Michael Jackson’s Classical Music

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More details on instrumental album Michael Jackson started before his death, and his love of classical music by Tim Smith

JULY 10, 2009

More details on instrumental album Michael Jackson started before his death, and his love of classical music.

TV and film composer and conductor David Michael Frank may have been one of the last persons to collaborate with Michael Jackson on an artistic project. The pop singer’s untimely death left that project in an uncertain state. Initial reports suggested that Jackson planned to do an album of “classical music” he had written; the pieces were to be orchestrated by Frank. Actually, Frank says, the pieces were closer to film music and would have gone into an all-instrumental album had Jackson lived. The Baltimore-born Frank, interviewed by phone in California, gives an account here of his experience with the King of Pop.

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Four or five months ago, I received a call from Michael Jackson’s longtime personal recording engineer, Michael Prince, who told me Michael was looking for someone to arrange some music for orchestra. I thought it was going to be for the tour he was going to do. For the next month or two, he would call, saying, ‘Michael Jackson says he’s going to call you.’

At the end of April, another Michael, Michael Jackson’s personal assistant, called me and asked me to come the next day at 10 a.m. and asked me the make and model of my car. I drove to the Holmby Hills home. I drove up to the front door, and was met by an assistant who told me to go inside. I was met there by a woman dressed like a housekeeper, but with a white turban on her head. She said, ‘Michael Jackson will be with you shortly.’ About two minutes later, he came down the stairs.

I was reluctant to shake his hand because I had heard that he was concerned about germs, but he immediately stuck his hand out and gave me a very firm handshake. He was very skinny, but not the least bit frail. He was wearing a suit and a hat. He was going to rehearsal later for the tour. He said, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him a long time ago I worked on a TV tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. at Shrine Auditorium [that he had participated in]. I told him I had met him briefly there.’ He said, ‘I never forget a face.’

He told me, ‘I have three projects going on simultaneously.’ One was the tour that the whole world knew about. The other two I believe no one knew about. One was to be an album of pop songs. Then he said, ‘The other one is that I want to record an album of classical music’ — what he called classical music.

He said he listened to …classical music all the time; it was his absolute favorite. I was impressed with the pieces he mentioned: Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait; Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I mentioned Bernstein’s On the Waterfront. Then Michael mentioned that he loved Elmer Bernstein’s film music, too, and he specifically mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird.

I realized that almost all the classical pieces he mentioned are childlike, very simple and pretty, like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. He also mentioned Debussy several times, specifically Arabesque [No. 1] and Clair de lune. He was very soft-spoken when were talking about music, but when he got animated about something, he was very changed. When he mentioned how he loved Elmer Bernstein, and I said I liked the Magnificent Seven score, Michael started singing the theme very loudly, almost screaming it.

He said, ‘I’m making a CD.’ Then his son, Prince Michael, came in, and Michael asked him to find a CD player. Paris found one and brought it in with Prince. Michael played the CD. It was very pretty music. He said, ‘But a section is missing.’ He played a second piece. And he said, ‘But a section is missing, too. But I can hum it to you.’ I asked if there was a piano in the house, and he said there was one in the pool house. We headed out there, but Michael stopped when he saw the dog was outside, soaking wet from being in the pool. He didn’t want us to get splattered. It was kind of funny. Michael got another assistant to hold the dog while we went to his pool house.

I sat at the piano and Michael hummed the missing part of one of the pieces. I had taken a little digital recorder with me and asked if I could record him. He was in perfect pitch. I tried to figure out chords to go with it as he hummed. He said, ‘Your instincts are totally right about the chords.’

We talked about classical music some more. I played some Debussy pieces. Michael seemed very happy and I think he felt very comfortable with me. He mentioned Leonard Bernstein again, and I played some of West Side Story. He told me he had met Bernstein once and that Bernstein had said he was a big fan of Michael’s.

Back in the house, whenever he’d go from room to room, you’d hear, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ ‘I love you, Paris.’ They all seemed pretty normal and happy.

Michael was very anxious to get the pieces orchestrated and record the music with a big orchestra. I suggested we record it at the Fox, Sony or Warner Brothers lot. I asked if he could have someone call me to discuss the budget and he said he would take care of it. When I left there were several fans outside the gate.

[Later] I talked to Michael on the phone. He asked me how the project was going and I said I was waiting to hear from someone so we could set the deal. I suggested we could record the music in London while he was doing the show there. He liked the idea. He again brought up Arabesque.

I laid the music all out on my computer and started on the orchestrations. Finally, a week before Michael died, his manager, Frank Dileo, called and asked me for an email with the budget and an electronic mock-up of the music, the costs of orchestration.

Now I have no idea what’s going to happen with this. I’m hoping the family will do something to get this done. I will not bring it up [with them] until after what I think is an appropriate time.

My guess is that each piece would be seven to ten minutes long. [Each one] is more substantial than a song. It’s very pretty music. One piece had an Irish quality about it. I suggested that we could use a Celtic harp. The pieces sound like pretty film score music, with very traditional harmony, and definitely very strong melodies. One of them was a little John Barry-ish, like in Out of Africa — that kind of John Barry score. I could hear [in my head] sweeping strings and French horns in unison.

I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that. I guess I still will use that baton if I ever get to conduct the music.

PHOTO OF DAVID MICHAEL FRANK COURTESY OF THE COMPOSER

In honor of Michael Jackson’s interest in classical music, as reported by David Michael Frank, here’s a performance of Debussy’s ‘Arabesque’ that the late singer apparently held in high regard:

Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage. 

View the Artsmash blog

 

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