R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie speak ASO concerto, “R.E.M. Explored”


R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and acclaimed classical violinist Robert McDuffie had been childhood buddies in Macon. They had been within the youth choir and hand-bell choir on the First Presbyterian Church, and the Mills and McDuffie households would collect each Sunday night after church to socialize; McDuffie and Mills would steal away to play “Battleship” and hearken to music.

Mills went on to the College of Georgia in Athens and helped kind R.E.M., which turned one of many nice American rock bands in historical past earlier than disbanding in 2011. McDuffie studied at Juilliard and have become an in-demand soloist who has carried out with main symphonies internationally; the esteemed Philip Glass wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 particularly for McDuffie.

Along with his efficiency profession, McDuffie additionally leads the Robert McDuffie Heart for Strings at Mercer College in Macon.

After the break up of R.E.M., McDuffie commissioned Mills to write down a concerto that debuted in 2016: Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra. A newly-crafted symphonic model of that piece — that includes Mills on bass and McDuffie on violin — makes its debut Friday and Saturday in performances at Symphony Corridor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra underneath the baton of Sarah Hicks. They are going to be aided by Athens guitarists John Neff and William Tonks, and Atlanta drummer Gerry Hansen. These concert events can even embrace the world premiere of R.E.M. Explored, the band’s music organized for full orchestra by Carl Marsh and David Mallamud.

Mills and McDuffie spoke with ArtsATL through Zoom final week in a wide-ranging interview that touched on rising up collectively in Macon in the course of the Capricorn Information/Southern rock heyday, Mills’ songwriting philosophy with R.E.M. and the way McDuffie coaxed Mills into leaving his consolation zone to write down a concerto.

ArtsATL: How did you meet and the way did your friendship develop?

Mike Mills: When my household moved to Macon in 1971, my people had been searching for a church music program. My dad was Presbyterian and came upon that Bobby’s mother ran one of the best church music program at First Presbyterian, so we went there. That’s the place Bobby and I began hanging out, within the youth choir and the hand-bell choir. Our mother and father would hang around each Sunday evening after a protracted day of music associated actions. 

Robert McDuffie: After Sunday evening providers, the Mills and the McDuffies would collect. Mike and I listened to data and performed “Battleship.” That went on for a few years. We had been additionally within the music membership collectively that at all times met on a Sunday afternoon. So we couldn’t watch the Falcons play, which was upsetting.

Mills: It was most likely higher for our psychological well being.

ArtsATL: You each grew up in Macon in the course of the center of the Capricorn Information and Southern rock period, when Macon was one of many key music scenes within the nation. What was that like? Have been you even conscious of Macon’s prominence on the planet of rock ’n’ roll?

Mills: Once you’re in the midst of one thing, you’re not essentially conscious of the nationwide cultural impression of it. I bear in mind going to one of many early Capricorn picnics. President Carter was there and it was an enormous deal. The Capricorn picnic was the primary invitation in rock ’n’ roll for a number of years. You bought an concept at that time of how necessary Capricorn was, and the type of affect they’d. However if you’re in the midst of one thing, it’s exhausting to see exterior of it.

McDuffie: I had a duplicate of The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach that I wore out. And I didn’t understand it then, however it was the primary time I’d been uncovered to actual chamber music. The way in which that Dickey Betts and Duane Allman collaborated collectively. They had been conversational and deferential. They knew when to again away and when to step ahead. It was respectful music-making. I used to be hooked on Eat A Peach and in addition to the Fillmore East album. 

I didn’t know the extent that the rock ’n’ roll world was centered on Macon at the moment, I simply knew the Allman Brothers had been right here and I used to be proud they had been in Macon. 

ArtsATL: Mike, did that put together you for what occurred after you moved to Athens? It was an identical scenario the place a small Georgia metropolis was made a huge effect.

R.E.M. in 1984: (left to proper) Invoice Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck

Mills: As I mentioned, if you’re in the midst of a scene, you don’t understand it’s a scene. That’s what makes it a scene. As soon as folks began realizing there was a “Athens scene,” that’s when it started to alter and be lower than what it was. We had been all only a bunch of youngsters who favored the identical type of music that a complete lot of different folks didn’t like. And we’d all simply collect in Athens.

So it was very completely different than what was taking place in Macon. Clearly, individuals who favored music attracted one another. I used to be very fortunate to spend so a few years in hotbeds of music. Macon was in regards to the Allman Brothers and Southern rock, and nation was large at the moment, so there have been loads of nice influences. And classical music from my mother and father. 

That was actually helpful. Then I went to Athens, the place there have been extra modern pop references and rock ’n’ roll and extra cutting-edge stuff. I used to be actually lucky to be formed by these two cities.

ArtsATL: Bobby, you left Macon and studied at Juilliard. As you watched R.E.M. develop into a very large deal, what was your perspective on that?

McDuffie: I used to be slightly late to the R.E.M. social gathering. I used to be fairly formidable at Juilliard. However I used to be stored up on R.E.M.’s success by my brother, who was a UGA scholar. He stored reminding me how nice Mike’s band was and I used to be so completely satisfied for him.

Nevertheless it didn’t actually hit me artistically till I heard them reside in Kansas Metropolis. I used to be enjoying the identical evening they had been. I used to be the soloist with their symphony, and R.E.M was enjoying on the Kemper Enviornment. I’d by no means performed Mendelssohn’s concerto so quick (laughs). I used to be like, I must get by means of this. My spouse had flown out and I simply performed as quick I might, bowed as quick as I might and we received a journey to the sector. And that’s when it actually hit. I used to be blown away. Classical music is a way more intimate artwork kind. It was a watershed second for me, seeing what my buddy had completed. There have been 20,000 folks singing each phrase to each music.

Robert McDuffie performing in 2018 with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Picture by Jeff Roffman)

A few years earlier than that, in ’88 or ’89, Mike occurred to be in Georgia and got here to a efficiency of mine on the Atlanta Symphony. And it simply meant the world to me to see him together with his mother and pop. He even placed on a coat and tie for it. It was extremely candy. It meant the world to me, and simply bolstered my love for him.

ArtsATL: What nugget of inspiration led you to say, “Hey, Mike, why don’t you write a concerto?”

McDuffie: It was fairly egocentric on my half as a result of I needed to take a threat and go to an amazing dwelling American composer, and that was Mike Mills. I’d simply carried out loads of work with Philip Glass on a concerto he’d written for me. I used to be nonetheless loving enjoying what I name the “lifeless White European male composers.” However I additionally needed a problem and I used to be in love with Mike’s music.

I used to be slightly nervous. I went to his supervisor first for permission to even strategy Mike with the thought. I knew how lovely his music was, “Nightswimming” and different items he had such a serious half in. All you need to do is have a look at the fourth motion of his concerto, known as “Stardancer’s Waltz,” to understand he’s one among America’s best composers. It was a risk-reward and it’s nonetheless paying off.

ArtsATL: What was your response, Mike? Have been you want “What? Are you kidding?”

Mills: I used to be positively not anticipating that. I didn’t see that one coming. However I used to be at unfastened ends. I didn’t have a band anymore. I used to be questioning the place I used to be going to go together with issues. I used to be not unfamiliar with classical music due to my dad, who was a dramatic tenor, so I mentioned, “What the hell?” I simply principally approached it. … it’s all about melody with me. So I mentioned, “I’m going to write down some melodies.” They simply occurred to be for the violin fairly than the vocals or guitar or piano. That’s actually all I did.

Mike Mills Robert McDuffie
Mills says it was terrifying to compose a concerto. He mentioned he finally approached it as he would a R.E.M. music, with a deal with melody.

It’s technically extra of a music suite, however it does match the definitions of a concerto. With the assistance of David Mallamud, our arranger, it changed into one thing we’re all fairly pleased with and it appears to have a little bit of life, which is very nice.

ArtsATL: How intimidating was it to write down violin components for Robert McDuffie?

Mills: All the factor was terrifying. It was a world I’d by no means stepped into and tried to work inside it. So the concept I might truly achieve that realm, it had by no means existed in my mind. I attempted to strategy it as “go together with what you realize” and do what I’m good at, which is writing melodies after which hope that the remainder falls into place. It was stepping off a cliff, for positive. It was a plunge into the unknown. 

I approached it principally the identical as I approached R.E.M. songs. I noticed there’s no vocals, so the melody has to hold the music. And the melody exists in loads of completely different locations. Clearly, there’s the first melody and the themes of the items are with the violin. However there can be melody in all places else. The bass could have melody. All the opposite string devices, and on this case symphonic devices, could have their very own melody. In my view, you may’t have an excessive amount of melody. The extra you have got happening, the extra thrilling it’s for me. 

I simply approached it as an identical factor to rock ’n’ roll. The truth is, it’s rock ’n’ roll. That’s the enjoyable factor about what we’re doing right here. We’re combining the 2 genres we love probably the most — the classical world and the rock ’n’ roll world. A part of our mission right here is to point out those who [these two kinds of music have] much more in frequent than you would possibly assume. These are classical items, however they’re additionally rock ’n’ roll items, and so they operate on each ranges. 

ArtsATL: Bobby, what was your response if you heard it?

McDuffie: It was superb. It begins out rocking, and his Southern roots come to the floor. The fifth motion is “Nightswimming” and I’m glad Mike agreed to incorporate that. I feel it’s “Stardancer’s Waltz” that helped propel this piece into an unforgettable work of music. From a classical musician’s perspective, I feel Mike Mills is the Dvořák of rock ’n’ roll. Dvořák wrote these unbelievable melodies that had been joyful and reflective. I approached “Stardancer’s Waltz” the best way I strategy this lovely piece by Dvořák known as “The Romance.” The identical texture. I wish to be sure that the phrases are tapered and so they soar when they should soar and mirror when they should mirror.

Mike Mills Robert McDuffie
Mills and McDuffie will carry out the concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

ArtsATL: Mike, that is the world premiere of “R.E.M. Explored.” How did this come into existence?

Mills: We needed a companion piece to go together with the brand new symphonic model of the concerto. So I commissioned two guys I respect very a lot, one among whom is David Mallamud, and my buddy Carl Marsh, who’s a well-respected arranger and composer. I do know Carl largely from his work on Large Star’s Third file, which isn’t tremendous well-known however is an iconic file for musicians. 

I gave them 5 songs every and I mentioned, “I don’t need symphonic reproductions of an R.E.M. music. I would like you to take this to different locations. I would like you to make use of your creativeness and interpret this as you’ll. Depart sufficient in there so the viewers is aware of which R.E.M. music they’re listening to, however don’t merely re-chart the present music.” In order that’s what they’ve carried out.

Their approaches are fairly attention-grabbing. Carl left every music as a discreet motion. A few of them are slightly extra minor key, slightly spookier. David’s is one lengthy piece with some attention-grabbing music that is a bit more bouncy and energetic in his inimitable manner. So I feel it’s going to be fairly the journey for the viewers. It’s thrilling. I don’t know the way it’s going to go or what it’s going to sound like as a result of I’ve solely heard the (computerized) MIDI model. So I gained’t hear the precise symphonic model till we get there for rehearsal subsequent week.

I’m excited for this. To start with, I’m fairly positive it’s going to be nice. However it’s a little little bit of the unknown. It’s the primary symphonic model of these things, so it’s going to be a brand new journey and I’m actual excited for the viewers to return take it with us.


Scott Freeman is govt editor of ArtsATL. He’s the writer of 4 books, together with the best-selling Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band (which is in improvement for a characteristic movie) and Otis! The Otis Redding Story. He has labored as an editor at Atlanta journal and Artistic Loafing. He was a reporter for the Macon Telegraph and Information, in addition to The Windfall Journal.


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