50 years on, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is probably the most iconic album ever made and still a much-loved bestseller. So it’s a brave man who dares to meddle with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As composer Ethan Iverson admits: “There’s nothing potentially more terrible than a Beatles’ covers project.”
Ethan’s band, The Bad Plus, in which he was a jazz pianist, became known for their reconstruction of rock and pop music by everyone from David Bowie and Nirvana to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. Ethan remembers, “I know Mark liked our version of Blondie’s Heart of Glass. I had experience of looking at material in a way that’s intriguing and trying to do something new with it, which is what I’ve done with Sgt Pepper.”
“It’s important to note that Pepperland isn’t like a Beatles’ concert and people shouldn’t expect that. Their music is the fundamental backbone of the piece, but the album now is essentially a piece of folk music. We take liberties with it like we would with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, pieces we know so well but can change.”
He is very clear, however, that while he knows audiences will love the production, they should not expect a Beatles show. “Instead The Beatles open a door to thinking about other things like dance and the Swinging Sixties,” he explains. Ethan also wrote six original pieces for Pepperland, based on the classical forms of Allegro, Scherzo, Adagio and the blues, and take their cue from specific parts of the album. Sgt Pepper has a wide range of musical styles, from psychedelic and Indian to music hall, and Pepperland has a nod to them all.
“The score is played by these remarkable jazz musicians, the best in the world. They need to be as it’s an incredibly complicated album. Your average bar band couldn’t play covers from it. It’s almost symphonic in scope.”
“Part of the commission was a request for include an electronic element,” explains Ethan. “They probably wanted a DJ or hip hop sampling, but trying to do the latest thing felt forced. So I went for the first electronic instrument, that’s nearly 100 years old. Invented by Leon Theremin in the 1920s, it’s incredibly difficult to play it well and it requires a particular type of genius. I had listened to this wonderful theremin player, Rob Schwimmer, playing Bach’s Air on a G String. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard and made me cry. I really wanted to work with him and Pepperland was the perfect opportunity. When Rob starts to play our version of A Day in the Life on the theremin, it stops the show. It’s a heck of a moment which makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.”
Ethan concludes, “It’s a soul-destroying, dark time out there in some ways, but Pepperland has no political commentary whatsoever. It’s joy for joy’s sake, an escape which takes you to another place.”