Last year, he was a rock star. This year, David Bowie is officially a dead composer. But is he a Dead Great Composer, like Beethoven?
Well, he was treated like a DGC this summer at the BBC Proms, one of the most prestigious summer classical festivals in the world, held at London's Royal Albert Hall. Artists from senior-citizen rocker John Cale to 38-year-old French opera singer Philippe Jaroussky gathered to form what was called the Stargaze ensemble to discover what one of the hosts called "another side of David Bowie." But is there enough of that other side for him to achieve DGC status?
More than ever, there's a place for the likes of Bowie in the classical music ecosystem. Borders are blurred as never before, with electric guitarist Steve Mackey emerging as a major figure on the classical front and Rufus Wainwright making inroads into opera with music that, so far, is of interest mostly to his fan base, but that may yet evolve into something with legitimate status.
Composer Missy Mazzoli has the Brooklyn band Victoire on one end of her musical spectrum - and at the other, her chamber opera Breaking the Waves, being premiered this fall by Opera Philadelphia.
What virtues does music need in order to live in both worlds? Sometimes, it's a question of Darwinian survival. No doubt many Lennon-McCartney songs have achieved classic status. A few may even have entered that zone known as the Great American Songbook, dominated by Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, they are English, not American, but their songs are no doubt in the songbook, simply by living on in the performances of others, from cabarets to recordings. Madeleine Peyroux's highly personal version of the Beatles tune "Martha My Dear" speaks to me more than the original.
Objectively speaking, Bowie's music, for all its catchy hooks, was heavily based on its rhythmic structure. That quality alone limits the music's potential for performances beyond his. Acoustic ensembles (which are what's heard in the classical world) don't naturally create the punchy rhythms that come so easily to electric ensembles. If you transcribed "Let's Dance" for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the rhythms would be correct but probably wouldn't feel right. And where would we be without the words? Some of the new versions at the BBC Proms were so unrecognizable one blog summed up the evening as "Let's not dance."
The question is whether disassembled, reimagined, and reconstituted Bowie may offer hidden treasures. The one instance of that at the Proms was in the song "Always Crashing in the Same Car," achieved by the formidable efforts of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and operatic countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. The Bowie original feels almost like a heavy instrumental track with an added vocal line. Lang's version is the opposite: The beat is dissolved, the tempo is slowed, and the accompaniment is extremely spare. Thus, a song that once had a sort of why-does-this-always-happen-to-me? element becomes a lament that goes deeper into existential redundancy. I love it, though critic Jasper Rees called it "beautiful, but a wanton misreading."
Better that than no reading at all. Although I am a Bowie admirer (I even saw him on Broadway in The Elephant Man), I don't have a fan's attachment to his originals. Yet the BBC Proms repeatedly suggested the originals might not be susceptible to adaptation. One of the better moments in the Proms, a Stargaze rendition of "Life on Mars," had everything in the right place but neglected what gives the song meaning: disillusionment with life on Earth.
Several years back, rock/classical violinist Nigel Kennedy came out with something called The Doors Concerto - yes, a multimovement work based on themes by The Doors. Among other things, "Riders on the Storm" was mined for its modal quirks and actually came out sounding Asian. Clever! But did it have anything important to say? That's why you don't hear much about the piece now - if much was ever heard about it to begin with.
The wild card in pop music is the performer's personality, and how important that is to the music. Dead Great Composers, by definition, disappear from their own music. Beethoven was a great keyboard improviser, but that's hardly relevant to how we hear him today. In our own time, when André Previn wrote his Violin Concerto for his then-wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter, I asked her whether being married to the composer allowed her greater understanding of the music. She flatly said, "No." The notes were there on the page, and that's all she needed.
You'd never say that about Bowie.
His hair, makeup, and clothes, plus the characters he created (most obviously Ziggy Stardust), were a package with more magnetism than all four Beatles combined. The fact that the package changed dramatically and constantly over the years makes it hard for any outside musician to put his or her finger on a creative core from which another side of Bowie might be explored.
Also, Bowie's arrival was in that late-1960s period when the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and others were going beyond simple notes and rests. No way can something like "A Day in the Life" be transcribed onto a page of notes. Lyrics no longer needed to tell any linear story. A series of intense emotional states was preferable.
All of this makes it hard to determine what, exactly, Bowie was putting out there in any given song or album. The fuzz effect he sometimes gave his own voice, and his juxtaposition of instrumental sounds intuitively arrived at in the recording studio, might seem like secondary elements but really aren't. They contribute to the impact of the music in ways not necessarily understood even by the artists who created them. When the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia remastered and rejiggered some of his early albums in later years, he removed the electronic effects in one of his most experimental tracks, "What's Become of the Baby" from Aoxomoxoa, completely losing its wacked-out essence.
So Bowie's legacy to the future is the same as it is to the present - his albums, exactly as he made them. Does this mean he's destined to be a time-capsule artist? In a way. However, an elusive model for classical status might be found in Philip Glass' 1992 Low Symphony. Bowie's album Low, which is full of textures of orchestral magnitude, is credited as the inspiration. Glass' symphony sounds nothing like the album but represents a major step in the composer's musical progression. So singular was Bowie's path that nobody can follow him. But his example offers tools, of sorts, for going where only you can go.