Ken Walton: Stewart Copeland rocks his new concerto

Stewart Copeland isn’t the first rock musician to try his hand at composing for a symphony orchestra, but the former drummer and co-founder of The Police has probably had more success than most in crossing the great divide.

He’s already scored classical hits with an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror The Tell-Tale Heart for London’s Royal Opera House. He’s written for ballet and extensively for film, and three years ago composed a concerto for gamelan and orchestra for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the luscious string writing of which showed that a rock drummer’s ear isn’t necessarily deaf to the subtleties of orchestration.

Copeland’s latest symphonic escapade is a percussion concerto, Poltroons in Paradise, which the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under its chief conductor Vasily Petrenko, and featuring its own percussion section as the solo protagonists, performs at the Perth Festival tomorrow evening, having premiered it last night in Liverpool.

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The title refers to an imagined scenario of victorious young idealistic revolutionaries – poltroons are “foolish people” – who stride through the palace of a regime they have overthrown, only to find temptation in the chandeliers, brocade and fine paintings all around them.

Copeland needs a visual image or storyline to kickstart the compositional process. “It’s very challenging to write absolute music. Writing a concerto is like starting with a blank slate, and then where do you go?”

It’s completely different from his gamelan concerto. “There the trick was getting to grips with the strange tonality of Indonesian instruments. This new one is for normal western orchestral percussion, though I probably use them differently from classical composers,” he explains.

It’s at this point that Copeland starts talking like a rocker; the guy who still gets kicks from inviting pals like Ben Harper or Stanley Clarke around to jam in “the obligatory rock star’s studio” in his Californian home – a facility “that’s all wired up, time checked and ready to record”, and filled with every conceivable instrument bought on eBay. “I just hit the button and the entire room goes into record,” says Copeland, who then releases the recordings on YouTube “just for the love of music”.

Old rock habits die hard when it comes to orchestral composition, he admits. “In Poltroons in Paradise I use the percussion as a rhythm section, whereas in much of classical music they’re used as punctuation. Percussionists normally have to do a lot of counting, and vast stretches of time go by before they get to do their crash, bang or wallop. I keep them working. It’s written with a view to them breaking into a sweat, which I bring from my rock ‘n roll past.”

As the son of a CIA man who played jazz (and an archaeologist mother from Leith), he grew up with music buzzing around him, many strains of it. “My dad brought me up to be the jazz musician I’m not. But equally, I was raised on Ravel, Stravinsky, Orff and the kind of 20th-century music that went over the threshold. That’s really what stuck. I had an interlude with rock‘n’roll because I went through an adolescence like everyone, picked up the guitar and drums and had myself a hell of a time.”

Mozart and Beethoven didn’t do it for him. “I can appreciate their harmonic dexterity, but there’s no mystique. It’s not till you get to the more modern guys that I really begin to get emotionally engaged.”

As anyone familiar with his rhythmically charged orchestral works and film scores will recognise, that’s exactly where Copeland gets his inspiration. “The only way for me to really write for orchestra is to study the scores that get to me, so I’m up to my elbows in Rite of Spring, La Mer, and I’ve studied Aaron Copland, Orff’s Carmina Burana, and John Williams, too. If you look at the chart of Star Wars, it’s absolutely a masterpiece, even if you don’t like the music.”

I’m wondering, though, to what extent Copeland can ever shake off his rock star love of the theatrical, especially in a piece that highlights the biggest show-offs in the orchestra. “Okay, there’s a lot of showbusiness involved, and that sounds very crass,” he says. “But I think it’s an honest artistic factor. Music’s a two-way street; you gotta engage.

“Rock‘n’roll moves that bar back a little bit towards participation. Yo Yo Ma doesn’t walk onto the stage and say ‘How y’all doin’, and elicit a response. But rock‘n’roll is all about eliciting a physical response. It gets people dancing. I hope to bring some of that to the orchestral world.”

It’s 30 years since The Police broke up, amid reports of professional rivalry – the split was precipitated by co-founder Sting’s criticism of Copeland and Andy Summers as songwriters, and his decision to go it alone. But Copeland doesn’t think much about it any more.

“It was a wonderful thing, and it has its place up there on the shelf. I’m reminded of it more than I think about it.” And there’s no sign of lingering bad blood. “I wrote the songs in the very early days when we were crap. Things began to look up when Sting started writing them,” he muses. “It’s about five years since we worked together. But we get along great. We don’t talk about music.”

Each has gone his own way, with Copeland engaged in major compositional projects as varied as his epic concert score for the 1925 silent film Ben Hur, which the Chicago Symphony is soon to perform, and this weekend’s concerto. Each to his own.

Stewart Copeland’s Poltroons in 
Paradise is performed at Perth 
Concert Hall tomorrow by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra as part of this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts,