Tripping with Pink Floyd and the Fox Valley Symphony

September 10, 2011

Jim Lundstrom

The Scene

“And if the band you’re in

starts playing different tunes.

I’ll see you on the

dark side of the moon.”

- Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage”

from Dark Side of the Moon, 1971

By Jim Lundstrom

To borrow a well-worn but contextually appropriate phrase, it blows my mind that the Fox Valley Symphony – or any orchestra anywhere – is working in concert with a Pink Floyd tribute band.

Talk about Us and Them!

Orchestras have been popping it up for years as a way to draw in crossover audiences. The Fox Valley Symphony alone has collaborated with The Temptations, Vic Ferrari and other rock and pop bands. All of that cross-pollination may have helped soften the staid and sober image of symphony orchestras and helped people who never considered going to a symphony show to cross that threshold.

But Pink Floyd, well, that’s completely different territory. Pink Floyd is not pop. Pink Floyd is, uhm, well, exactly what Jimi Hendrix was asking with the title of his debut album, Are You Experienced? Pink Floyd is a trip.

If you weren’t there for it, it’s hard to understand the role Pink Floyd played in the psychedelic ’60s and early ’70s. They were among a select handful of bands of the time – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Spirit, Cream – that were revolutionary in that the music was designed for psychedelic trips, trips so far out from the mainstream that you might never return.
If Jimi Hendrix had not died 42 years ago and were a 69-year-old man today, would he be playing his music with orchestras? Indubitably.

Pink Floyd certainly had a symphonic scope to some of its music, but it was so counterculture that it boggles the mind to see the music of Pink Floyd in a symphonic setting 40 years later.

“I had forgotten how trippy it all is. It’s real trippy rock and roll. I don’t know how else to describe that,” said Fox Valley Music Director Brian Groner, who has been boning up on Floyd for the Sept. 17 concert.

“I still listen to rock and roll frequently, but it’s been a while since I’ve listened to Pink Floyd,” he said. “I had to do my review. It’s not painful.”

Asked if there is a “trippy” classical composer comparable to Pink Floyd, Groner thought for a second before replying, “In some ways, Erik Satie. His was almost anti-impressionism, kind of expressionism in his own way, in minimal form. Many of those Pink Floyd tunes are larger scale than a piece by Satie.”

In lieu of Jimi and Pink Floyd performing with orchestras – Floyd hasn’t played together since a one-off in July 2005, and with the Sept. 15, 2008 death of keyboardist Richard Wright, it is impossible to see another real Pink Floyd concert – The Machine promises more Pink and Floyd than you can fit in a Strawberry Barrel.

“I’m aware cover bands have a stigma,” said Machine guitarist Joe Pascarell, who started the band in 1988. “If that’s preventing you from coming, I would suggest that not be the case. Machine is a good band and we’re musicians that play music honestly and well. If you like Pink Floyd, give Machine a chance. Don’t pooh-pooh it.”

Pascarell started playing guitar at age 10.

“I was consumed by it. It’s all I wanted to do,” he said.

Two years into being a guitar student, his life was changed when his older brother brought home a copy of Dark Side of the Moon.

“I was 12 years old, and at the time all I was listening to was Beatles records. It was pretty mind blowing hearing that after those 2 ½-minute pop tunes,” Pascarell said. “I recall the moment, sitting in my parent’s living room and listening to that record on the stereo and just being amazed. I’d never heard sounds like that – talking and people walking and synthesizers. It made quite an impression on me. I just loved the way it made me feel physically.”

As a new Floyd fan and a guitar student, Pascarell naturally turned his attention to recreating David Gilmour’s guitar sounds, which he quickly found was not going to be easy.

“It was hard for me to make the guitar sound like it sounds on Pink Floyd records,” he said. “It started me becoming a gear head. You sort of have to be to get those sounds on the electric guitar.”

While he eventually learned the magic behind the Floyd sound, Pascarell had no intention of playing in a Pink Floyd tribute band.

“It was never conscious decision to become a Pink Floyd tribute band or cover band. It grew out of an honest love for their music,” he said. “The motivation was to get together with musicians who took music a little more seriously than the bands we were playing with. That was our only criteria. Playing music we liked. Not music that got us the most gigs, but music we enjoyed playing. We did a few gigs with a few Pink Floyd songs. People responded differently when we did the Pink Floyd. You don’t rally hear bands do that. So we learned a little more. Before we knew it, half our show was Pink Floyd music. An agent heard about us and said, ‘You know if you learn a little more, I might be able to get you some gigs.’ That was 23 years ago.”

Formed in New York in 1988, The Machine features charter members Pascarell and drummer Tahrah Cohen on drums, with Ryan Ball on bass and Scott Chasolen on keys.

Pascarell, a Mozart fan who listens to as much classical as rock, said the idea for a symphonic Pink Floyd show came to the band about five years ago.

“Speaking for me, I want the show to be interesting for me,” he said. “In that way they’ll be interesting to people who come to see the band. We thought, let’s present this in a new way. Fortunately, we know enough people to make that a reality. We have a friend, Maxim Moston, who did the arrangements. He’s brilliant. That took more than a year. There’s not much orchestration there. ‘Comfortably Numb,’ but not much else. He did it in a way that is respectful to the original music. Not syrupy and corny…”

Violinist/arranger Moston has a lengthy and impressive resume, to drop just a few names where he has served as violinist or arranger or both: Michael Jackson, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Rod Stewart, Patty Griffin, Linda Thompson, Danny Elfman, etc.

“He was able to create arrangements that the band specifically asked for that brought the orchestra into the foreground as much as possible,” said The Machine’s manager, Barney Kilpatrick. “Many pop shows have the orchestra doing what they call footballs – footballs being whole notes. Everyone’s holding whole notes and not really doing anything. These arrangements made a difference in the way the music sounds.”

Groner said the arrangements quite ingeniously return synthesizer parts to the instruments the synthesizer was synthesizing.

“We all get discouraged at times when we’re hearing synthesized sounds,” Groner said. “It’s supposed to sound like something else. Now you’ll hear the real instrument instead of the synthesizer playing that part.”

And that, Groner said, is a great way to introduce newcomers to the orchestra.

“This is a vehicle for people that have not heard an orchestra, to come in and hear the flexibility, hear the orchestra do things that they don’t expect,” Groner said.

Just as orchestra regulars may find a few things they don’t expect at a traditional concert.

“What’s a Pink Floyd concert without a few effects?” Groner said. “There will be some lighting effects, which are not usually included in an orchestra concert.”

Manager Kilpatrick said there are two halves to the show.

“The first half is a combination of hits and obscurities, everything from ‘Comfortably Numb’ to ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, to a fairly obscure track called ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ (from the second record and Syd Barrett’s last as a Floyd member, Saucerful of Secrets, 1968). Maxim suggested they do that one. He gave the song a Moroccan-North African feel and it really gives the symphony a chance to show what they can do. And the second half is Dark Side of the Moon performed in its entirety.”

“The Pink Floyd concert is going to be an amazing night,” Groner promised.


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