In 1996, during one of the recording sessions for his twentieth studio album, Earthling, David Bowie felt the need to channel some Stravinsky onto a track called “Battle for Britain (The Letter).” The location was Looking Glass Studio — a New York City venue established by Philip Glass — on Broadway just north of Houston Street. Bowie asked his longtime pianist Mike Garson if he knew Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for Eleven Instruments,” written in 1918. Garson responded that he’d heard it, but not since college. With that, Bowie recommended that Garson walk up the street to Tower Records (there were still record stores in Manhattan), pick up a copy, listen to it, and use its characteristics in a piano solo. Garson channeled the Stravinsky into a syncopated solo with Twenties stride-piano elements, which effectively plays off the propulsive drum-and-bass soundbed of the track. It seemed Bowie knew what he wanted, but his classical (as in non-pop) inflections aren’t always obvious. “He took in a lot of things and whatever he could absorb from them somehow showed up in his music,” says Garson.
David Bowie considered himself a “synthesist.” He listened to a wide range of music — everything from Little Richard to Richard Strauss — and critics can only surmise how his record collection influenced his own musical imagination. In a feature titled “Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie,” published in Vanity Fair in November 2003, Bowie selected his greatest discoveries from his collection of over a thousand vinyl LPs. The list is refreshingly ecumenical with soul, blues, American folk, traditional Chinese folk, punk rock, French chanson, as well as a number of classical albums: Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians; Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs; Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring; George Crumb, Black Angels. A few years after this list was published, in 2010, The Guardian newspaper asked, “What’s on David Bowie’s iPod?” Again, the answers included a handful of classical cuts, including “Soldiers of Heaven Hold the Sky” from Act I, Scene I of John Adams’ Nixon in China, “For With God No Thing Shall be Impossible” from Adams’ El Niño, and Different Trains I: America Before The War by Steve Reich, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Of the Reich, Bowie commented: “One of the late twentieth century’s most affecting works. I love the use of speech as a source for melody. But it’s so much more than a concept, it’s also impossibly moving.”
There’s a predominant thread of contemporary minimalism here, which has shown up in Bowie’s work over the years, in particular on the albums Low and Heroes (both RCA) from his Berlin Trilogy. Bowie found a partner in composer/producer Brian Eno to create tracks that delved into ambient soundscapes based on simple melodic figures. These tracks were a major departure from the vocabulary of Seventies rock music. On the track “Warszawa,” for example, Bowie used his voice to sing phonetic sounds that reached toward meaning, the voice becoming another layer in a carefully scored soundtrack that evoked a haunting landscape. Another track, “Subterraneans,” employs similar ambient effects, while “Weeping Wall” uses melodic percussive instrumentation in repetitive loops that seem to nod towards Steve Reich’s early work. [An aside, when LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy remixed Bowie’s 2013 track “Love is Lost,” from The Next Day album, he explicitly referenced Steve Reich’s Clapping Music in the mix.]
Then, in 1992, as if talking back across time to Bowie’s seminal album, Philip Glass based his Symphony No. 1 on material from Low. The first movement is drawn from the “Subterraneans” track; the second from a Bowie song, “Some Are,” which didn’t appear on the original album but was eventually issued as a bonus track; the third is from “Warszawa.” In a conversation with Bowie, Glass said the work was “a symphonic homage to a very important record, a record that went beyond the niceties and categories of pop music and pointed in a different direction.” Bowie responded: “Everything that I was doing in those pieces is voiced within the structure of what you’re doing.” The conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, led the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the world premiere of the “Low” Symphony at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (as well as the first recording), at which, he recalls, there was an air of excitement because of the presence of David Bowie and his wife, Iman. “Glass, Bowie and Eno are composers who walked a fine line at the border of a serious classical approach and more popular music,” says Davies, who recently re-recorded the symphony in 2014 — only the second-ever recording of the work — with the Basel Symphony Orchestra. Of course, this wasn’t a one-off for Glass; he went on to compose his Symphony No. 4 using Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album as a point of departure.
If, as Glass commented, these works were produced by “a collaboration that takes place over time,” then Bowie seemed very much in dialogue with Glass’s music (not to mention that he liked to record at the composer’s Looking Glass Studios, steps away from his apartment on Lafayette Street). According to Mike Garson, Bowie liked the Glass symphonies so much that he’d play them over the speakers before some of his live concerts. He also toyed with the idea of setting some of his own songs to music written by Philip Glass, and started work on the project with Garson, though it never came to fruition. To hear Garson tell it, Bowie could call on his pianist to deploy any kind of style, and very often that style was classically oriented. Once, during a 1998 tour after the release of Earthling, Bowie urged Garson to listen to a particular Vaughan Williams symphony (Garson cannot recall which one), and then use the music as an introduction to one of the songs on the setlist. Garson said, “What? Do all of this on the synthesizer?” To which Bowie replied with a grin: “You can do it!” The pianist did his homework and managed to sneak the British composer into the show. “We did it once and we never did it again,” says Garson. “This is how the guy moved through life — very fast, absorbing stuff, always pushing the limits.”
In fact, Garson’s ability to fashion any kind of style on request proved to be a key asset for Bowie over the years. The pianist, who grew up in Brooklyn and took lessons from his next door neighbor who taught at Juilliard, gave him the classical grounding. But by the time Garson was employed to play keyboards for Bowie’s first U.S. tour in 1972, he was well versed in more avant-garde approaches to the piano, notably Cecil Taylor’s free jazz. On Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s follow-up album to Ziggy Stardust, these various pianistic styles are in evidence. “On the song ‘Lady Grinning Soul,’ I drew on Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Chopin to get the feel. And then on the actual ‘Aladdin Sane’ track, David loved my avant-garde influences, which mixed the things I knew about Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and Cecil Taylor.” Garson’s wild piano solo on the track is one of the highlights of the album, a stylistic bricolage that is thrillingly off-kilter.
Garson’s distinctive piano sound crops up with regularity over the eighteen Bowie records on which he appears. Although Bowie’s famous cover of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” on Station to Station did not feature a pianist on the recording, Garson’s piano became a prominent highlight of the live version later. Bowie had asked the pianist to take inspiration from Nina Simone’s own piano part. Garson recently posted one such version from 2000 featuring just piano and voice, a performance that reaffirms Bowie as baritone crooner alongside Garson, and perhaps the ghost of Rachmaninoff on stage too, whispering, “Don’t hold back!” On another Bowie/Eno collaboration, the concept album Outside, that distinctive piano sound threads through the album, from the harder-rocking “I’m Deranged” or “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” to the Romantic piano inflections on “The Motel.” Most of the songs on the album were produced in long, improvised sessions at Mountain Studios in Montreux with nothing much written beforehand. Garson had requested a Hamburg Steinway to be brought in, an instrument he fell in love with. “I couldn’t play a wrong note,” he says. “David would be in there standing next to us with an easel painting pictures of the band. Of all the albums I’ve done that was the most creative.”
Even back at the beginning of his career, critics found in Bowie a mix of so-called “high” and “low” culture. In a review of his Royal Festival Hall show in July 1972 with Bowie in full Ziggy regalia, The Times (of London) described the performer as “T.S. Eliot with a Rock and Roll beat.” Surprisingly prescient perhaps, but there was something about Bowie that even his record company of the time, Decca, appreciated: his willingness to draw inspiration from everywhere. The press release for his first album celebrated the fact: “He loves to sit amidst a bank of column speakers listening to Stravinsky, usually ‘Ragtime for Eleven Instruments.’ He adores Vaughan Williams, Dvořák, Elgar and Holst. His extensive record collection includes lots of Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton and Gary McFarland... He reads everything he can get his hands on.” Looking back at Bowie’s record and iPod lists from decades later, it’s remarkable how consistent they are with this early description. Despite being hailed as a chameleon, it seems he was ever himself. In a thoughtful 2003 interview with Ingrid Sischy (for Interview Magazine), Bowie described his artistic doctrine as “an undiminished idea of variability. I don’t think there’s one truth, one absolute. It’s an idea that I have always felt instinctively, but it was reinforced by the first thing I read on postmodernism, a book by George Steiner called In Bluebeard’s Castle. That book just confirmed for me that there was actually some kind of theory behind what I was doing with my work — realizing that I could like artists as disparate as Anthony Newley and Little Richard, and that it was not wrong to like both at the same time. Or that I can like Igor Stravinsky and The Incredible String Band, or The Velvet Underground and Gustav Mahler. That all just made sense to me.”
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