I Orchestrated Rock Legend David Johnsen's Orchestral Piece (NYTimes article October 26, 2007)

Oct 26, 2007

And Staten Island, Too 

 (This article originally appeared in the New York Times, October 26, 2007.)
David Johansen at a rehearsal of
his newly composed tone poem.

Credit...Richard Perry/The New York Times

AS the little orchestra goes through its paces, the composer hunches forward in his seat, furrowing his heavy brow and digging fingers into his lank mane at every cello’s sigh or piccolo flourish. It’s three days before the premiere of his latest work, and the orchestra is playing it for the first time.

Still, these are seasoned pros, and at the end of the run-through the composer, David Johansen, pronounces himself satisfied. “But,” he adds, miming a two-stroke power chord, “they’ve got to hit those B flats — hmm-hmmm.”

In a 35-year career spanning stints as glam-punk visionary, tuxedoed lounge lizard and scratchy-78-reviving folk-blues archivist, Mr. Johansen, 57, has reveled in providing new answers to Where Are They Now. Where Mr. Johansen is now is in a graffiti-scarred chair in the sixth row of a borrowed high school auditorium on Staten Island, staring down at his pointy white leather ankle boots and listening to a 15-piece ensemble breathe life into the bittersweet tone poem he has just completed.

The occasion is a rehearsal for a concert called “The Staten Island Composers Project,” taking place tomorrow night and featuring work by three musicians who call the island home: Mr. Johansen; Vernon Reid, founder of the ’80s funk-metal pioneers Living Colour; and Galt MacDermot, best known as the composer of the musical “Hair.”



The Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island commissioned the program and asked each artist to write 20 minutes of music conveying something of his connection to the island often referred to as New York City’s forgotten borough.

Mr. Johansen’s opus, a cinematic and unabashedly romantic Adagio scored mostly for strings, is called “Mara Dreams the Moon Gate of Uncommon Beauty.” Mara is his companion, Mara Hennessey. The Moon Gate of Uncommon Beauty is a round portal between two gently surreal rockscapes in the Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the Staten Island Botanical Garden, not far from Mr. Johansen’s home on the island’s north shore.

Galt MacDermot is one of three Staten Island composers presenting new works Saturday night.
Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The concert, at the St. George Theater, a baroque 1920s movie palace near the ferry terminal, promises to be a varied one. Mr. Reid has assembled a dense, haunted song suite, “Facing Fear,” that addresses 9/11; it will be performed by an expanded version of his high-volume quartet Vernon Reid and Masque. Mr. MacDermot’s “Ode to the Arcane Borough” is a set of brightly swinging pieces for small jazz band and strings.

Mr. Johansen would seem to be making the biggest leap of the three, less in exploring new musical turf, which after all is his stock in trade, than in booting himself off center stage and bowing out of his familiar role as charismatically hammy master of ceremonies. At Wednesday’s rehearsal at Curtis High School he did not even parse the score for the orchestra, a pickup band of top session and Broadway players. That task fell to his arranger, Daniel J. Coe, for good reason.  


“David actually doesn’t read music,” Mr. Coe said. (Mr. Johansen confirmed this, though it did not stop him from donning reading glasses to look over Mr. Coe’s shoulder at the score in proper composerly fashion.)

But Mr. Johansen said “Mara” was an organic progression.

“All through my life I’ve always listened to music I’m not playing,” he said. “So when I was doing rock ’n’ roll at the beginning, I was listening to really mostly kind of country blues and Chicago blues. Then I started listening to a lot of kind of jump jazz and ended up doing that later with the Poindexter thing” — meaning Buster Poindexter, Mr. Johansen’s pompadoured alter ego, who flourished in the late ’80s.

Last year, even as Mr. Johansen was touring with a new version of his early-’70s band the New York Dolls, whose lipstick-smeared clatter prefigured punk, he spent a lot of time listening to slow classical music. “Adagios are my favorite parts of symphonies,” he said.

His genre skipping began at a tender age. He grew up on Staten Island listening to his father, an insurance salesman, sing opera around the house. In high school he sang Kingston Trio songs at hootenannies at the Jewish Community Center one night and covered Wilson Pickett in battles of the bands the next. Then it was on to the Dolls; a solo career as blue-eyed soul shouter; Buster Poindexter; and his postmillennium backwoods-music project, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, named for the compiler of the “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

Last year, just as the Dolls were releasing their first new album in 32 years, the well-received “One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This,” the Council on the Arts and Humanities came calling. The council was armed with a $100,000 grant to mount a concert of local compositions from the New York State Music Fund, which was established with settlement money from the state’s investigations of music companies for payola.


David Johansen has written an orchestral work for the concert.
Credit...Richard Perry/The New York Times

The concert’s musical director and the conductor of Mr. Johansen’s piece, Ray Scro, recalled that at one of the project’s first meetings, Mr. Johansen told him, “‘You know that piece by Samuel Barber, “Adagio for Strings”? I want to do my own Adagio.’ I wasn’t sure if he was kidding.”



Kidding was the last thing on Mr. Johansen’s mind. He described the piece, and the process of writing it, as “just kind of heart-wrenching stuff, gut-wrenching. It’s kind of helped me get to a place in my heart. It’s not made to do anything else.”

On and off for months Mr. Johansen would record themes on a cheap keyboard and e-mail them to Mr. Coe. “I’d write a melody and send it to him — you know, ‘I think this part should connect to that part,’” he said. Mr. Coe would notate the music, orchestrate it, create transitions, make a demo using sampled instruments and e-mail it back to Mr. Johansen.

The resulting piece, propelled slowly forward by a descending melody that owes a debt to the “Swan” movement from Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals,” hangs together, soaring and dipping, conjuring a moonlit landscape periodically darkened by clouds.

As the orchestra filed out after rehearsal, Mr. Johansen asked about the piano that would be used at the concert. “I want that Rachmaninoff sound, kind of like Eric Carmen,” he told Mr. Scro, referring to the composer of “All By Myself” and other overripe pop confections. Mr. Scro made some inquires and reported back.

“It’s a Yamaha concert grand, a very good piano,” he told Mr. Johansen. “It has that Rachmaninoff sound, that rock sound, that rock-maninoff sound.”

“That’s beautiful,” the composer said.

Oct. 30, 2007

An article in Weekend on Friday about plans for a concert the next night called “The Staten Island Composers Project” referred incorrectly to the musical group Vernon Reid and Masque, an expanded version of which performed “Facing Fear” by Mr. Reid. The group is a quartet, not a quintet.

The Staten Island Composers Project will be presented tomorrow night at the St. George Theater, 35 Hyatt Street, St. George; (718) 442-2900,  stgeorgetheatre.com.

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