Strung Up

CMH Records is having a classical gas with every band, like, ever

Not that any of that garners for Gorfain even a tiny bit of respect. He knows these discs are going to be treated like novelties at best, exploitations at worst. All he can do is treat them as seriously as possible and prove to the few thou who might buy them that his intentions are sincere. At least he has one fan: Tool's Maynard James Keenan liked The Section's work on Third Eye Open so much he hired the ensemble to record with his side project A Perfect Circle. So, uh, there.

"We are straddling a line, and it's not easy to do," Gorfain says. "I am not going to claim I am a genius, but when I am writing these I try to pick the songs from the artists I like, that I think are substantial enough to warrant removing the drums and lyrics but can still stand on their own musically. After that it's a matter of finding the right way to approach and arrange it by changing the vibe, by slowing it down. I did The Cure's 'Just Like Heaven' and turned it into a 6/8 waltz, so now it sounds like Pachelbel's Canon, which works. Whether you think it's cheesy or not is for the listener to decide. We don't take ourselves seriously, but we take the work seriously. We don't want to be cheesy."

God knows there's a long and sordid history of rock music getting strung up by musicians and producers suffering a bad case of classical gas. Chief among the longtime offenders is the London Symphony Orchestra, which has been forcing bow ties on the blue-jean boys ever since the 1960s and continues to peddle bombastic tribs to the likes of Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Stones. In the '60s, Capitol Records employed an in-house band called the Hollyridge Strings, whose four Beatles Songbook collections sanitized John, Paul, George and Ringo for your protection.

String-cheese incidents: Four of the dozens and dozens of tributes in the CMH stable
String-cheese incidents: Four of the dozens and dozens of tributes in the CMH stable

Critics and audiences--and artists, perhaps most of all--took the rock-to-classical bit most seriously when Kronos Quartet included Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" at the end of its 1986 self-titled album alongside pieces from modern classical composers. What seemed a tossed-off novelty garnered for Kronos the sort of attention classical ensembles rarely get in the mainstream press. Of "Purple Haze," Allen Kozinn wrote in The New York Times in December '86 that the arrangement "actually captures much of the note-bending swing and even some of the raw power of the guitarist-singer's own recording." All the CMH folks interviewed for this story, including arranger Tom Tally, cited Kronos' "Purple Haze" as their chief inspiration, which absolutely floors the ensemble's David Harrington.

"Is that right?" the violinist says, sounding more flattered than actually frightened. "That's great. You never know who's gonna hear a piece of music and hear something you do and run with it in their direction. That's one of the things I love about being a musician: You just never know what piece might touch a chord for people. I mean, the reason we did 'Purple Haze' in the first place was we did a concert that included a new version of Stravinsky's The Rites of Spring, and I got to thinking, 'What if we need an encore, and how in the world do you follow Stravinsky?' The only thing that came to my mind was Hendrix."

Harrington said immediately after this interview he was going to call CMH and ask for their entire catalog. He's heard a few but had no idea there were dozens and dozens of them. He looked especially forward to the Radiohead discs, but hoped they didn't sound too much like Shostakovich, which would have been just too obvious.

After Kronos, the novelty had become the relative norm: The Hampton String Quartet, signed to staid classical stable RCA Victor, began releasing its What if Mozart Wrote... albums, on which it performed everything from "White Rabbit" to "Sunshine of Your Love," and its 1993 Sympathy for the Devil collection, with more Stones, Beatles and Zeppelin covers. In '93, Elvis Costello recorded an EP with the Brodsky Quartet at New York's Town Hall, on which they covered Tom Waits and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Three years after that, Split Enz's Eddie Raymer convinced the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to redo his old band's back catalog for two volumes of symphonic new-wave featuring, among others, Neil and Tim Finn.

In '96, as well, four Finnish classical-music students transcribed Metallica's songs, among them "Enter Sandman" and "Creeping Death," for cellos; the result was the oddly compelling Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, songs from which would later appear in Neil LaBute's film Your Friends & Neighbors. Funny thing is, all these tribute albums sound like soundtracks to indie films--which is why CMH is trying to sell its music to the movies at this very moment. The label has also hired an outside publicist to push offerings that might get reviewed without the sneers or jeers of rock critics who think these albums automatic crap.

"We do miss the mark on occasion," CMH's Haerle readily admits. "We've had pairings we wished would have worked out better musically or thought would work out well and underwhelmed us. But some things just click. With Tool, to be honest, there's an unknown element I don't think I can quantify. And, yeah, they're dismissed by a lot of people for any number of reasons as novelties, and we accept that. I would love for some of the things we do to get better coverage. We've put the word out; we do what we do. But it's not much of an expectation."

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