Interview with EC about For The Stars
Irish Times, 2001-03-31
- Arminta Wallace


From opera to popera

How many musicians can play and write rock 'n' roll and classical music - and stay cool? But, Elvis Costello tells Arminta Wallace, he's doing more than just looking for the 'next new thing'

CROSSOVER: In theory it's a terrific concept: musicians leaping over barriers to embrace each other across the chasm which opened up in the last century between "popular" and "classical" forms of music. In practice, it has led to a string of aural abominations, from switched-on Bach to tenors doing tango. However good the intentions, the gulf has often proved unbridgeable - for obvious reasons. Say "popular" to the average opera singer, and they think you mean Rodgers and Hart. Setting out to make a "pop" record, they seek advice from music industry insiders, and end up singing Celine Dion in the style of Puccini.

Getting these independently orbiting musical planets to meet without producing the musical equivalent of an asteroid crash would appear to be a job for a new kind of sonic superhero.

Somebody who wanders happily between musical genres, not because it's profitable or fashionable, but out of genuine interest. Enter Elvis Costello: one-time punk, rock legend, chart success and all the rest of it, an acclaimed wordsmith who has worked with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney. A composer who has written a number of perfectly kosher pieces in the contemporary classical idiom.

A man who knows about blues and country but who also goes to classical gigs - real gigs, not classical chewing gum like The Barber of Seville or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. About 10 or so years ago, he went to Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and was highly taken by the performance of the lead singer, a Swedish mezzo-soprano with a remarkable record in, above all, baroque opera.

He gradually got to know her, one musical thing led to another, and the two of them have now produced a remarkable record of a different kind.

Praised for her serious approach and almost austere musicality, Anne Sofie Von Otter is possibly the last person you'd expect to find popping up on an alt.opera album - let alone an album of songs by Abba, The Beach Boys and Tom Waits. Why did she do it? Not for the thrill of working with a rock legend, anyhow. By her own admission, she has never been to a rock concert and would, before they met, have been hard pressed to name a song by Elvis Costello, let alone sing one.

"I had a vague idea that he was an angry, young man," she told the Daily Telegraph with deliciously diva-esque disdain, "which is not my cup of tea." Yet, as the publicity material for the album points out, it was she who asked him to produce an album for her, not the other way around.

That album, For The Stars, has just been released by Deutsche Grammophon - a label once synonymous with the late Herbert Von Karajan's recordings of Beethoven's symphonies. What the famously crusty conductor would make of a mezzo abandoning her spangly frock for a leather jacket, grabbing a microphone, tousling her hair, and launching into tunes by Ron Sexsmith and Reuben Blades, God - or maybe the other guy - alone knows.

On the phone from London on a misty March morning, however, a calm, chatty Costello is sanguine about the treacherous classical/popular divide. When he worked with the Brodsky string quartet, he says, he was pleasantly surprised to find they knew about football and pop music and didn't operate from some sort of musical ivory tower. But then it works both ways. "It's often assumed that all rock 'n' roll people are barbarians.

Isn't there a story in Miles Davis's biography about somebody giving him records of Debussy and Stravinsky, and he says "they assumed I hadn't heard these things . . ."? They were making a cultural, or even a racial assumption about him, and I think it's dangerous to do that. Some of the most sealed minds are highly creative, and some are self-defeating, and you can find people who are almost recklessly Catholic in their endeavours in both popular and classical music." He pauses, then a chuckle follows the static down the line. "Although I don't know if there is such a thing as being recklessly Catholic - I mean, with a small `c'. Or maybe the other one as well . . ."

The standards which apply to classical music demand that classical musicians shut themselves away and practice, he says; that doesn't mean they can't relate to other types of music, just that they rarely get the chance. Rock musicians mostly learn by trial and error, listening and working things out as they go along. "I've had classical musicians who are agog that I can just sit down and play the piano in my own cack-handed, completely unschooled fashion and apparently - to their ears - be improvising. In fact, I've just memorised a very rudimentary accompaniment, but to them that's like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, because they can't play at all unless there's music in front of them."

Costello learned to read music at the age of 35, when he recorded The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. "But that doesn't mean I'm a thoroughly schooled, classically trained musician. I'm a sort of half-trained, half-tamed thing." Some pop people are phobic about learning to read music, he says.

"Paul McCartney won't learn to read music because he fears it might affect the natural flow - and if you have his gift for melody I'd be inclined to suggest that you should leave it alone. "For myself, I was actually feeling frustration at not being able to communicate more clearly to the musicians who use the code that is music. When the code was stamping your feet and waving your arms about and playing old Bo Diddley records, then that worked: and it worked for the first 20 years of my career. But maybe for the next 20, I need a couple of more techniques, that's all."

The ability to manipulate dots on a page led to the composition of, among other things, a set of three concert songs for Anne Sofie Von Otter, a song called Put Away Forbidden Playthings for the early music ensemble Fretwork, recently given its Irish première in Dublin Castle, and a 90-minute ballet score. The latter, written for an Italian dance company's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, seems to represent a movement away from the traditional rock musician's role of write/sing/record and towards a more "classical" pattern of write it down/leave it to others; a process, Costello says, he is beginning to enjoy.

"It was really, really satisfying to hear these sounds that I had only imagined emerge from the orchestra. A classically-trained orchestrator would probably pick holes in it, technically speaking - but most of the effects were those that I sought to achieve. "And it's an exciting thing when a piece takes on a life of its own - Put Away Forbidden Playthings has been performed in countries I've never played in, like Israel. It has become a piece of repertoire. Not as big a piece as The Messiah or something, but it does travel around and have an independent life, and there's something quite attractive about that, you know? It's another way of doing things."

The same might be said of For The Stars, which takes the "opera diva sings pop" formula and turns it into something worth listening to. Classical heads will be astounded by the way Von Otter's voice has been stripped down to basics, leaving a breathy, jazzy sound but retaining her extraordinary range and her ability to spin a truly beautiful phrase.

Rock heads may be disappointed by the fact that Costello all too-rarely joins in - but then, his stamp is all over the album, from the arrangements to the miking techniques to the choice of songs. Von Otter says she had a ball in the studio - "every song has been like unwrapping a present" - but to make For The Stars at all was, for an established opera star, an unconventional move. She could have gone the "safe" route and released a selection of Rodgers and Hart into the void.

Unconventional approaches obviously interest Costello, with his forays into blues and country, his collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, and now his classical projects. Is there any kind of music he doesn't like? "I'm not a terribly big fan of kind of lumpy rock music with a dull beat.

I like a lot of loud music, but I find the rhythm of a lot of rock really predictable; I prefer the rhythms and production design of modern r 'n' b." Which will reassure fans of the Costello who wrote Oliver's Army that he's not planning to abandon songwriting for the more esoteric joys of abstract music. Or is he? Another chuckle crackles down the line. "I'm not planning to write anything. I probably will write some songs, because it's been a while since I had some songs of my own to sing.

"But I don't sit down and think: `Well, now that I've written this ballet score I'm going to write a symphony'. I don't think that way. And I didn't go in search of different kinds of music to try out - it's not like, `and next it will be Siberian whale-fishers' songs' or something. It just sort of comes up, and usually in a very organic way. I mean, in the early 1980s, I was recording in a studio here in London where Paul McCartney was also working. I got to know him and Linda through being in adjacent studios; we became friends and wrote some songs together. Again, I was invited to write a song for a one-off occasion with Burt Bacharach and that developed because it was so productive.

"It's really great to have worked with these two tremendous songwriters. But that's 24 songs against the 275 that I've written on my own. Actually, I don't know exactly how many songs I've written, but I know it's somewhere around the 300 mark." Not quite up to Schubert's total, then? "Not quite. But then I hope to live twice as long as he did, so maybe I'll catch up. And of course Schubert didn't go on tour much . . ."


For The Stars is released by Deutsche Grammophon