When Elvis Costello squared up to the challenge of serving as artistic director of the 1995 Meltdown festival on London's South Bank, he was taken to task by more than one critic for the crime of overreaching himself. What did he think he meant by stretching the Meltdown boundaries across so many genres, from gospel music and jazz to Renaissance viol consorts, "new music" and film soundtracks? It was reminiscent of an HM Bateman cartoon depicting a roomful of ancient curmudgeons in uproar at somebody's imagined faux par — 'the pop star who refused to sit in his pigeonhole', perhaps. The memory prompts a mordant chuckle from Costello. 'I find it quite touching to see how cherished and part of the mainstream cultural landscape Meltdown has become in the past 10 years, when you consider the horrified "the barbarians are at the gates" arts editorials when I did it,' he says.
With hindsight, Costello's Meltdown adventure can be viewed as a liberating moment in his career, prompting a series of collaborations and guest appearances that have helped his music to grow in many directions at amazing speed, like a Virginia creeper on steroids. He'd already teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet to record 1993's The Juliet Letters. Subsequently he has embarked on partnerships with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the Charles Mingus Orchestra and veteran songwriter Burt Bacharach, and displayed some of his growing compositional confidence by writing orchestrations for his 2003 album North. Earlier this year, he was co-writer on several songs from The Girl In The Other Room album by his wife, Diana Krall.
Now Costello has taken the plunge into the deep and swirling waters of full-scale orchestral composition with the recording of his ballet score Il Sogno. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra under the critical eye of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the piece began life as a commission from the Italian dance company Aterballetto who wanted a musical score for their adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sogno di una none di mezza estate, as the Italians call it), and they asked Costello to write it.
'I was extremely surprised to be asked to write a ballet score, yes,' he admits. 'Aterballetto obviously had a very free idea of what was possible and what they wanted. We talked about doing Macbeth following on from A Midsummer Night's Dream and giving it a sort of Howlin' Wolf blues feel, so it didn't necessarily follow that what I wrote had to he orchestral. But it was going to be premièred at the Teatro Conmunale in Bologna, so as there was an orchestra there it seemed to make sense that I would write it for orchestra.'
The premiere of Il Sogno took place in Bologna in 2000, and the process of bringing that first incarnation to the stage was both painful and comic. While devising separate musical strands for the different groups of characters in Shakespeare's story, Costello had used one of his favourite instruments, the sinister and shivery cimbalom, to represent the artisans. Unfortunately the orchestra didn't have one, and a Romanian cimbalom player had to be hastily whisked from Rome, where he was working in a restaurant. He did not read music, and learned the part as well as he could by ear.
Rhythmically, too, the score caused unforeseen problems. It contains several passages in a jazz or swing idiom, to the confusion of the orchestral percussionist. 'I couldn't believe it, but the percussionist who was given the drum kit apparently couldn't count to four,' frowns Costello. 'But he could play the very precisely notated percussion parts deadly accurately. I just thought the two things were the same, which was naivety on my part. There's a "feel" element that lies beyond notation, and you have to have come experience of it. What I underestimated is that musicians are human, and their experience of music colours their ability to execute a written part.'
What may he more amazing than an orchestra failing to grasp the mood-swings and stylistic twists in Il Sogno is Costello's ability to exist in so many musical genres at once. Many artists have the term 'eclectic' lobbed thoughtlessly in their direction, but it's impossible to think of another one who can match Costello's ambition and ferocious will to learn what he needs to know to take his next step forward. Any conversation with him is likely to roam over country music, blues, jazz, and classical Lieder, and Costello is well versed in all of them. During the recording of The Juliet Letters, for instance, the Brodksy Quartet members began to be nagged by the disconcerting sensation that Costello knew more about classical music than they did.
Hence, while Costello will admit that he doesn't have the same facility with orchestration and written notation as a composer who has spent years working his way through the academic machinery of music colleges and degree courses, his fists start to clench if he feels he's being dismissed as a pretentious arriviste trading on his reputation and record sales from the rough-and-tumble playground of pop.
'Obviously because I'm drawing from a lot of sources and using a lot of things that have appealed to my ear, I don't come from one school of writing. I'm sure there will be a chorus of people that go "nice try" and pat me on the head, and say "another rocker tries to do this thing to make himself look important".
Well, you know that I don't think that anyway, and this is not some side-trip. To write a piece of this scale isn't something you do part-time. The one thing it was not motivated by was making myself look important or doing it because the hits have dried up.'
There can never be any guarantees about how a composition will be greeted by critics or public, but Costello was cheered by the reception accorded to the concert version of II Sogno when the Brooklyn Philharmonic at New York’s Lincoln Center performed it in July. 'Because of the changes in mood and atmosphere and character, I think the piece is a little more difficult than it appears on paper,' Costello ponders. 'But Brad Lubman, the conductor, was incredible. He knew every little turn, every little incident, every small melodic idea. The orchestra hadn't had a lot of rehearsals, but they did remarkably well to get it up to the standard they produced.’
For the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Il Sogno, Costello was well aware that being able to make the disc at Abbey Road, with the LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas, was an opportunity that might never come again. 'You write your first orchestral piece…okay, it is 25 years or more into your career, but to do it with one of the top three orchestras in the world is an amazing experience.'
Costello fortified himself with a couple of specialists, bringing in John Harle to unleash some improvisational fireworks on saxophone and recruiting drummer Peter Erskine to add his reassuringly huge backbeat to the jazzier sections. Tilson Thomas's input as shaper and critic of the piece proved invaluable. An accomplished composer steeped in classical disciplines, while experienced in performing a broad spectrum of music, Tilson Thomas was able to distinguish what was genuinely fresh in Costello's score from what was ill-thought-out or superfluous.
'It was a great surprise for me to see this score, and from the very first notes to realise how adventurous it is harmonically,' says the conductor, whose polished suaveness and facility with a soundbite stand in droll contrast to Costello's gruff, sometimes pedantic earnestness. 'It's what we could call in classical music a polytonal quasi-dissonant sort of language that Elvis uses a lot of the time. There's some very tender music and some very irreverent, quite spiky music. If you know the music he's written over the years, those moods are present in his pop music as well.’
If he'd heard Il Sogno without knowing who had written it, how would it have struck him? 'Well, it's obviously by someone who knows and appreciates classical music, but there's an "out" quality about it that's off the normal path. You find yourself asking "is this some piece of Debussy or Prokofiev we've never heard of, or is it from now or is it some purged Russian quasi-avant-garder who bit the dust years ago?" It's puzzling to try and figure it out.'
The chief hurdle that Costello faced before recording began was to convert Il Sogno from a ballet score intended to accompany dancers onstage into an orchestral piece designed exclusively to be listened to. Some editing, rewriting and re-orchestrating was required.
'There's less reason to hear a theme repeated two or three times if you don't have the visual and dance elements, so I made a lot of cuts,' Costello points out. 'You have to make choices, and there have to he some transitions and new music written. I wanted the score to be full of quick and interesting incidents and move on, and for the next idea to he contrasting. You'd have orchestral pomp and grandeur, the folk dance and the marches — particularly for Bottom where he's bullying everybody — then the fairy music initially being more swinging, then getting a little bit more malevolent as the characters get thoroughly entangled. Michael asked me lots of challenging questions about what was happening in specific bars, and why. I'd say "that's where the dancers do something", and he'd say "but they won't he there!"
So Tilson Thomas can be a sharp critic? 'Oh, he was a great critic!' Costello enthuses. 'As you know, I'm not the greatest fan of modern criticism, not because critics have anything bad to say about my work — although sometimes they do — but because it usually betrays such crass ignorance of almost everything. Modern so-called criticism is just a lot of cultural posturing and name-calling, and expressions of fear and dread because something lies outside the sphere of influence of the writer. So having somebody of Michael's credential, and experience and understanding and generosity look at your work is a remarkable experience.'
Invigorated by Tilson Thomas's bracing observations, Elvis closeted himself away for a couple of weeks of intensive revisions, and emerged clutching the finished score, which now runs at just over an hour. In the studio, communication between composer and conductor, and conductor and orchestra, sometimes depended on their own verbal shorthand and idiosyncratic gestures. As a singer, Costello can express the fine nuances of his songs instinctively, but conveying his intentions to the LSO was a more complicated matter. At times, he displayed uncharacteristic symptoms of uncertainty.
'He’d play something and I'd say "should this he more this way or that way?",' says Tilson Thomas. 'He'd say "I thought it was lovely the way you played it". I'd say "that's very kind, but what exactly do you want us to do here?" He will get there, but it's this process, particularly coming from the jazz or rock world, where we all have certain ways we sing things. I remember when I worked with Jascha Heifetz, he sang everything to the syllables "deedle-deedledydle-deedle", so every tune was "deedle-dydle, deedle-deedle-deedle". With Elvis it's kiwi of "boo-boo-boo-boo, shoo-boo-da-doo, woo-woo-wow". So I go "well what exactly does that translate to? How many notes are connected, how many are staccato?" In fact I encouraged him to sing to the orchestra, because it's much more direct and more fun if, rather than saying "gentlemen, we should have four notes rather legato and then two rather staccato", he says "boo-woo-woo, ah-aaah!"
Eventually the final bars were nailed down, the orchestra were free to pack up their instruments and dash off to their next engagement, and Elvis could exercise the other half of his brain by playing gigs with his rock hand, The Imposters. Sometimes the programmatic nature of Il Sogno's composition shows through in its episodic construction, with jarring juxtapositions concertina-ing into each other like trucks in a derailed freight train. 'Puck One' sounds like Tsarist orchestral music, ‘The Court' rams together French Impressionism with ear-splitting brass, and 'Workers' Playtime' resembles Hungarian folk music. ‘Oberon Humbled’ is distinctly Bartokian, and there’s more than a hint of klezmer music in ‘Twisted Entanglement’. Elsewhere you catch fleeting glimpses of Broadway shows, Hollywood soundtracks and what might be stray fragments from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. As New York magazine commented following the Lincoln Center performance, it 'still sounds more like a compilation than an organically developed symphonic conception — but then, so do the great Tchaikovsky ballet scores'.
Composer and saxophonist John Harle, who worked with Elvis at Meltdown and on us own album Terror And Magnificence, was recruited for the II Sogno sessions to 'create chaos, basically,' as he puts it. 'He wanted a kind of wild and pagan saxophone sound to dislodge the order and precision of the rest of the orchestral stuff.'
Like Tilson Thomas, Harle has been amazed by Costello's determination and perseverance. ‘He's really focused on learning the nuts and bolts of written classical music, in a way that shows incredible application for somebody who has achieved as much as he has. He went back and learned it from scratch. Now he's written this piece and orchestrated it himself and found a musical language that's his own, and there aren't many people who could do that.'
Or at least, Elvis has used so many different musical languages that it's impossible to define the results. 'The composer I would parallel this with is Alfred Schnittke,' Harle suggests. 'He used different styles within single pieces as a kind of collage of ideas. I do that to some extent in my own pieces, and I would call it a kind of musical surrealism.'
Intriguingly, both Harle and Costello have collaborated with Paul McCartney, though in separate musical spheres. Costello co-wrote pop songs with Fab Macca, while Harle has assisted Sir Paul in the creation of his classical-ish works such as Ecce Cor Meum or Standing Stone (nicknamed 'Stumbling Block' by sceptics). Might there be comparisons to be drawn between the way each of them approaches writing extended pieces for classical instrumentation?
'I think the process is very different,' says Harle. 'Elvis is very intent on doing everything himself, whereas I think Paul would jealously guard what he regard as the almost primitivism of not being able to read any music at all. He would see having the facility to read music as possibly a negative influence on his creativity, and that's how he has explained it to me. He once said the Egyptian pharaohs didn't learn to read and write because they had people to do that for them. I don't know if he saw himself quite in that role, hut he certainly said it.'
Costello will, hopefully, guard against such imperial pretensions, but his horizons continue to expand. For the immediate future he will he touring with The Imposters in support of a new rock album, The Delivery Man. Later he may derive an orchestral suite, or possibly two, from Il Sogno, for the benefit of orchestras who might want to perform it but don't have a jazz drummer or a cimbalom specialist readily to hand.
And he's working on a new composition for the Royal Danish Opera, to coincide with the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth in 2005. It will he a chamber opera, taking as its starting point Andersen's ill-starred infatuation with the soprano Jenny Lind, 'the Swedish Nightingale'. 'A misfit guy with a misplaced ambition to do something with an unrequited love for an unattainable woman — I can't understand why that would appeal to me at all,' reports Costello laconically. You can't help wondering how he finds the time.