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Copeland and Parker create beautiful, genre-bending music together

Sitting at a grand piano in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, formidable pianist Jon Kimura Parker looks up at his sheet music — filled with clusters of notes that would baffle lesser musicians — and points to a sequence of eight blank bars without notes, marked “Simple.” “That’s the part that scares me,” he says. Behind him, his bandmate, Stewart Copeland, former drummer for the Police, scoffs: “The s–t this guy can play — and he’s scared by that!”

Even though improvisation was commonplace in Mozart’s day, classical musicians are rarely expected, or equipped, to do it now; Parker and Copeland’s new project, Off the Score, looks both backward and forward. It marries classical music and rock, the composed and the spontaneous, and finds the duo — along with Electronic Valve Instrument player Judd Miller, double bassist Marlon Martinez, and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist Yoon Kwon — taking a few liberties with the likes of Stravinsky, Prokofieff and Ravel, as well as Copeland’s own material. And while Parker has made up melodies onstage before — most notably in the middle of a concert where singer Bobby McFerrin, who’d been conducting an orchestra, announced out of nowhere they’d be performing an unscripted duo — he’s still finding his feet.

Improvising draws attention to the musician himself, as do the kind of dramatic rock gestures that, according to Parker, are “considered a little in questionable taste.” But having been urged by Copeland to “sell” his performance — “There’s one place where he says, ‘Really you should use your elbows to play that section’ ” — the Professor of Piano at Rice University in Houston, Tex. became hip to the joys of what Copeland calls “a shamanistic exercise.”

It was so much fun I couldn’t concentrate

Copeland, who now sports a professorial pair of glasses but retains the wiry frame and shock of hair — now mostly white — from his Police heyday, offers: “The classical musician is a conduit … the purpose is to illuminate Bach or Tchaikovsky or whoever. So he doesn’t have to sell anything. In rock music, what the hell else are we doing up there but selling s–t? That’s why you’re wearing tight pants and playing a louder amplifier, flicking your sticks around, posing and thrusting your pelvis. … It strikes me here like a thunderclap to hear Jackie having to adjust his stage persona to be a purveyor. Well, welcome to the club! I hereby dub thee, Jackie Kimura Parker, a proper shaman!”

Copeland has been mashing up classical music and rock since his pre-Police days in the 1970s prog-rock “sophisto-classical” band Curved Air. In 1986, the year The Police broke up, he was asked to write a piece for the San Francisco Ballet. Of the result, King Lear, he says, “The four bars out of the whole thing that didn’t totally suck — that was enough. I was hooked on the whole orchestra thing.” Since then, he has written operas and film scores for orchestra, and toured with the 14-piece Italian jazz/classical/rock project Orchestralli. When looking for a leaner, meaner band, he found Parker, who shared an agent, the ability to improvise, and an offbeat sense of humour — while playing Mozart concerti, he has interpolated the X-Files theme in Sydney, Australia, and Star Trek in London, Ontario.

When they first played together, Parker felt “this wave of hugely positive energy, and I was incredibly pumped and excited — it was so much fun I couldn’t concentrate.” Says Copeland, “to feel him really just getting a buzz from jumping off the stool and pounding on Stravinsky and kicking it till Tuesday — that’s infectious.”

Parker did find it a challenge to play with amplification, which removes subtlety:
“He’s playing so loud that I need to ramp everything up to match him, not only in volume, but also just in character.” Copeland, meanwhile, has had to tone down.

“Instead of a dynamic range of 5 to 11,” he says, “I have a range of 0 to 4. This has led to an interesting discovery about drums in particular: they sure do sound better at lower volume. The tom-toms ring beautifully; the crisp little details on the snare drum and hi-hat all read more clearly. And other benefits: I no longer have to wear armour plating and gloves; no need for a f–king headband; I get through a rehearsal with the same T-shirt and can carry on wearing it that day.”
Tyler Anderson / National Post
Tyler Anderson / National PostOff the Score

Copeland has also stretched himself to play some of the repertoire, which includes the rhythmically fiendish third movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, as well as his own new piece, commissioned by the Royal Conservatory, “Coincidence or Convergence.” Says Copeland, “If you have cross-rhythms, they go off on what seem like tangents, but then they land together when they’re supposed to, and life is like that too. It may seem random that we both show up on Thursday wearing the same tie, but if you stand back far enough, you can see that there is a pattern that connects these events.”

This sounds somewhat like synchronicity, and indeed Copeland won’t rule out a Police reunion: “Anytime, we can pick that up. Probably will at one point. None of us are thinking about it right now, but we get along real well.” For now, Copeland and Parker planning an Off the Score recording, and touring classical halls to audiences where, as Copeland notes, the season-ticket holders sit quietly and smile, and his people — the rock fans — cheer with gusto.

For Parker, “the No. 1 feedback from a [classical] audience that I have won them over is when I’m playing quietly and there isn’t a sound — not a cough, nothing. You can tell people have stopped breathing. Boy, that couldn’t be more different from this.”

Off the Score play tonight at 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of the 21C Music Festival. For tickets, see performance.rcmusic.ca.

Mike Doherty, National Post
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