October 5, 1997
There's an amazing photograph in the booklet that accompanies the CD of Paul McCartney's "Standing Stone," a new 78-minute work for chorus and orchestra.
At first glance, the photo looks like a routine shot of the London Symphony Orchestra in an Abbey Road studio during a break in the recording sessions. Some musicians are practicing, some are chatting with each other, and one is reading a book. A cellist, on the other hand, is looking at the music on her stand. She has her fingers in her ears, and she's sticking out her tongue.
One is tempted to read meaning into this picture the way some of us tried to decode the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" back in 1967 or "Band on the Run" in 1974. Does the cellist represent the attitude McCartney's fans will take toward his newest venture into "classical" music? Or does she signal the reaction mainstream concertgoers may have to "Standing Stone"?
From childhood, McCartney has had an interest in classical music. He even auditioned for a place in the boys' choir in the Liverpool Cathedral, but he was turned down because he didn't read music. Famous Beatles songs were made more memorable by unusual instrumental colorings: harpsichord, piccolo trumpet, horn, full orchestra. In 1991, McCartney produced the "Liverpool Oratorio," a substantial work for chorus and orchestra that did not meet with much critical enthusiasm but has nevertheless entered the repertory of more than 100 orchestras, probably surpassing the performance record of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem."
EMI, the international recording giant, commissioned McCartney in 1993 to compose another large-scale work to celebrate its first century and his career-long association with EMI labels. The result is "Standing Stone," a tone poem that is so vigorously narrative that some ambitious choreographer is probably already eagerly at work on it. "Standing Stone" has been performed live in London; the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Lawrence Foster, recorded it and will play the American premiere Nov. 14 in Carnegie Hall. You can confidently expect excerpts from "Standing Stone" to become a regular programming feature of orchestras and pops series worried about the box office.
McCartney has never learned to read music or write it down, because he doesn't want to interfere with his natural creativity. He worked out the "Liverpool Oratorio" in collaboration with the film composer Carl Davis. This time, he worked with a keyboard connected to a computer program that transferred his playing into musical notation, which was then organized, structured, and orchestrated by a team including jazz musicians Steve Lodder and John Harle and composer David Matthews. The overseer of the entire project was Richard Rodney Bennett, composer, pianist, and all-around musician.
At one point, McCartney's computer program turned dysfunctional, spewing out distorted versions of what he had played on the keyboard. When this was played back to him, McCartney liked what he heard and decided to use it in a section called "Lost at Sea." The notes describe this accidental episode as "atonal," but it actually sounds polytonal.
McCartney was aware that he stood very little chance of producing a successful traditional symphonic work "where you take a theme and develop it throughout a movement." With becoming modesty he writes, "I simply didn't know how to do that." Instead, he created a narrative element as he did in the "Liverpool Oratorio." Unable to make a large structure, McCartney creates a vast mosaic out of numerous small ones.
The "Standing Stone Poem" began during McCartney's morning jogs; it was edited by Tom Pickard. The poem, an alliterative epic narrative about McCartney's Celtic roots, unfolds in four sections that correspond to what became the four movements of the symphonic poem. The first depicts primeval chaos and the beginnings of life. The second brings the arrival of Man, "First Person Singular," his first voyage, his safe arrival, and the erection in thanksgiving of a monument of stone. The third brings conflict, war, omens, and eclipse. The fourth ends in celebration ("milkmaid's buckets spilled glory tales").
McCartney's experience with film music ("The Family Way") must have been useful when writing his score, which illustrates the poem almost line by line. Bennett's vast experience with opera ("Victory"), ballet ("Isadora"), and film ("Nicholas and Alexandra," "Equus") must have come in handy. The music boasts some characteristically attractive McCartney themes, some of them old, some new. One of them leads a double life on McCartney's "Flaming Pie" album. Another, the big love theme, is a tune McCartney's children grew up to, but he had never found a public use for it. These themes are enlivened by some nice touches of orchestration. The prehistoric atmosphere of the opening, for example, is suggested by musicians playing on open strings and "natural" unfingered notes on the brass instruments; many prominent solos for instruments like the English horn; an extended passage for string quartet; some elaborate percussion writing. Almost until the end, the chorus is wordless, like the chorus in Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe."
In his album notes, McCartney writes, "As with all successful 'programme' music, I hope the music is strong enough to stand alone without help from the poem." There may be some disagreement about that: It can hold up only in the way a film score can hold up without knowledge of the movie. In his initial discussions with Bennett, McCartney stated his wish that the music should be "his own" and that he should not be forced to sound like another composer. But the wordless chorus is not the only obvious debt to Ravel's "Daphnis." McCartney also felt compelled to fill an entire CD, and one way of doing that was to fall back on the numberless and numbing repetitions of composers of the minimalist school. Too often, too, one is reminded of how often, and how much more skillfully, John Williams has mined Celtic traditions, not just in his film scores ("Far and Away") or in his concert works (the bassoon concerto, "Five Sacred Trees").
But the real problem with "Standing Stone" is not that it is derivative; it is given to few composers to be truly original. The problem is that it is unnatural, and its committee origins are all too evident. The mixture of solemn artistic purpose and purely commercial motives is uneasy, and the commercial film-music gloss applied to McCartney's simple and not unsophisticated materials has the result of making the music sound bloated, inflated, insincere. Even his soppiest efforts on his home ground don't leave that impression. John Lennon was grossly unfair when he called McCartney a Muzak composer, but then Lennon didn't live to hear "Standing Stone."