May 03, 2007

The Dangling Conversation

Yesterday, Geoff Edgers and Scooter at Unpleasant! were grokking on Arthur Fiedler's "Saturday Night Fiedler" disco album with the Boston Pops, which sent me to the turntable with my own favorite, "Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Play the Music of Paul Simon."

Boston Pops/Fiedler—"Feelin' Groovy" (MP3, 2.2 Mb)

Yes, it's one of the world's leading orchestras playing "Feelin' Groovy." How can you resist? Their version of "Mrs. Robinson" is not bad, either. (All the arrangements on the album are by the legendary Richard Hayman, who would be a hero around these parts just for being a member of Borah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals. But I digress.)

As a kid, these sorts of arrangements were actually my favorite portions of "Evening at Pops," which perhaps demonstrates both how old and uncool I am. But the willful cognitive dissonance between the source material and the end result always tickled my fancy. Taking a modest little pop song and pumping it up with the grandeur of an orchestra was a great way to get seduced by that sound: the full impact of symphonic glory laced with just enough good-natured absurdity to dissolve any encrusted sanctity.

Whatever happened to those sorts of arrangements? Well, pop music itself gradually expanded to symphonic proportions. In a way, a song like "Born to Run," with its melodramatic orchestration and ambition, is already its own Pops arrangement; the fun of hearing three-chord progressions inflated to Wagnerian scale became redundant.

To me, most symphonic pop music just sounds artificially big. (The only guy I ever thought got it right was Brian Wilson, who used the orchestra as an expanded palette—the exotic instrumental colors function as extensions or reimaginations of the sorts of sounds you'd find in a typical pop combo.) But Pops arrangements, because of the context and the presentation, always existed in a kind of playful limbo, free to pick and choose from both sides of the ledger. Sometimes the results were incongruously grandiose. Sometimes they were just goofy. But often, they were grand and goofy, a terrific combination that's all too rare in any genre. It's the sort of charge you get from an over-the-top yet sincerely skillful Hollywood production number, or a particularly elaborate run of physical comedy, or the highbrow/lowbrow alternating current of the best visual pop art.

If I ever was put in charge of the Pops, the first thing I'd do is commission a whole bunch of those young-gun postminimalist pop-influenced composers out there to do arrangements of their favorite songs—not for the orchestra to back up said acts, but as the sort of stand-alone pieces that Fiedler used to do. (The Pops have commissioned an original piece from Nico Muhly—go on, hit him up for another!) Think of it as cleaning up a fun little playground in a corner of the cultural landscape that's fallen into disuse. Is it for everybody? Nah—lots of people outgrow jungle gyms. But, then again, aren't the ones who don't more fun to hang out with?


Lisa Hirsch said...

Two words for you: Carl Stallings. He's not exactly what you're getting at, but "grandiose and goofy" certainly fits.

Elaine Fine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine Fine said...

Elaine Fine said...
And to think that the whole Boston Pops thing started when some smart person hired Leroy Anderson to write an arrangement back when he was a Harvard student!

By the way, Van Dyke Parks is the person who did Brian Wilson's orchestral arranging.

Matthew said...

Elaine: Actually, Brian was indeed the one, at least until his breakdown—he and Parks didn't meet until after the release of Pet Sounds, and Parks's contributions to Smile were lyrical. (Parks did do the arrangements for their 90s collaboration Orange Crate Art, and co-wrote the mid-70s song "Sail On, Sailor.") There are Smile session tapes floating around where you can hear Wilson building up the orchestrations bit by bit, layer by layer.

Not to diminish Parks's skills, though; Song Cycle, released in 1968, is full of kaleidoscopically trippy orchestral goodness, and 1989's Tokyo Rose is one of the most lush and gorgeous pop albums ever. And the Jungle Book movie arrangement of "The Bare Necessities"? That was Parks, too—Disney called him in to arrange and produce the song once they realized it would probably be the film's biggest hit. (Pretty hip of Disney, I have to say, although they may have remembered Parks from his days as a child actor.)

Adam Baratz said...

I'm told that the Pops also used to reserve a slot on their programs for 20th century rep.