Here’s a little exercise in reasoning: Simon & Garfunkel work well because they are an odd match. That does not mean that all odd matches work well. The latter point was particularly apparent in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sounds of Simon & Garfunkel.
Now, I’ll admit I had a pleasant time, and my babyboomer father had a wonderful experience reliving (what he can remember of) the sixties. In fairness to the ESO and the good-humoured conductor Michael Krajewski, the night sounded beautiful. The symphony shone during the medley of Paul Simon’s solo work, bringing an energy to songs like “Slip Sliding Away” and “Mother and Child Reunion” that captured the whimsy and joy of Simon’s songwriting. I couldn’t help but close my eyes and smile when A. J. Swearingen and Jonathan Beedle sang “America.” There are few songs more beautiful than that one, and the orchestra just emphasized that with its layers of strings and soft horns.
But something was just a bit off. After some thought, there were two odd combinations that made my shoulders tense throughout the night:
Tribute bands. I never know how to feel about these. I get that it’s fun to hear your favourite songs live, but unless a band is making a concerted effort to craft unique interpretations of the songs, it all feels a bit hollow. In the case of the ESO show, the tribute duo they brought in was obviously talented. Swearingen (as Simon) and Beedle (as Garfunkel) were charming and had beautiful voices. But because they are their own human beings, those voices were noticeably not those of Simon & Garfunkel. Not a big surprise, and it would be unrealistic of me to expect that they would be identical. But since Simon & Garfunkel’s sound is so dependent on how their voices weave together, I’m not sure if their music is best suited to the cover band treatment.
The tension between folk and classical. (Related: Class.) This is the big one. Simon & Garfunkel are a folk duo. They were a vital part of the counterculture that rejected all the pretense of previous generations. They were the soundtrack to The Graduate, for god’s sake! Folk music is supposedly the music of the people. So what does it mean to put it on stage with a symphony orchestra for an audience of people in suits and pearls? Does it mean that the counterculture somehow won out? That bourgeois institutions have been opened up to the masses? Maybe. But mostly I think of what director Mike Nichols said about the fate of the main characters in The Graduate: “I think Benjamin and Elaine will end up exactly like their parents.”
In that way, The Sounds of Simon & Garfunkel unintentionally threw light on an issue surrounding much of the iconic music of the sixties: namely, how it and its audience has changed over time. Maybe for some of the babyboomer set, the music has turned into a nostalgic artifact, its rebellious dimension no longer relevant. But where does that leave us younger fans who still turn to Simon & Garfunkel for their restlessness and longing? I don’t have an answer for that question- it’s one I’ve been struggling with for years. I guess the best answer I’ve come up with so far is that we can enjoy the music of the sixties- take inspiration from it- but we should never forget to create our own counterculture. Music is specific to its time. The music of 40 years ago won’t change things now. That’s our job.