Classical Notes

From Beatle to Longhair, Paul McCartney's Standing Stone

The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
EMI 56484

It was twenty years ago today ... that a former bandmate demanded how Paul McCartney could sleep at night, having squandered his brilliant rock talent on pop banality.

OK, so it was really 26 years ago (yikes!),treble clef graphic the real target of John Lennon's scorn was a public that had forsaken his and Yoko's cutting-edge art, and his own "Love" and "Imagine" would soon eclipse any of Paul's silly love songs for sheer sappiness.

Anyway, after decades of crowd-pleasing pop success, Sir Paul now has taken the ultimate cultural leap with "Standing Stone," a 75-minute tone poem for orchestra and chorus. But even though Scott Joplin wrote an opera, Keith Jarrett plays Bach and George Gershwin began as a songwriter, nowhere is it written that great pop stars make great classical composers. (And vice-versa: Beethoven wrote lots of songs, all now forgotten.)

McCartney's aspirations are high enough. Enthralled by ancient monoliths and commissioned to celebrate EMI's centenary, he describes his new work as intended to depict "how Celtic man might have wondered about the origins of life and the mystery of human existence." Heady stuff! Its four movements follow an "epic" (but brief) poem Paul wrote, which begins:

After heavy light years
of tenacious trajectory
a ball of fire spat through space
spitting sparks and flames
at new blue universe.

Such awkward pretension makes you long for "Yesterday" and its comparatively profound simplicity.

Although in his liner notes Paul hopes that "the music is strong enough to stand alone without help from the poem," it really isn't. Paul McCartney's Standing Stone "Standing Stone" succeeds brilliantly in establishing a succession of vivid aural atmospheres, but it's a fine movie soundtrack in need of visuals (or something) to sustain interest.

This isn't classical music but pop in classical garb. Jazz, blues, folk and classical music all arise from the deeply personal vision and struggle of a single composer. Pop, though, more typically is a collaboration and projects ease and contentment.

And so it was here: Paul, who can't read or write music, had more than a little help from his friends: an "advisory team" of four composers, who transcribed and developed Paul's keyboard doodlings over the course of four years. The shallow result lacks focus or originality and sounds like it was written by a committee, a pastiche of time-worn classical cliches: drum-fueled storms, maritime arpeggiations, pastoral oboes, rainbow harps and awestruck wordless chorales. One phrase at the end of tracks 1 and 2 goes beyond mere imitation to outright theft from Ravel!

Music is architecture, but there's little sense here of the internal, organic structure that underpins all great music. Whether at the end of the 20-second "Her Majesty" or the four-hour Bach St. Matthew Passion, you know where you've been and that you've arrived somewhere. "Standing Stone," though, just wanders, its ideas repeated rather than developed. The random episodes could have been unified by strong transitions, but they're surprisingly weak, unworthy of the composer of "Band on the Run," "Uncle Albert" and side 2 of "Abbey Road."

Equally weak are the melodies. McCartney is one of the supreme tunesmiths of all time, but "Standing Stone" came from his scrapheap. Its themes are instantly forgettable, even the chorale that wells up majestically at the close.

And yet, despite its disappointments, I've come to like this piece. It's pretty, it's evocative, it's well-played, and it's beautifully recorded. It may not repay critical attention, but it's fine background for the car or for reading. It's classical lite, but there are times when you just want a snack. It's not music for the ages, but it's a very pleasant listen for a cold winter night.

Everyone should discover classical music and it's great that after one of the most illustrious careers in pop Paul McCartney has finally done so. Perhaps some of his legions of fans who've already sent "Standing Stone" to the top of the classical charts will follow suit. And now if this great artist would only trust his own uniquely personal vision, he may yet produce the elusive classical masterpiece that has eluded him here.

In the meantime, how does Paul sleep? Very well, I hope. There are far worse uses of talent than to make people happy.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1997 by Peter Gutmann

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