TV & Radio
Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Sting wins with lute 'pop songs'
Rock singer Sting has made a big impact in the charts with an album of 16th century lute music.
Songs From The Labyrinth - with tunes by King James I's favourite musician John Dowland - topped the classical chart and made 24 on the main rundown.
Sting collaborated with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov to make the album as authentic as possible.
"For me they are pop songs. Beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, great accompaniments," said Sting.
He added: "I feel that my job as a pop artist is to develop as a musician, and to bring into my sphere elements that aren't necessarily pop, more complex intervals, complex time signatures."
He follows a trend of pop and rock musicians such as Sir Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello who have turned to classical music.
A spokesman for classical record label Deustche Grammophon, which released Sting's album, said: "We're absolutely delighted.
"Sting is taking an interesting area of repertoire and popularising it."
Things that have interested me
There is thy Sting
James Fenton on new tunes from an old lute
Saturday October 14, 2006
Sting's new album, Songs from the Labyrinth, consists almost entirely of music by John Dowland. It has caused a deal of outrage among contributors to Radio 3's unpleasant message board. Nevertheless, the match is not so surprising: Sting is a most distinguished popular singer-songwriter; Dowland (1563-1626) has in recent years become a very popular composer. Dowland's Lachrimae, a collection of dance music - pavans, galliards and almands - is, according to one expert, "probably the most recorded and performed collection of instrumental music before the Water Music or the Brandenburg Concertos." Dowland represents his age for us, as Handel and Bach represent theirs.
But this rise to fame happened rather recently, essentially in the past 50 years. The counter-tenor voice, the copies of period instruments such as the viol, the art of the lutenist - everything had to be revived and to a great extent reinvented before we could hear Dowland as he sounds today when sung by, say, Andreas Scholl. By the time of the Restoration, the composer's work had been forgotten in England, and it continued forgotten or devalued in subsequent centuries. Most of the lute music was not published until 1974. The complete songs had been edited only 50 years earlier. Lachrimae awaits a proper edition. (All this, according to Peter Holman's handy Cambridge Music Handbook to Dowland.)
What this means is that there is no authentic style, no historical style, for singing this repertoire. Look back a full century from now and the tradition just peters out. It is not like the tradition of reading and enjoying Elizabethan verse, which can be traced back without difficulty to Keats and beyond. Nor is it like the tradition of performing Shakespeare, which, allowing for its regular and radical transformations, is almost continuous. It is instead a long-broken tradition, a lost art revived. And it would be ridiculous to suppose that the last word has been said, or sung, on the subject, or the last insight achieved.
This much should be common ground. In interviews, Sting was careful to emphasise the historical dimension to vocal style. Dowland's lute songs are designed for singers and musicians sitting around a table. The layout of the text allows for this, as the helpful booklet in the CD illustrates. This is not the context, or the idiom, for a Brünnhilde. Sting conceded that his own voice was untrained. But, he said, he could sing in tune, and he knew how to sing a song - that is, he knew how to put over a song so that it would communicate its emotion and its meaning.
Nothing that the voice does on the resulting disc is unintended or beyond the singer's limitations. You may not like a particular effect - you may, quite simply, not like this voice at all - but everything proceeds from the original proposition: that a popular (albeit unusual) vocal style could be applied directly to this material. Looking on my shelves for something to compare it with, I found Andreas Scholl's A Musicall Banquet, a recording of Dowland's son's collection of English and European songs. The lutenist is the same Edin Karamazov who accompanies Sting, and really the two albums have a great deal in common. Could you say that Scholl is idiomatic where Sting is not? I don't think so. Both styles seem to share that quality of having been invented for the purpose. Sting's style was invented by Sting. Scholl's style is a version of something invented by Alfred Deller.
These Dowland songs, by the way, are common property, as much as any folk song or traditional melody. Their lyrics, usually anonymous (but surely often by Dowland), belong to that great age when poet and songwriter had not yet parted company. The language is essentially modern English, and it is not hard to find a line in a Dowland song which, taken out of context, could have been written yesterday. "I'll cut the string that makes the hammer strike." Or lines which, though identifiably archaic, are made out of elements that are in common usage: "Cold love is like to words written on sand, / Or to bubbles which on the water swim." This is typically Elizabethan: "Come away, come sweet love, The golden morning breaks. / All the earth, all the air, Of love and pleasure speaks." It is typically Elizabethan, but, unlike the lute, we do not have to learn it, to reconstruct its meaning or its sounds.
This is our living tradition of song. When Sting began making his recordings he was apparently unclear as to whether they would make an album or end up simply as a private amusement. What made the difference for him was coming across Dowland's letter to Sir Robert Cecil, written in Nuremberg in 1595, setting out his grievances and protesting his loyalty to the Queen. Short extracts from this letter are interspersed with the songs, and given in the booklet in their original spelling.
It is strange that the prose of Dowland's letter should have been the clincher, for Elizabethan prose is usually harder to understand than the simple verse of song. What brought the project together was the sense that Dowland could be presented in profile, as the alienated singer-songwriter, wandering from court to court in his melancholy exile.
No doubt it is this dark side to Dowland that made the album feasible for Deutsche Grammaphon, making the match of performer to his material more comprehensible than if the composers had been, say, Campion or Morley.
In the darkness let me dwell,
The ground shall Sorrow be;
The roof Despair to bar
All cheerful light from me.
The walls of marble black
That moisten'd still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds
To banish friendly sleep.
Any poet, any songwriter, can return to this extraordinary material with pleasure. It offers an example of an ideal. The poets who want still to split poetry from song lyric ("Poetry mistrusts language: song cosies up to it" - George Szirtes) should think again. Our greatest songwriters knew no such division.
Nor is this great repertoire anybody's "turf". It is our common ground. That is the great joy of it, and why this album is so welcome.
Sting makes lute popular again
Monday October 16, 2006
After dabbling with world music and fighting to save the Brazilian rainforest, former Police frontman Sting has found a new outlet for his energies. The 55-year-old's album of Elizabethan lute music has gone straight to number one in the classical album charts - and number 24 in the pop chart.
Yesterday Sting said the album, Songs from the Labyrinth, was in part inspired by the work of 16th century composer John Dowland. The singer decided to record an album of Dowland's songs after receiving a lute as a gift from Dominic Miller, the Argentinian classical guitarist.
He said: "I became fascinated with it, and immersed myself in the lute and lute music. Then we met this guy Edin Karamazov, who is a Bosnian lute player, and we started discussing Dowland, and the idea came up of recording some songs of his for an album."
The man who first found fame in the 1970s with hits like Roxanne and Every Breath You Take said there was a link between modern pop and Dowland's work. "For me they are pop songs, beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, great accompaniments," said Sting. "I feel that my job as a pop artist is to develop as a musician, and to bring into my sphere more complex intervals, complex time signatures."
The album was a collaboration with Karamazov, and yesterday a spokesman for Deutsche Grammophon, which released Songs from the Labyrinth, said: "Sting is taking an interesting area of repertoire and popularising it." The album was fuelling a "lute renaissance".
Musicians such as Sir Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello have also moved between pop and rock and classical music. In 1996 McCartney was commissioned by EMI Records to compose an orchestral work, and Costello tested the waters of classical music in 1993 with a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters. A mini-opera by The Who will also form part of the BBC's Electric Proms, a spin-off from the classical music event.
Sting plucks lute composer from obscurity
By Martin Hodgson
Published: 16 October 2006
It has taken him about 400 years, but the Elizabethan composer John Dowland has finally achieved a number one hit, with the help of a 21st-century superstar.
An album of Dowland's Elizabethan lute music, which has been taken up by Sting, has gone straight to the top of the classical album chart, leaving the likes of Bach and Beethoven effortlessly in its wake.
For good measure, Songs from the Labyrinth also entered the pop album chart at a respectable number 24, rubbing soldiers with releases by Razorlight and Scissor Sisters. Dowland may not be the best-known early music composer, but Sting has been a fan for more than 25 years, describing his muse as the earliest known example of the "alienated singer-songwriter". The former Police frontman said Dowland's compositions "are pop songs and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics and great accompaniments". Song titles such as "Flow my tears" and "Weep you no more, Sad fountains" suggest an early exponent of the kind of angst and melancholy found in such classic Police tracks as "Can't stand Losing You".
Explaining his journey back in time, Sting said: "I feel that my job as a pop artist is to develop as a musician, and to bring into my sphere elements that aren't necessarily pop, more complex intervals, complex time signatures." In making an album of early music, he follows in the footsteps of Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello who have also recorded classical works.
Sting was first encouraged to record the collection of Dowland's music by a friend, the French classical pianist Katia Labeque, and he is accompanied on the album by the Bosnian lute virtuoso Edin Karamazov. The move into classical music marks his latest incarnation in a 30-year career in music. After turning his back on his first career as a school teacher, Sting became an icon of the New Wave with the Police. Early classics such as "Message in a Bottle" and Don't Stand so Close to me" stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. When the Police broke up, Sting re-invented himself as a jazz-tinged singer songwriter with a string of solo albums. A growing interest in the Elizabethan world was hinted at in his second album Nothing Like the Sun which took its title from Shakespeare's Sonnet number 130.
The latest album has had a mixed critical reception. One reviewer complained that the music was ruined with "a bewildering garnish of special effects, multi-tracking, and misguided arrangements," and concluded that the collection is "both much better and much worse than could be imagined,"
But whatever the critical reception, a number one spot is certain to ensure an explosion of interest in Dowland, about whose personal life little is so far known, although his Lachrimae - a collection of pavans, galliards and other dance music - has become one of the most recorded collections of the early instrumental music repertoire.
Born in 1563, Dowland converted to Catholicism in his teens and was unable to find work in the court of the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth I. After travelling through Italy for several years, he landed a post at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. He returned to England after Elizabeth's death and eventually secured work with James I.
Perhaps anticipating objection from classical music purists, Sting has sought to present Dowland's work as the pop music of its time.
"I'm not a trained singer for this repertoire, but I'm hoping that I can bring some freshness to these songs that perhaps a more experienced singer wouldn't give," he said
A spokesman for classical record label Deustche Grammophon, which released Sting's album, said it hoped the album would raise the profile of Dowland's work.
Sting: Songs from the Labyrinth