“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.
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.”