Janelle Monae—Symphonicities–#1 on Pop itunes on 7/13/10-release day–great reviews, a couple not so great-Welcome to Planet Earth-Bettye Lavette-Matthew Morrison

July 15, 2010

Well, Can’t stop listening to Tightrope by Janelle Monae. Man is she the real deal!!!! Accompanied Bettye Lavette on Good Morning America and that was wondrous. So proud of that record and producing it (Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook). Elton John flipped over the “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” arrangement and Keith Richards called it a great record. Rave reviews all around. Go scope it. One of those moments in life. So grateful.

Sting’s Symphonicities has been getting great reviews critically but some of the bloggers at Amazon and itunes have been less than kind, though some are extraordinarily glowing. A few people expected it to be exactly like the concert but Sting did not want to just do the hits like Every Breath, Lose My Faith, and others. He wanted the record to include mostly discoveries and/or songs that were ripe for credible yet respectful and emotionally engaged orchestrations like “Roxanne”. There are a few cuts that are bonuses on various formats that should be checked out. “Why Should I Cry For You” is part of the itunes download and one of the best we did. “Whenever I Say Your Name” has a wonderful Violin Solo by Gerald Gregory, the truly great 1st violinist from the Royal Philharmonic and “Straight To My Heart”, a song in 7/8 from Nothing Like The Sun, is on the Best Buy CD. The various retailers ask for bonus material.

Anyway, love the new Black Keys record. Still can’t get enough of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto played by Hilary Hahn. Magnificent and a last movement that grooves its ^%$ off.

I have been talking with the great Mahler expert Gilbert Kaplan who goes around the world conducting the Resurrection Symphony. We may collaborate on an edition for small orchestra which will be difficult but would give many more musicians the chance to play that masterwork which is written for a massive orchestra. I may not be able to do it because of my schedule but what an honor to be called and to spend time with such a Mahler expert. Leonard Slatkin recommended me which is another surreal thing.

Here is a “word from the defense” post I left on Amazon in response to a particularly detailed lukewarm blog of the Sting record. I loved doing it and I have no vitriol at all. I love reading bad reviews because they often teach me something and get me thinking. This particular guy liked some of my arrangements, in particular “Pirate’s Bride” and “End Of The Game” but was fairly snippy about a lot of the rest. I wanted to answer some of the bogus assumptions regarding Sting’s motivation for doing the record etc etc etc. I shall paste it right below.

The Sting concerts at the MET were triumphs and the audience was ecstatic which was thrilling. Working with Matthew Morrison from the TV show Glee now and he has been fantastic. Great voice. Great pitch and hard worker. Soulful.

Here is that post on Amazon:

Hello all, I was so taken with the detail and beautifully written review by Brian that I had to post a review of my own, despite the fact that I have no right to review it because I produced this record with Sting. This music has meant so much to me, these songs, this artist, that the daunting task of arranging a lot of the current tour and producing this record haunted me for months. This review will contain some defensive comments but I hope they at least illuminate the process of making this record for anyone who cares. It will also hopefully serve as a slightly better indication of why (Brian’s question) the record was made and the thinking behind a lot of it. First of all, for those who think that Sting is slacking off and just trying to continually recycle existing material, be aware of this. The record was something that happened almost by accident and the whole venture was essentially another voyage of discovery for Sting, who loves Orchestral music.

The story: He was invited by both The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra to put on a concert of his music arranged for orchestra. A tour was planned based on the appeal of those concerts. They were a thrill for him. In his words, “what a joy and honor it is to hear songs I often wrote on a guitar alone in a room played by a group of peerless musicians”. All that said, the concerts highlighted the difficulties of a venture like this. Many music stars do Standards records and other similarly minded projects to appeal to adults who attend Symphonic concerts and higher brow Arts events but still love great Pop music. These projects are occasionally successful but they can be artistically dreadful. Is there anything worse than a series of ballads peppered with cloying Strings?? This was exactly what Sting did not want to do and in fact his earliest direction to the arrangers was to “please not give the orchestra endlessly held chords that are beautiful but are better for putting people to sleep than entertaining them”.

“Write with adventure and invention”, he said. (If you listen carefully to my arrangement of “Roxanne” or Dave Hartley’s arrangement of “I Hung My Head”, you hear intertwining melodic lines in the orchestra and not just lush chords.)

Because of Sting’s directive, the first arrangements were therefore extremely intricate and involved but occasionally covered up the charm of the songs. I was brought in to write orchestrations that were more mindful of the original records while not imitating them. I knew two things. Number one, there was no way in hell one could compete with such magnificent records. Number two, I knew some longtime Sting and Police fans would be perturbed by any kind of orchestration at all written over songs that were originally played by three magnificent players. It was almost like starting with a minus sign on your forehead. The Police were a band that was all about space.

How could I not take on the challenge, however, of writing arrangements of songs this strong??? Too often, arrangers in the music business are invited to write orchestrations on Adult Contemporary projects, most typically big ballads and one does not often get to work on muscular and deep music like Sting’s body of work. I wrote a number of arrangements and one of the things I wanted to figure out was a way to approach some of the harder and more intense material. I wanted to write vital and active orchestrations to offset the tracks that would inevitably be what people expect on a record like this; rich and ruminative slower material, something an orchestra does so well. In the spirit of those early records I found what I thought was a way in. I went to see my friend David Cossin, this remarkable percussionist from Manhattan, play with the group Bang On A Can All Stars. The concert was amazing, arrangements of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and other post modern pieces. I thought via the use of odd found percussion instruments and intense, hard and joyous String writing we could actually play some of this material. I initially recorded the “Next To You” arrangement for Sting to hear and he loved it. He was most excited about the fact that this meant we could approach things like “She’s Too Good For Me” and even the earlier Punk inflected songs and create a concert that was really a challenge for the orchestra. “Next To You”, within Sting’s camp and with musicians in the New York area, got such a positive reaction that it served as a real kick in the pants and got us going. Sting started getting deeply involved in the direction of the arrangements and enjoyed that process, knowing instinctively when the arranger was heading down a rabbit hole.

He did not intend to just make another record of his songs but he really was moved and galvanized by the experience of hearing the songs in a new way. The concerts have gotten terrific reviews and while rehearsing in London we decided to record some of the material at Abbey Road Studios, where the rehearsals took place. The recordings I had done in the late winter came out so well also that we realized there could possibly be a full record here when added to the Abbey Road stuff. I kept experimenting in New York and discovered “End Of The Game” and “Pirate’s Bride”. I told Sting I could not believe these beautiful songs were virtually unknown, “Pirate’s Bride” in particular being one of his most beautiful ballads. He gave me license to try things including his idea of evoking a classic British Colliery Brass Band for the remarkable “We Work The Black Seam”, one of my favorites on the project. The one thing even the naysayers would have to admit is that we avoided some terrible sand traps:

1. The record is not all ballads. “Next To You”, “She’s Too Good” and “End Of The Game”, among others, feature demanding orchestral writing and yet take the originals and don’t distort them beyond recognition.

2. The ballads all have a concept behind them–“Roxanne” came from Sting’s suggestion of the original obsessive Bossa Nova groove, the one he used on All This Time, the concert DVD recorded on 9/11, “My Ain’ True Love”, arranged magnificently by Steven Mercurio, is haunted and not cloying in the least, evoking a Civil War battlefield beautifully, and “Pirate’s Bride” features haunted Oboe and Jo Lawry’s incandescent voice. One of the strongest songs from the tour ballad wise, “Why Should I Cry For You” makes use of the gorgeous Island Of Souls melody, the melodic germ that propels the whole Soul Cages record. It is available elsewhere as a bonus cut.

3. The arrangements do not go off on a million tangents nor do they drown the songs in either syrup (in my opinion) or a million endless interludes, which is often the case with projects like this.

The main reason I wrote this review is to put to rest the idea that Sting is idle and only recycling. He is writing music for a new project right now and he has just wanted to spend the last few years on input, as he says, and not output. He is constantly learning and endlessly curious. He has had such a moving and wonderful time hearing the songs fleshed out for great instrumentalists and he has had a chance to work with some wonderful orchestral writers; Vince Mendoza, Jorge Calandrelli, Dave Hartley, William Ross, Robert Sadin and the magnificent Italian composer Nicola Tescari, who arranged one of the highlights of the current tour, a fully contemporary and almost Alban Berg-worthy take on “Moon Over Bourbon Street”.

I am sad that “Next To You” and “She’s Too Good” seem to be needless to one of the reviewers below. They are just about joy and keeping the project alive and exciting. The opening of “She’s Too Good” was written with the same kind of spirit that I get when listening to the last movement of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. None of the arrangers, including myself, have any patience for pastiche though, trying to sound like this composer or that composer. Absolutely not. Rather; we were all energized by the remarkable chance to work on arrangements for one of the most gifted and wonderful songwriters of the last 30 years. I hope Brian will give the disc a second and third listen and I hope some of you who are disappointed by the orchestration on these at least understand where this album came from. It would take my entire life to answer every bad review. It is probably silly to even write this but I love talking about concepts and music and I found most of these reviews smart, engaged, and written with care. Sting is great to watch when dealing with harsh criticism. I paraphrase: The Arts are all about exploration, he would say. Self doubt and criticism can creep in and make you question trying different things. Avoid it at all costs.

He loves singing “Roxanne” and “Every Little Thing”, which I arranged as a tribute to the Latin underpinnings behind the original recording (we have actually done a new mix of it with all new percussion called the “Bronx Street Fair Mix” which is incredibly rhythmic and pumping and it should be available on the upcoming vinyl release). He loves singing “Englishman…” and “Next To You” and recognizes the gift he has received: the reality that so many people want to hear him sing these iconic songs. He just wants to keep it interesting. I admire him for it and working on this project was a privilege.

Above all listen to that voice. Just extraordinary! I hope you check it out. It came from the heart. Thanks Brian for getting me thinking. Music, music, music, music!!!!!

Rob Mathes

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5 Responses to “Janelle Monae—Symphonicities–#1 on Pop itunes on 7/13/10-release day–great reviews, a couple not so great-Welcome to Planet Earth-Bettye Lavette-Matthew Morrison”

  1. Kris Says:

    Rob,

    Thank you for the detailed explanation of the work. Some I read, some I scanned through, I admit! It seems I have no problem with Sting touring and making a recording of previously released material! What a thrill for anyone to have the opportunity to play with such esteemed orchestras. Hello! Will all the tracks (bonus tracks etc.) at some point be available on iTunes or in a digital format? I’m not buying each CD! I saw Sting at Red Rocks and it was memorable; I’ll be purchasing some tracks.

    Having said that, if I never hear Roxanne again, it will be too soon! I never have liked that song! (Sorry!) It seems to follow him wherever he goes…any live album he cuts. Let it die, already. Let it go! Again, sorry! I just don’t think it’s, “all that.”

    Best…going to watch Sting now on The Early Show,

    Kris

  2. Kris Says:

    Rob,

    Will you be so kind as to detail the different CD/bonus track options and where we can get them?

    Thank you,

    Kris

  3. robmathes Says:

    Hey Kris,

    I believe that eventually this year, there will be a way to get all the various tracks somehow in one place. For now, not because of Sting—he would have put them all on, the marketplace is so tough for retailers that the big ones like to offer bonuses that just appear on their store. Itunes has Why Should I Cry. Best Buy has Straight To My Heart. I haven’t seen Whenever I Say Your Name yet but that was to be an Amazon bonus cut though it may be Amazon.co.uk The Bronx Street Fair MIx of Symphonicities will be on the vinyl. Look for all of these eventually Kris in one place. I believe Amazon.co.uk alludes to a Symphonicities + 3 which will be available later in the year. That’s the best I can do for you at this point Kris and all I know. All the best, R

  4. Kaili Kinnon Says:

    Rob,

    As a long time Sting fan, and having just seen Peter Gabriel perform “Scratch My Back” in Montreal, I was extremely excited when I heard about Sting’s orchestral project. I was even more excited when I heard about your involvement in it as “William the Angel” is one of my family’s all time favorite Christmas albums and “Evening Train” is definitely in my top ten albums.

    My dad bought the Sting album, and we have been listening to it almost non-stop. Each listen has proven more enjoyable as I discover different layers of the wonderful arrangements. The current faves in our household are “Next to you”, “I hung my head” and “We work the black seam”.

    Thanks for your wonderful response to the reviews, it helped me to understand the impetus for the album that much more. I can’t wait to get my hands on “Whenever I say your name.”

    Hello from the Kinnons in Toronto!


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