(From the Irish Times, Dublin, 28 October 2000.)
The Fiddler, The Doors and All That Jaz
Nigel Kennedy has always wanted to break down
boundaries: now, punk practitioner and composer-in-residence with the Prague
Symphony Orchestra, Jaz Coleman, has given him the chance
By JOHN KELLY
There are those who believe that, for the sake of the musical parents, rock music and Nigel Kennedy should be kept very far apart. Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman is not one of them. For his brand new Doors Concerto, he has no doubts that Kennedy is the man for the job of "reincarnating the soul of Jim Morrison on a single string".
It's a difficult prospect. Some might suggest it's rather a pity it's not impossible. It's not the first time, however, that Coleman has taken rock music into the belly of an orchestra. The music of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have previously been given the treatment - all down to Coleman's unique position in the worlds of rock and classical music. He is, after all, both a founding member of an experimental punk (some say art-metal) outfit and composer-in-residence with The Prague Symphony Orchestra.
It seems unlikely that anyone with Coleman's credentials would have much interest in this kind of project. Not so much the classical end of things; more the fact that Killing Joke seem very far from the grandiose works of Floyd and Zepp. "Look, I don't like all of any group but I take care about what I really love and want to develop. I'm extremely fond of The Doors and have been since a teenager - The Doors and The Stranglers seemed to go together at the time. But what prompted this was that I was smitten by the use of The Doors' music in relation to the Vietnam War. Ever since Apocalypse Now, the whole atmosphere of Doors music just summed up the period for me."
But why arrange it for orchestra? There are perhaps few records quite as unlistenable as the various classical rock efforts of the past - the very essence of the music entirely absent from the hands and hearts of classical players. So what exactly is Jaz Coleman attempting here ? Surely not more symphonic rock at its daft best? "One day I listened to every symphonic rock record that's ever been made. I got two bottles of champagne in, woofed them, and weed myself laughing.
There's no opposition at the end of the day. But to do this with great love and great credibility in one f***ing challenge and the odds are massively stacked against you. So these are my early experiments with it, but without doing it in a tacky way. I never use snare and kick drum or anything like that. I never use electronic instruments. But at the end of the day it's very difficult because you're trying to get this beast - the orchestra; which doesn't play on the beat exactly - to function differently."
There's little doubt that Coleman believes in the project, and in the potential of this kind of work for orchestral music as a whole. In the Prague Symphony he has an orchestra which he commends as playing with "a fiery passion". They are, he says, able to capture the insanity of Vietnam by interpreting the music of The Doors with the appropriate intensity and feel. That will doubtless surprise the sceptics - and Coleman himself has been surprised by possibilities discovered along the way.
"In the beginning when I got involved in arrangements, my only motivation, to be perfectly honest, was to get in some flying hours with an orchestra. Then by the time I got to The Doors Concerto I could see that drawing from experimental rock music was a way forward for classical music. I've been completely surprised. I love that non-intellectual use of repetition that rock music has. I love Philip Glass, although I don't mean to develop in this way. I want something more primal. I want the orchestra to groove."
Classical musicians capable of groove are, according to lore, rather thin on the ground. Coleman however, convinced that they do actually exist, finds he has a more fundamental problem to deal with - the fact that many classical musicians believe rock music to be an inferior form with very little to contribute to the daunting repertoire of orchestral music. For some of them, rock music is beneath all adult dignity. "Some of them thought that - until they saw the score! It's really, really difficult to play. I like to make something a challenge, and I really do think it's the way forward for classical music. The frenzy which happened in rock music hasn't happened in classical music. Yes, you always got a bit of Stravinsky you liked, and you wished he'd looped it up; but the music never really burned and got into a complete and utter frenzy. This is what I'm aiming to do with works like this - draw what I've taken from Killing Joke and put it into action with an orchestra."
The music of the Doors is fairly complex subject matter for an arranger. An interesting bunch who tended to improvise and stretch their musical muscles rather more than other rock bands of the period, they incorporated everything from flamenco to John Coltrane into their bluesey, jazzy rock, and Coleman finds much to amuse himself in their back catalogue. He is also, of course, fascinated by the more intangible aspects of their music - the parts of it that have made them, and their frontman in particular, into legendary figures. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzerek recently told this writer that Doors gigs were "like communion - a spiritual act of oneness with the tribe. We were like tribal animals dancing and pulsating." Such talk veers rather close to absolute baloney but as Coleman points out, there was definitely something going on in the court of the Lizard King.
"You hear all the myths about Morrison and I just don't really know - I wasn't there - but you know how the music affectsyou. I know that Jim Morrison would have totally approved of Kennedy and of nobody else - they have many similar traits. Kennedy understands the Dionysian thing! And I knew we'd got the resonance right because all The Doors were nuts about it. They were absolutely passionate about the work. Myself and Nigel met up with them all and it was unbelievable. I felt it was almost like we had contacted the dead and succeeded."
It's a strange one, all right. Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman conducting orchestras all around the world and collaborating with Nige on something called The Doors Concerto. The idea, to state it again, was to capture the insanity of the Vietnam War (and everything that was happening in the world at that period) while reincarnating the soul of Jimbo on a single string. That's a lot of big talk - but Coleman is much more than enthusiastic about his very serious mission, and his enthusiasm is hard to resist.
"The intended effect, above anything, is about the idea that most people, when it comes to listening to orchestras, have more in common with The Doors and other people of this era, than with back catalogue of Beethoven, Mahler etc. And that's it. Things are changing in that way, and I think it can all be done with great taste and without compromising the orchestra as a concept. I love the orchestra. I work on it every day of my life. Apart from Killing Joke, it's my deep passion. Look at it like this: when I do this, I get my own dressing room, I get to watch my own concert shitfaced, and then I go out on the stage and get a bunch of flowers. How about that?'"
Jaz Coleman/Kennedy's Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto is on Decca Records