Saturday, October 4, 2014

Michael Daugherty: Dead Elvis

Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis (1993) has become an important staple of the solo bassoon repertoire. It is performed widely by chamber groups as well as orchestras. I'd be willing to hazard a guess that its popularity as a solo bassoon piece is second only to that of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.
Dead Elvis
Most listeners, unless viewing the performance, do not realize that Dead Elvis is scored for only seven instruments since it sounds like a much larger group. In fact, even with only seven instruments the bassoon soloist is often drowned out when all are playing. As we know all too well, the bassoon doesn't easily project over other instruments. One bass trombone can so easily obliterate a bassoon, and one of the Dead Elvis instruments is indeed bass trombone.

When I was asked last spring to perform Dead Elvis with the Columbus Symphony in October, I was skeptical at first. I wasn't familiar with the piece......I didn't know what to think. I also didn't know much about Elvis Presley except that he had been a rock and roll megastar.  But solo opportunities are few and far between....I said yes after about 15 seconds of hesitation!

The first thing I did was order the bassoon part and score. Then I began listening to the many YouTube performances of Dead Elvis. When the music arrived, the first thing I did was memorize the bassoon part (even though soloists, especially wind soloists, usually don't memorize contemporary solos). I wanted to experiment with a different method of memorization. My approach was to memorize the music first, even before practicing it (I know this sounds crazy) so that all of my practicing would be done without music. I'll let you know how this experiment works.

Reedmaking is an important part of the preparation for Dead Elvis. The reed has to be a super high reed which also sounds good low AND also double tongues really, really well (INCLUDING in the low register!). Wow. I'm not sure how many bassoon reeds like that exist. I began searching for the Elvis reed months ago, and have set aside quite a few, with rankings. Above all, the reed must have a really reliable and in-tune high E which sustains for long periods without giving out. That in itself is a tall order!

There are a few very tricky challenges for the bassoon in Dead Elvis. I don't want to freak myself out, since my performances have yet to occur, so I'll just mention one of them: double tonguing 16ths at quarter = 168  in 3/4 for 18 consecutive measures without a rest. In case that means nothing to you, just try double tonguing (any notes) 16ths at 168 in 3/4 for 18 measures, and you'll see what I mean.

Once my commitment to performing Dead Elvis was made, I began thinking about about my teacher K. David Van Hoesen's assertion that "you can't play Tchaikowsky unless you've read Dostoyevsky". Getting to know the composer, the background information about a work, and any extra historical/social about the era and culture certainly can inspire optimal performance of a work. And since Dead Elvis was inspired by an American icon, I figured it was time for me to get to know Elvis.

Wow. I had no idea what I was in for. Let's just say that there's good reason for the seemingly infinite supply of biographies of Elvis. The man led a colorful and complicated, albeit brief, life.

The Dies Irae theme which permeates Dead Elvis suggests, perhaps, that any human being who ascends to such superstardom is doomed. His extreme wealth enabled him to live out his wildest fantasies. He regularly rented out Memphis movie theaters, skating rinks and amusement parks in the middle of the night for private parties. He was famous for buying brand new cars for friends, family, people he met on the street, and doctors with prescription pads.

Elvis was a talented and intelligent perfectionist. He did not read music, but he studied recordings religiously. (Many great classical musicians do the same thing!) Even as a child, he knew on some level that something was going to happen - he used to assure his parents, who were dirt poor, that soon everything would be all right.

There was an unusual innocence about him. When his career was just beginning, he'd claim that his goal was to buy a house for his mother (and his final house purchase for his mother, father and himself was, of course, Graceland).

Unbelievably, he was drafted in 1958 when he was 22 years old and already a major star. I didn't even know that drafting was going on at that point in U.S. history! Elvis was not arrogant, so he never thought he should be singled out as an exception to the draft. Besides, his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, though it would help Elvis' image to serve in the army. Yet Elvis was clearly not a good candidate for the army, since he was more of a mama's boy than a GI Joe, and he experienced great anxiety over his enlistment.

While serving in Germany, his commander introduced him to amphetamines, supposedly to keep the soldiers alert when they were driving tanks. He became hooked on the pills and brought back a huge supply to the U.S. when he was finished with his army stint. This was the beginning of the drug addiction which colored the rest of his life.

While reading his biographies, I often logged into YouTube to listen to the Elvis recordings from the period I was reading about, and watched videos of his performances. There is such a difference between his pre-army performances and his more recent videos from Vegas. His recordings were nearly always stellar, although his repertoire was unfortunately limited due to the restrictions imposed by his and Colonel Parker's contract with a publishing company. What a shame.

He was actually a talented actor who studied films much the same way he studied musical recordings. But the films he starred in lacked substance, which led many to wrongfully assume that he was a bad actor. He was asked to play the male lead in A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand, but negotiations between the movie studio and Colonel Parker failed. Again, what a shame. 

Now that I "know" Elvis, I am somewhat daunted by the prospect of impersonating him in Dead Elvis. He was such a master performer. He had the ability to draw in every last person in the venue, which often included tens of thousands of people in one show. He was unspeakably charismatic. Sometimes the shrieking from the audience was at such a roar that no music could be heard! People were passing out left and right. The Elvis experience was too much.

How does a bassoonist go about replicating that sort of performance? Well, you can see why I'm daunted. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, here's an Elvis sample from his 1963 movie Fun in Acapulco: