Stewart Copeland‘s gregarious personality is only outgunned by the obvious joy he expresses for his work. The composer and veteran performer (most often known for his years as the drumming third of The Police) will see his chamber opera, Tell-Tale Heart, get its U.S. premiere with four Long Beach Opera performances May 11-19, as half of a double bill with Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh. Copeland took some time to talk with us this week about Poe, composing and working with many influences:
The opera is based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, one of the author’s most famous works. Although this opera’s first transition to the stage, in the original commission for a chamber space at the Royal Opera House in London, was quite involved — Copeland was involved in nearly all aspects of the production, as well as “getting everything to the page” — he credits this second experience as being remarkably stress-free: “Now that the baby has grown up, we can send it out into the world and see what someone else will do with it.” His obvious respect for artistic director Andreas Mitisek‘s vision is key to this relaxed attitude, but he also shows confidence in his own preparations: “I’ve put the important elements on the page, and have to let them evolve.”
Copeland clearly connects strongly with the original work’s author, and has his own take on the poet’s work, which he admits he’s stated often: “If Mark Twain is the Beatles of American literature, then Poe is the Rolling Stones.” It’s an apt (and memorable) observation, and illustrates both the composer’s admiration for the brooding wordsmith and his love of irony: you can hear the grin through the phone when Copeland says that he loves that the American public, in a country usually so upbeat and cheerful, has so embraced a native son with Poe’s darkness.
That sort of dichotomy seems to define the multi-faceted talents of this creator, too: while Copeland is best known by the general public for his work in rock and pop, he has been more active as a composer of film scores and fine art music for nearly three decades, with twenty years’ worth of films to his credit as well as orchestral and chamber works and several other operas. In addition to his performances under a plethora of labels such as jazz, reggae, post-punk, and more, it is the film work that he credits with his ability to juggling multiple influences: “The beauty of film composing is that it’s like bootcamp…you get your nose rubbed in every genre, every timbre.” He puts the resulting palette to good use, and doesn’t shy away from mixing colors and textures.
Much of his free-spirited approach may be rooted in his musical journey: he studied music in college and learned bona fide compositional fundamentals in a traditional environment, and listening to his work leaves no doubt that he possesses the skills and understanding of his craft that too many “career composers” on more traditional paths lack. But the way he describes his creative process tends to sound more like a songwriter than the typical “serious” composer. Copeland doesn’t dwell on creating his pieces in terms of what chord he’s using or how the progression should go. His approach is freer, both illustrating and transcending the divide in working styles between typical classical and rock musicians: whereas classical studio musicians, for instance, are trained and conditioned to “read batshit”, because they face new scores every day, they can’t necessarily improvise at the same time: tell them to vamp for eight bars, and it seems to require a different part of the brain. “They’re either reading, or not,” usually working with their eyes, focusing on accurately bringing to life the music they see on the page. “Players”, however, can ride the music like a surfer, allowing the instrument itself to reveal the notes.
But in the end, it’s all about creating music that works. “So many composers are afraid to write a pretty tune,” and Copeland has plenty of stories of dinner-party arguments that ensue as composers so often denigrate their colleagues more “accessible” work. He admits to an astute suspicion that for some, that fear might be more deeply rooted in a defensive desire to maintain “an excuse for obscurity”, which gives us all much to think about.
Most of his time now is spent composing works for orchestras and others to perform: the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing one of his works for percussion and orchestra on May 14. But playing rock and other styles is still an active hobby: he often hosts jams with a wide variety of other musicians at his Santa Monica studio, the Sacred Grove, where they create and have fun and film the results — there are quite a few videos online, featuring the likes of former bandmates from The Police, Animal Logic, and colleagues like the guys from Rush, Snoop Dogg and even Jeremy Piven. “We had Stanley Clarke and Ben Harper over just the other day — they’d never met each other.” More connections made — through it all, Stewart Copeland is a born bridge-builder.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Stewart Copeland and Van Gogh by Michael Gordon will be performed as a double bill by Long Beach Opera on May 11 (8pm), May 18 (2pm and 8pm) and May 19 (7pm) at the Expo Arts Center in Long Beach.
Tickets are $29-160: check availability here.
We also spoke with Michael Gordon this week — click here.