MCCARTNEY: Standing Stone

MCCARTNEY  Standing Stone – Lawrence Foster, cond; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra – EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 56484 2 6 (76:45)

Here it is–the “classical” music mega-event of Winter, 1997-98: Paul McCartney’s four-movement “symphonic poem,” Standing Stone. Four years (1993-97) in composition, with the help of four “assistants,” and an hour and a quarter in duration, the work quickly found its way to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s “classical” music hit parade.  Far more ink has been spilled in anticipation of and in reaction to its arrival than has been accorded any other new orchestral work I can remember. These various commentaries seem to run the gamut (weighted toward the extremes) from gushing, wide-eyed awe at the limitless scope of the creative talent of an untutored musical genius to contemptuous outrage at the hubris of a presumptuous musical illiterate to dabble casually in areas reserved for an elite who earn such a privilege with long years of toil and neglect. As for myself, I am usually intrigued by such ventures into “classical” formats by those who usually inhabit other musical realms. I feel that when a pop music icon shows enough interest in and respect for the forms and techniques of art music to want to try his hand at it, there is a positive effect on “classical” music’s public image. Perhaps such endeavors make “classical” music a little less forbidding, less “off-limits” to the average person.  On the other hand, usually (though not always — viz. the Piano Concerto written during the 1970s by Keith Emerson of the rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) I am disappointed by the results.

Of course, this is not the first of the erstwhile Beatle’s more ambitious efforts.  For one thing, between 1966 and 1970 the Beatles produced some of the most deeply satisfying popular music of all time, and I agree with Ned Rorem that some of these songs achieved the level of “art-songs.” While much of the credit for them doubtlessly belongs to arranger George Martin, whose sonic conceptions were often truly revelatory, much also belongs to McCartney, who was responsible for most of the melodic content of the group’s original tunes.  Then, in 1990-91, McCartney, assisted by film-music composer Carl Davis, produced his Liverpool Oratorio, which, though generally trashed by critics, has enjoyed more than a hundred performances in some twenty different countries (although this says more about the audience-drawing power of the McCartney name than it does about the quality of the work — a point equally relevant with regard to the high sales of Standing Stone, it goes without saying).

So, it seems that in 1993 Paul McCartney was invited by EMI to compose a major work in honor of the record company’s 100th anniversary.  Excited by the opportunity for such a challenge, but (realistically) insecure in his ability to develop an abstract composition, he decided upon the notion of a large-scale symphonic poem based on an epic concept with Celtic overtones.  With this in mind, he hit upon the title Standing Stone for itsreference to megaliths like the statues of Stonehenge, Easter Island, and the like. At the suggestion of the late Allen Ginsberg, who evidently loved the title, McCartney wrote a rather elaborate poem as a programmatic blueprint to guide his creative imagination. The concept begins from a sort of cosmic chaos, which slowly coalesces into stars traveling through space.  The natural elements — earth, fire, water — gradually emerge, then life itself, and then mankind, incarnated as “First Person Singular,” a sort of Everyman-symbol.  FPS faces the challenges of Nature, then of human invaders, all of which he overcomes heroically. Finally, basking in victory, he is united with a female counterpart, to whom he vows his love, “the oldest secret of the universe,” in McCartney’s words.

Although McCartney wanted this to be his own work, rather than the collaboration that the Liverpool Oratorio proved to be, he still needed some assistance, as he has never learned to read or write music. (So much has been made of this particular handicap in the various articles I have encountered: It’s not as though music literacy is such an arcane skill — five-year-olds can learn it with ease.  I don’t know why he doesn’t just take a few months off and get it over with.)  So he got hold of some sort of synthesizer with computer interface, which enabled him to improvise and explore various musical ideas and then have them printed out.  However, he still required a team of four advisors — jazz musician Steve Lodder, saxophonist-composer John Harle, and composers David Matthews and Richard Rodney Bennett — for a variety of services, from editing the notation and consulting on questions of orchestration to offering more general feedback on formal matters.

Trying to arrive at an objective, unbiased assessment of Standing Stone was not easy. Essentially, I found the work to be largely tedious, though not without some attractive moments. But there are none of the poignant melodic twists or fresh and novel harmonic turns that made so many of the Beatles’s songs so memorable. There is much that is simplistic, ordinary, over-extended, static, and repetitious. As I listened and attempted to sort out my various observations, several well-known works occurred to me as relevant points for comparison: Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Not that Standing Stone actually sounds like any of these in any way. In fact, despite a variety of “derivations” alleged by some commentators, hardly anything struck me as reminiscent of other composers. The musical materials in Standing Stone range from modal melodies with vague ethnic implications to more heart-on-sleeve melodic moments, from generic neo-romantic gestures to Glass-like minimalist figures, as well as some dissonant passages used to achieve special effects. In other words, the language is 1990s Hollywood. And the culmination of it all — the “big tune” — is called “Celebration.”  Hinted at throughout the work, finally introduced softly by the orchestra, then sung by the chorus a capella, and finally presented by both in grand apotheosis, the song is, in effect, McCartney’s version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” although it bears an unfortunate resemblance to “Smile, Though Your Heart is Breaking . . .”  A far cry indeed from “Julia,” “For No One,” “She’s Leaving Home,” or “The Long and Winding Road.”

What I finally realized is that, despite the promiscuous use of the term throughout the publicity material, Standing Stone is not a “classical” work, which is why I am compelled to enclose the word in quotation marks throughout this review. It is an orchestral work (with chorus — wordless until the final moments), but that does not make it “classical.” (In fact, using the term is really no more than a publicity stunt.) Standing Stone is a “popular” work in “classical” attire, without the multiplicity of levels of activity, organized by means of a contrapuntal/rhythmic substructure, lacking the progressive relationship among large sections or the sense of directionality produced by regulating degrees of tension and relaxation.  These are formal qualities that, together with arresting themes and important expressive content, give music the enduring values termed “classical,” and distinguish the four works noted in the paragraph above from Standing Stone.

Less sophisticated listeners often refer to musical form as if it were a separate issue from the music itself — something with which scholars concern themselves, but not of essential importance to “regular” listeners, who “like what they like,” regardless of such matters. But this is a misapprehension. Such listeners may not be familiar with professional terminology and thereby be able to identify what they are hearing in words. But formal matters, though perhaps not perceived consciously, determine whether music is successful or not, whether it is compelling or boring, whether it remains interesting after multiple hearings or not. If this were not true — if formal considerations only mattered to professionals — then they would be truly irrelevant and epiphenomenal to the artistic experience.

Listening to an interview with McCartney on National Public Radio on the evening of the American premiere at Carnegie Hall, one could not help but be struck by the lack of pomposity with which the 56-year-old musician described his enthusiasm for the project, by his sense of adventure, and by his disarming acknowledgment of his own limitations. And it is comforting to know that much of the money derived from Standing Stone is directed toward several music education organizations.  But though McCartney modestly concedes that “other people have been studying classical music for thirty or forty years, while I’ve only seen this in passing,” he also seems somewhat defensive about suggestions that he is out of his depth, pointing out that he has listened to Stockhausen and Berio for years and is familiar with the likes of Cornelius Cardew and Peter Maxwell Davies.  But when he says, “I heard a French horn, liked its sound, and used it in [the song] “For No One,” one can easily imagine that he heard a symphonic poem, liked it, and decided he would write one too. This is the only aspect of the thing that bothers me. Those folks studying classical music for thirty or forty years aren’t just wasting their time. There’s quite a bit to absorb. Has McCartney heard what Strauss could do with a symphonic poem when he was 30?  Or what Korngold could do with a quasi-symphony when he was 16? It could make a dilettante think twice.

So where does all this leave Standing Stone?  I hear it as a wonderful soundtrack to an animated feature film that depicts without dialogue the saga recounted in McCartney’s poem of the same name. Let’s hope they’re working on the film already.