Sitting in a restaurant in Dublin, Elvis Costello is having a go at the dandified London journalists who say he's gone soft after his days as a punk rocker. "It was the Brandenburg Concertos and Billy J Kramer from the age of eight," he asserts passionately over his angel-hair pasta. "I was never a punk. We were just an unhinged rock 'n' roll band indulging ourselves. Punk had more to do with street theatre than music. But I'm not knocking it."
Nevertheless, most people still see Costello as rooted in the late 1970s. A recent TV advert for The Best Punk Record Ever showed a clip of Costello as he was, a pigeon-toed, pumped-up Buddy Holly with a fine sneer to his voice and an angular, aggressive stage presence.
Costello is trying to explain he hasn't changed a bit, it's only the perception of him that's changed. "I'm a third-generation musician; my grandfather was a trumpet-player on cruise liners in the 1930s and my father was a vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra at the Hammersmith Palais for 16 years. They were really big and did radio and TV broadcasts — London cabbies still remember him. Actually he's got a better voice than me."
His mother worked in record stores and played classical music to her son, who displayed early musical ability but never received any formal training. "I suppose my mother influenced my taste in the field of classical music, though personally I don't accept the artificial distinction between types of music. She played me bits of Mozart and Grieg, tuneful things. She worked at Rushworths in Liverpool, and as Rushworths also sold tickets for the Liverpool Philharmonic, my mother often did overtime working as an usherette at the Philharmonia concerts and smuggled me into a few of them. Even now I'm surprised by who she's seen. I just bought an Artur Schnabel recording and she said, 'Oh yes, I saw him too!'."
With this background knowledge, one is less surprised by Costello's recent forays into the classical field — collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet, raving about Purcell and Monteverdi, working with Fretwork (scoring for viol and counter-tenor voice) and programming for the South Bank's classical music season Meltdown '95.
Rock stars have often made a stab at classical music. Costello's friend and collaborator Paul McCartney's post-"Eleanor Rigby" experiments have taken him into Liverpool Cathedral, where his Oratorio for 300 voices was performed. McCartney's new piano piece "Leaf" will be performed at the Royal College of Music (helped along by Costello and the Brodsky Quartet) in a charity gig. David Byrne of Talking Heads hired some of Stockhausen's musicians to record the "classical" piece The Forest in 1992. Frank Zappa worked with composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. Joe Jackson, Annie Lennox and Steve Nieve occasionally let their classical pedigree show.
But Costello is unusual in regarding classical music as a field to be explored rather than merely looted for interesting sounds (we ali know those pop songs, like Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," that are really classical pieces in pop drag).
What's even more unusual is that in November 1991 Costello hired someone to teach him how to write using musical notation. He has since finished several commissions involving complete scores for 13 instruments. "I just reached the point where I had been round the houses a few times with the rock 'n' roll stuff. I had got a bit disenchanted. The sense of new surprises was diminishing and I started to get curious about other areas of music. It all came together when Cait (Costello's wife, the bassist Cait O'Riordan) and I were about to move to Ireland in 1989. One evening we just didn't feel like going to yet another rock concert and getting bored again. So we looked through the paper and picked a venue at random, which happened to be the Wigmore Hall."
Costello's understanding of music is part mystical, part pragmatic. He seeks technical mastery, but has the imagination to wonder why music works. His decision to learn how to score grew from his frustration at being unable to communicate complex musical ideas quickly to the Brodsky Quartet, when they were working together on The Juliet Letters. This collaboration sprang from Costello's frequent attendance of the group's concerts. They met, got on, and almost immediately agreed to do "some sort of project" together.
The result was The Juliet Letters (themed about letters sent to the Shakespeare heroine). The piece was recorded in Crouch End on analogue tape (like classical musicians, Costello prefers it), and Costello and the four members of the quartet shared the writing credits. "At first, the members of the Brodsky transcribed the things I wrote, and the bowing and phrasing was amended by themselves. But by the end, the last two songs I wrote on my own, and I wrote out the score in full in four-part."
Brodsky member Paul Cassidy confirms the group's admiration at Costello's skill: "He learned musical notation incredibly quickly. When we met in November 1991 he didn't know what a crotchet was. People take years to do what he did in a month."
McCartney has avoided learning to read or write music, mainly for superstitious reasons. "To me, music is something more magical than black dots on the page," he has said. "I agree with him to a point," says Costello. "I've made sure I still have some blind spots, where happy accidents can happen. But I don't agree with him that it's creatively inhibiting to be able to actually write down music."
Costello was soon on the mailing lists of all the major classical music venues, and began to plan his frequent trips back to London from Dublin around an Andras Schiff performance — or whatever was interesting him at the time.
"Soon we were getting to two or three concerts a week. At first what we went to were all the obvious, famous pieces — but I was immediately struck by the convention of having a little-known work tacked on to the end of a programme, and often this would be a real discovery."
He didn't end up liking all classical music: "After a while I developed the confidence not to have to wade through things I didn't like — and there were things I found I didn't like. I cannot stand the Beethoven Triple Concerto. I have no interest in Puccini and a lot of opera at the Royal Opera House, simply because I feel too much importance is given to fussy production values, and too little attention is paid to the music."
He even finds classical music more go-ahead than pop in some ways: "Live classical music is so dynamic. A lot of pop music seems quite conservative in comparison. It doesn't allow any danger and people hedge their bets with it. Take a piece like You Sacred Muses by Byrd — it pulls further away than anything you can do now. I've been looking at Purcell's Fantasias recently, and found myself thinking I haven't done anything as wayward as Purcell has — it doesn't come naturally to me. I love his elegies on the death of Queen Mary: the closing bars of my favourite of those is extremely chromatic and quite unsettling. Suddenly the ground feels it's giving way beneath you. I couldn't believe my reaction at first. Why am I getting upset about the death of Queen Mary, I thought? It's not in my background to cry for Queen Mary."
An added bonus of his new-found technical knowledge is that he can go back to old favourites and see them in a new light. He sings a Schubert song — the other restaurant diners look round, but Costello couldn't care. He then sings a Roy Orbison song by way of comparison and remarks on the subtle resemblances.
"I'm keen to find those elusive spiritual and emotional links in music," he explains. This is why his programming for Meltdown '95 looks so promising; Brian Wilson mixes with a Scarlatti sonata and a Shostakovich prelude. "I look at Wilson's Pet Sounds and really see how it's put together. I also can't help noticing how certain modern dance tracks are constructed like classical compositions: the "found" sounds, the use of percussion, the layering effects of bands like Portishead and Arrested Development."
I said the string music he'd put together on The Juliet Letters was quite conventional Brahms, Schubert and Shostakovich — with almost no references to quartet music written over the last 50 years, although the string quartet is very popular with contemporary composers. Costello was nonplussed: "I just did what I wanted, what seemed right." Not only does he see no difference between classical and pop music, he sees no difference between new and old music. Like McCartney, he's a melodist, yet he seemed intrigued by the idea — often stated to me by a composer friend — that "all pop music is using 18th-century musical principles".
Costello doesn't believe you can "jazz up" classical music for a pop audience. But he feels classical music can learn something from pop. "There's a puritan thing about letting the music flow cleanly through you," he observes. He wants to hear those cellists feel soul. He revealed he was devouring books about Elgar, Prokofiev and Mozart. He's introducing his teenage son to classical records "just so that. when the time is right, he'll know what to do". Perhaps his son will go to hear him sing John Dowland songs, as he intends, on the South Bank in June. Costello singing 16th-century bucolics? Punk's safety-pinned body must be spinning in its catafalque. "I've never done anything that wasn't out of a wholehearted passion for music", he says. "Life's too short not to enjoy these wonderful possibilities."
Elvis Costello at Meltdown '95, South Bank Centre, London 23 June - 1 July, tel 928 8800. Hear him on Celebrity Choice, 12 noon, 14 May, Classic FM.