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- Timothy White
- Timeline More from year 1997
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Standing Stone Official album.
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I obviously value family very much, and if you’re lucky enough to have a good family and you put a little time in, it pays great rewards. Family is also a journey, particularly with music, looking backward and forward; you take your kids through it, then they take you. It should have no barriers–it’s like religion when you start putting up barriers. There’s one God, and it’s music.Paul McCartney
Many a worried father has wanted his children to find a timely route around life’s mournful obstacles and mortal limitations, particularly if such a dad once longed to solve that dilemma for himself. Jim McCartney was no exception, the former jazz-band leader raising two young boys alone in Liverpool, England, after the untimely 1956 death from breast cancer of his 47-year-old wife, Mary.
“My musical tastes go back to George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman because of my dad,” says Sir James Paul McCartney, recalling the diverse formative influences that found unique expression in his moving new symphonic poem, “Standing Stone” (EMI Classics, due Thursday  in the U.S., Sept. 29 internationally). “My dad [who died in 1976] was a sweetheart, and due to him my own musical tastes are very wide, and I can relate to people like Monteverdi and Mozart as if they were living. He used to play [Gershwin’s] ‘I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise’ on piano, the old Paul Whiteman [scoring]. I was talking to George Harrison the other day, and we were having a laugh, him saying, ‘Ah, I remember your dad used to play us that ‘Stairway To Paradise.’ He tried to get the Beatles to record it! I said, ‘Dad, come off it! It’s a bit old-fashioned, and we’re writing our own stuff these days.’ ”
McCartney’s “own stuff” for the Beatles at that point was pop of a distinctively eclectic bent. But more recently, much of the former Beatle’s composing has taken a classical form. Intriguingly, Whiteman, a favorite in Paul’s father’s day who recorded for EMI, was the bandleader / arranger / composer who commissioned George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” and also a pioneer of symphonic jazz, bringing his orchestrated sound to London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1926, when Jim McCartney was just 24 years old.
Meanwhile, the multifarious musical “path” Paul McCartney’s parent inspired him to pursue will come full circle Oct. 14 at the Royal Albert Hall, when Paul and the London Symphony Orchestra offer the world premiere of “Standing Stone” (a work commissioned to mark the centenary of EMI) as well as four other classical pieces by McCartney. Tickets for the event, to be repeated Nov. 19 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, are expected to be the most sought-after such prize on the planet, but those unable to secure a seat can compensate by obtaining a copy of the London Symphony’s recording of “Standing Stone,” conducted by Lawrence Foster. The slipcased 76-minute CD package comes complete with a booklet featuring paintings by McCartney and photographs by daughter Mary and wife Linda of the recording sessions and the Scottish “standing stone” megaliths Paul employs “as a symbol of longevity” in his four-movement piece for orchestra and chorus, their mysterious archeological legacy perceived by some as an ancient stairway to paradise. The libretto also has the text of a companion poem McCartney wrote as a conceptual “framework” for the project.
As McCartney explains, “What happened was, when I knew I was gonna write this big orchestral piece, the last time I did anything similar, with ‘The Liverpool Oratorio’ , I had a guy to work with who was going to conduct it, Carl Davis. And I didn’t really have to think about things like the orchestrations; I could give him enough ideas, themes, words, and melodies, and Carl was always there as a backup. What I felt this time is that I’d like to actually do it myself.
“I had been hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, backing him on guitar for a  recording and an Albert Hall concert he did of a poem called ‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons.’ So I thought it’d be a nice thing for me to condense the images for the symphony into a poem. And it felt kinda handy in such a big piece, because if I was wondering where I was going in the music, I’d just refer to the poem and say, ‘Right, that next bit is this bit.’ And as a practice for working in this new world, I started to compose smaller pieces.“
Those works include “Stately Horn,” a nine-minute work for a French horn quartet that McCartney recorded Sept. 16 at Abbey Road Studios, as well as “a crazy 10-minute string quartet called ‘Inebriation,’ wacky and very modern,” and “A leaf,” which was originally written and recorded for solo piano but is scheduled to be the third selection in the upcoming concerts in a new orchestral setting by frequent Stephen Sondheim arranger Jonathan Tunick. Lastly, says McCartney, “in working out whether I’d be able to have a good working partnership with [British composer] Richard Rodney Bennett, I asked him to orchestrate ‘Spiral,’ another chamber piece that was gonna be for piano, and we had such a good time I asked if he’d supervise the score on ‘Standing Stone.’ “
Many who’ve heard “Standing Stone” discern diverse touches reminiscent of Benjamin Britten and Charles Ives, but the absorbing mood of its mythic evolutionary story line–from the primordial spark of Celtic culture and its clashes with interlopers to its celebration in rustic ceremonial rites–captures the imagination because of the lyrical imagery of the music, its largely diatonic melodic structure as songful in its contours as McCartney’s pop songs are in their consistent musicality. McCartney is growing, with an ingratiating lack of pretense, as a symphonic storyteller.
“Standing Stone’s” touching cumulative effect owes to its underlying consideration of life’s unending cycles of childhood, friendship, parenthood, and the losses that deepen such links across time. “I got into poetry and the type of thinking that kicked me toward ‘Standing Stone’ about five years ago,” says McCartney, “after the death from Parkinson’s disease of Ivan Vaughan, one of my best friends at school in Liverpool and the guy who actually introduced me to John Lennon. Ivan and I were born on exactly the same day and year in the same town–the 18th of June, 1942, Liverpool–so that made us very close. When he died, it seemed fitting to put my thoughts down in a poem, and that led me, through my hooking up with Allen Ginsberg, to the writing accompanying ‘Standing Stone.’ “
As an apprentice to classical structure, McCartney says, “I’d listen to Beethoven, to see how he did symphonic stuff, and he would take a little phrase or a melody, develop it throughout the whole movement, and then leave it completely, and in the next movement he does something else. I realized I work more episodically, more programmatically.
“And, after seeing I’d got 72 minutes of orchestral music, I thought, well, maybe I can allow myself a song.” Thus, “Standing Stone” ends with the London Symphony Chorus, whose hymn-like choral passages recur throughout, suddenly finding words for the finale. “We stop the orchestra completely,” McCartney details, “and the choir has this a cappella song, a lullaby melody my kids have known for years. It’s virtually like a wedding song: ‘High above this overcrowded place/A distant blackbird glides through space/And all he does is search for love . . . /Now is all we ever really know/The past and future come and go/Because they do, I stay with you.’
“I obviously value family very much,” McCartney concludes, “and if you’re lucky enough to have a good family and you put a little time in, it pays great rewards. Family is also a journey, particularly with music, looking backward and forward; you take your kids through it, then they take you. It should have no barriers–it’s like religion when you start putting up barriers. There’s one God, and it’s music.”
Last updated on March 12, 2019