Some friends in my neighborhood went to a concert by our city’s symphony orchestra over the weekend, and the husband couldn’t wait to tell me the title of the last piece the orchestra played. It was “Dead Elvis.” My friend even produced the concert program to prove it. He was particularly impressed that the featured soloist, a female bassoon player, was dressed in a white jumpsuit, Elvis wig, and trademark sunglasses.
“Dead Elvis” Bassoon Soloist
Naturally, I wondered why the composer, Michael Dougherty, would title his composition “Dead Elvis,” so I did a little research. I never did find anything about his motivation, but ClassicalArchives.com went into great detail on his concept.
For one thing, Mr. Daugherty decided to use the same instrumentation as Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. The website explained that these instruments were limited to bassoon, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, one percussionist, violin and double bass. I guess I should have put them all in the title of this article, but that would have been way too long. Does anyone know if there is a tradition in classical music of composing works to be performed by a limited group of instruments? Is there a history of some other composer then trying to also write a piece using just those same instruments?
Who knows? Who cares, right? We just want the Elvis story. Well, the website says “Dead Elvis” is analogous to the story in that famous Stravinsky composition. In that one, the violinist sells his soul to the devil, while in Dougherty’s work, Elvis sells his soul to record agents, Hollywood, and Las Vegas. If you ask me, it looks like the bassoonist sells her soul to Yoda from Star Wars. Doesn’t the jumpsuit collar above look like Yoda ears?
As far as I know, classical music has no lyrics, so how does a symphony convey these messages about someone selling his soul? Here’s something else the website tells us about the meaning of “Dead Elvis.” The main musical motive of the piece is the Dies Irae chant, which is used in reference to Elvis’ death. This medieval chant for the Day of Judgment appears in every movement of the piece. Are you getting the idea that this composition was not written for the enjoyment of Elvis fans?
Apparently, other symphony orchestras have used the gimmick of their bassoon player dressed up as Elvis for the performance of “Dead Elvis.” Here is one from the Cleveland Orchestra that rates much higher on the Elvis scale.
If guitar players call it their axe, what would you call this?
The website article ends with this, “Over the course of the piece, it is easy to imagine the journey of Elvis from a young man to a burned out Vegas lounge act.” Well, it is easy for me to imagine I never want to hear “Dead Elvis.”
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