Mashing up the chamber music: Stewart Copeland beats down the musical barriers


Stewart Copeland is probably best known as the hard-charging drummer for the legendary band The Police.

But behind all that celebrity, Copeland is becoming well-known as a composer of “orchestral” music. Just don’t try to call it classical because, well truth be told, he ain’t dead yet.

But he does compose operas, symphonic works and movie scores galore.

And now he is involved in a chamber music mashup called Off the Score with one of Canada’s great pianists Jon Kimura Parker and three other musicians who have strong orchestral chops: Yoon Kwon, violin and a regular with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra; Marlon Martinez on double bass and Judd Miller, who plays an Electronic Valve Instrument.

It is a grouping of two types of musicians, Copeland says: The people of the ear and the people of the eye.

“On my side, there is the improvisational rock technique and on the other side there are finely honed classical chops. The two sorts of musicians are two families divided at birth.

“The readers and the players. The people of the ear and the musicians of the eye,” he says.

“Classically trained musicians connect with their music through the page with their eyes and the cue of the baton. The players, the people of the ear, they don’t use their eyes, they just stare off into space. It’s their ears that connect to the music. They just know when four bars are done, they think it and they know it.

“The two are very different. The players of the ear tend to improvise and make this s**t up as they go along. Readers strictly adhere to the instructions coming from their eyes off the page.

For each of these different components, Off the Score, Copeland says, is a very exciting combination. Parker “loves the idea that he can improvise on his Stravinsky and is set free. I love being able to play the Stravinsky and learn those strange meters of his and do cool stuff with it. We are all getting something out of this.”

Copeland has always had many sides to his musical thinking. Pre-Police, he was in the 1970s prog-rock band Curved Air. In 1986, the year The Police broke up, he developed a piece for the San Francisco Ballet, called King Lear. In addition to the operas and film scores, he’s toured with a 14-piece Italian jazz/classical/rock project called Orchestralli. It doesn’t always work out. Critics beat up a recent performance of his score for the silent film Ben Hur. But, frankly, one doubts Copeland gives a damn.

“I’ve been messing around with orchestral music. I’m not classical. When I started out, I might have intended to be but I’ve long since abandoned any idea of being Mahler. Nowadays I’m taking what I have learned from the world that I have lived in and using an orchestra for that. It may have been used in past by Mendelssohn and Mahler et al but my plans are different for the orchestra.”

Such as?

“To rock the house and burn down the building. It’s the same sort of thing with these classical players, they really can play and really can burn down the house.”

He hooked up with Parker when he was looking for a smaller sized project. The two men share the same agent and apparently the same sort of musical ambition.

When they first played together, Parker told the National Post, he felt “this wave of hugely positive energy, and I was incredibly pumped and excited — it was so much fun I couldn’t concentrate.”

Mixing a rocker and a classically trained chamber ensemble has meant some adaptation.

Volume being a key. The classical players are forced to be louder, while Copeland has had to turn down the sound.

“Drums are about the worst possible instrument to stick in the middle of an orchestra. They are designed to create volume and I sit there with a big orchestra in Pittsburgh, I have to play so quietly, the instrument is whispering.

“It actually sounds better, there is more character. Off the Score is also very contained in that way. The good thing is that all sorts of technique can be revealed and be relevant.”

For the audience coming to the performance by Off the Score in Ottawa on April 5, they won’t be seeing a Police show.

“We aren’t playing Roxanne.”

People will see players stretching themselves. For Copeland, he’s tackling Prokofiev and Ravel. And he likes it.

“I have to thrive in that world,” he says, but learning is the fun part.

Copeland believes that it’s important to keep the music of Brahms and Mendelssohn alive.

“I’m actually glad when an orchestra hires me to do a piece they also have a dead composer on the bill.”

But those same organizations “if they don’t have living composers on their bill then they are letting us all down.”

He’s not in love with all “classical” composition. Copeland could do without modernism.

“There is a phase which thankfully is over when the modern composers went crazy even Uncle Aaron Copland (no relation). Modernism basically drove people out of the theatres. It actually came close to killing the orchestras because nobody liked it. It was ‘Oh no not another modern piece by some a**hole from Juilliard who wants to show us how ugly he can make the music.”

What saved it, he believes, was the arrival of minimalism and composers such as Steve Reich and John Adams.

“Secretly I loved that minimalism. My mother turned me onto drumming and Steve Reich. It’s beautiful and it transports you but it’s also revolutionary.

“As an artist you want to push back the frontiers and move forward. You don’t want to do same old, same old but you want to keep the beauty going too.”

Off the Score has been going for a couple of years now. Each of the performers has commitments but they do enjoy getting together to play. This past year they’ve played concerts in the states and in Toronto and they intend to keep going. It’s a chance to work in a different milieu with very talented musicians, Copeland says.

As it was in The Police. “I suppose all three of us were eclectic within the smaller realm of a rock band. Introducing a little reggae would be eclectic,” for example.

And as it was before then.

“My head was already raging with all the 20th century composers. That didn’t go away just because Jimi Hendrix came along.”

Copeland is always learning, always drawing from whatever he sees and hears, he says.

“I listen to Kanye (West) and I (think to myself) I never thought of that. I see some band that sucks because of such and such and I was considering doing such and such. I’m always learning from everywhere. The policy is to be open minded.”

Off the Score

Stewart Copeland, Jon Kimura Parker, Yoon Kwon, Marlon Martinez, Judd Miller

When: Tuesday April 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

Tickets and information:

Peter Robb, Ottawa Citizen
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