek Bischoff and I were on the phone mixing another song, and I half seriously suggested that we backburner that project and record a quick string tribute that we could work on remotely. By the end of the conversation we were talking about song ideas. I don't think it occurred to either of us that it would send us down a rabbit hole of listening to his whole canon. We got the idea for and released Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute within ten days.
"I wanted to do songs that I loved, even though I'd been listening to all these songs I never knew because I happened to be living with a true David Bowie scholar: Neil Gaiman. I tried to figure out a song we could do from Outside, which is my favourite Bowie record. But the vibe wasn't right.
"One of the beautiful things about a string quartet arrangement is that it drags the song down to a basic infrastructure where you still hear the entire palette. It's like a line drawing of a famous painting. You see things you wouldn't have noticed in the complete version. And when you go into a studio with someone else's song, physically wrapping your voice around it, you see more. Bowie's brilliant and daring use of melody becomes apparent.
"With Black Star, which I will be performing at the Proms, even the form was hard to understand. It's a mirror of itself and it splits in the middle. It's a Russian doll. You have to think that, not too long ago, Bowie stood in the studio and out of everything he could have chosen to give us, he gave us this."
ANNA CALVI ON BOWIE, WAGNER AND LISTENING TO EVERYTHING YOU CAN
"If you want to make music, it makes sense to listen to as wide a spectrum as you can. You never know what ideas it might give you. Bowie is like this. He had a limitless creative mind: all his different guises, and all the styles he tried. There are so many good songs: if you'd written a single one of them you'd feel you'd achieved something.
"I did a version of Black Star with Amanda Palmer [for Strung Out In Heaven]. To the end, he was producing lovely music. At the Prom, I'll also be covering Lady Grinning Soul from 1973's Aladdin Sane, which I recorded on my Strange Weather EP with David Byrne. Throughout his career you can hear inspiration from such a wide spectrum of music.
"Because I studied music I was introduced to lots that I otherwise wouldn't have known, and had ideas for songs that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I got into John Adams and Benjamin Britten. In Debussy there's this strangeness where it's still very melodic but you can't predict what's going to happen. When I wrote my 2013 song Tristan, I was thinking of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde. What really excites me is dynamics, and that's what orchestral music is all about."
BRITISH COMPOSER ANNA MEREDITH ON ARRANGING BOWIE'S MUSIC
"I think it's a real shame to rule out any music because you might think it's not for you - in either direction. You might think that pop music isn't well written when a lot of it is brilliantly, carefully crafted. Equally, you might think classical music lacks a lot of the stuff of pop music: beats or basslines or melodies. That's not true either; you're just listening to slightly different instrumentation.
"For a classical composer, Bowie's music is so harmonically interesting, with unexpected progressions and lovely arrangements. When arranging his music, you're working out how much you want to replicate the identity of a song and how much you're trying to put your own stamp on it. Part of what makes Bowie a good subject for interpretation is that there's such mystery about him. He's had so many evolutions that it gives you lots of potential to either work with or work against the material. And the material itself, even when you strip it down to its bones, is interesting.
"I've tried to stay away from other people's arrangements of Bowie while working on my own versions of Life on Mars and Starman for the Prom. I didn't want to end up thinking, 'Maybe I should be doing it this way...'"
PROM PRESENTER STUART MACONIE ON BOWIE'S MUSICAL EAR
When someone dies there is a rush to hyperbole. In the case of Bowie, hyperbole was a pretty appropriate response. He didn't so much invent a musical style as have this brilliantly attuned antenna to what was happening in the world: glam, or The Velvet Underground in America, or Kraftwerk in Germany. He was able to spot things that were happening in the art world, in classical, and incorporate them into his music.
"A record like Low is extraordinary in that it's a big hit rock album that's really adventurous. He was a great experimenter but also a populariser. His brilliance was in that magpie intellect and bringing these other musics to a wide audience.
"People forget that he had a such a good ear: his melodies were great, his arrangements were great. Then when you get to his experimental stuff, it incorporates a range of musical colours beyond a rock band. It starts to lend itself to new settings, like those by Philip Glass, and what the Proms are doing with this concert. I'll listen to pop music, and I'll listen to classical music, but it's only rarely that you got someone like Bowie who could keep an ear out for both of them."