Philip Glass didn't premiere his first symphony until 1992, at age fifty-five. To prepare, he turned to David Bowie's album Low to create his own Low Symphony. A few years later, he returned to another Bowie and Eno record, Heroes, in order to write 1996's Heroes Symphony. Glass, like fellow minimalist Steve Reich, has long been drawn to rock and pop. In the seventies, he performed alongside no wave groups in New York's The Kitchen and produced records for new wavers Polyrock. In the eighties he collaborated with musicians like The Roches, David Byrne, and even Paul Simon.
Glass was especially drawn to Bowie and Eno, who shared his affinity for combining rock and pop with experiments from the avant-garde and world music. Sonically, they used highly textured and portable repetitions, which Glass could mold into symphonic motifs. And Bowie and Eno were themselves under the influence of Glass's music during the making of Low and Heroes in Berlin. In the Heroes Symphony, Glass transforms Bowie's LP into a romantic arrangement, adding warmth and melodrama to the colder corners of the original record. He effectively manufactures a narrative drive for Heroes, erasing the boundaries between Bowie and Eno's individual tracks in favor of triumphalist consistency. Carolina Performing Arts' Heroes Tribute Friday night affords a rare chance to hear a live rendition of the piece by a full orchestra.
After a short intermission, a Merge Records supergroup offers an even more direct tribute to Heroes: Destroyer's Dan Bejar, Mac McCaughan, guitarist William Tyler, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, Megafaun's Brad Cook, percussionist Joe Westerlund, and saxophonist Ken Vandermark will convene to perform Bowie's 1977 album in its entirety. McCaughan says the band will focus on playing as a unit, rather than adopting the one-artist, one-song model of a showcase revue. The Superchunk cofounder says he's generally not a fan of bands replaying classic albums live; thus, the Bowie tribute will aim for something more organic and unpredictable, "not just a slavish, straight cover," he says. Such an attempt is a balancing act, of course. McCaughan wants to avoid lulling his audience with the familiar, but he doesn't want to wrench Bowie's work out of context.
"It is a little stressful to tackle a record which is such a classic. You don't want to leave anyone thinking, 'Well, I never needed to hear that version,' you know?" he says.
Seeking neither to mimic nor destroy the source material, the group seems likely to run subtle variations on Bowie's compositions. In preparation, he says, group members have been studying the record to learn it straight on their own.
"When it comes time to actually do it, [they] can loosen up and be more themselves and stretch out a little bit," McCaughan says.
That shouldn't be a problem for this outfit. Though Bejar's Destroyer occasionally calls Bowie to mind with Ziggy Stardust-era vocal preening, his music has very little to do with the more angular, low-affect stylings of Heroes. It's exciting to anticipate what Bejar will do with songs like "Sons of the Silent Age" and the title track of Heroes—the results will likely be theatrical and striking. McCaughan and Tyler are both adept guitarists, well suited to take on the alternately lyrical and rhythmic lines played originally by Robert Fripp and Carlos Alomar, and Ken Vandermark is an ideal choice to take on Bowie's own saxophone parts. The night will prove exciting to casual fans and die-hard fans to note every twist each player gives to the original LP.
When Bowie died last January, McCaughan initially felt doubtful about continuing with the Heroes Tribute, which was already underway. A dedicated Bowie fan since he was thirteen, McCaughan says it was hard for him to feel anything but sadness over the artist's death.
But as time passed, McCaughan figured that a Merge band's performance could be a tribute, both to Bowie the man and to Bowie's still-living songs and ideas. There was no reason not to do it, he says. Such a statement seems a touch modest, considering the quality of the band he's put together—many fans would probably kill to see Bejar perform Bowie's songs solo. To hear him backed by such a complementary set of players will be a legitimately one-of-a-kind one-off.
This article appeared in print with the headline "They Can Be Heroes."