Years ago, I worked with a drummer who showed up at one gig unable to play his bass drum, for reason of having spent the previous night with a ballerina, via which his dick was chapped. This cautionary tale is practically all I know about the intriguing world of dance. In the program notes to the Aterballetto Co.'s A Midsummer Night's Dream, Elvis Costello admits to knowing scarcely more than dick about dance. That didn't, of course, keep him from plunging ahead and composing the music to the ballet when asked by Mauro Bigonzetti, the creative director/choreographer of the esteemed and forward-reaching Italian dance company. Midsummer makes its American debut Friday and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
We could do the litany here of how Costello has navigated between the worlds of Mingus and McCartney, Bacharach and Brodsky, and so many other ands. Suffice it to say that there may be no musician living who has fearlessly assayed such a broad mix of musical styles or brought so much to them as Costello.
Having released probably the best album of the year in When I Was Cruel, Costello remains on tour until November with his rock outfit the Imposters (including an Oct. 1 stop at the Long Beach Terrace Theatre). Other projects include completing a "story song sequence" called The Delivery Man, which he hopes to record in Nashville next year, and writing songs to accompany the Midsummer orchestral music for release on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
On tour in Australia with the Imposters, Costello responded to our admittedly fawning questions via e-mail.
OC Weekly: I'm ignorant of how ballets are constructed. Does the music come first or the choreography? Did you go off and compose on your own, or was there much trial-and-error and back-and-forth? Elvis Costello: After initial joint discussions, I worked alone in Dublin with a written description of Mauro Bigonzetti's intended choreography (mood, tempi and duration) and Nicola Lusuardi's dramatic outline derived from Shakespeare. I was in Italy on three occasions. For my initial meeting with Mauro, Nicola and their colleague, Karl Burnett, who was invaluable in interpreting and communicating intentions—on this occasion, we attended a very impressive dance adaptation of Dante's Paradiso. After a period of composing, I visited the Aterballetto studio in Reggio Emilia with a series of new themes that would be the basis of each cue. These were either played, rather haltingly, on the piano or in demos that I had made at home. We then discussed any necessary changes or adaptations, and I began work on the full score.
Initially, I wrote a "short score" and orchestrated from that, but toward the middle of the 10-week composing period in Dublin, I had to abandon this method in order to complete the work in time and began orchestrating directly onto the manuscript paper for the 60-piece orchestra. All of the writing was done manually with a pencil.
In the 10 days before the premiere, I attended rehearsals in Bologna and was able to work with the company's musical director and the Orchestra of the Teatro Communale and their conductor on the final amendments to the score and the agreements about the ideal tempi and dynamic. Inevitably, there was the occasional breakdown of communication; for example, the requirement for a cimbalom (hammer dulcimer) player had been misunderstood as a request for a harpsichordist. With four days to spare, a non-sight-reading Rumanian folk musician was located playing in a restaurant in Rome and engaged to learn the part by ear. He did a splendid job.
Did you check out previous ballet or filmic approaches to Midsummer Night's Dream, or did you prefer going into the project fresh?
I deliberately did not listen to any other adaptations at the time of writing, although I was familiar with the Mendelssohn ballet music and the Britten opera. I tried my best to resist the temptation to use the same solutions to various puzzles presented by the source material.
Does writing for ballet, your own band, the Mingus band, the Brodsky, Johnny Cash et al. draw from different areas of emotion or skill, or is it all just music? What, to you, is the essential element in music, whether it's James Carr or Anne Sofie von Otter?
The technical aspects are obviously very different, but essentially, I am trying to tell a story or summon up a mood or emotion. I see no real difference other than in the method with which this is achieved.
Do you feel some obligation to make the most of the talents you've developed? While you seem busier than any three other artists, no one else comes to mind who also shows quite so much knowledge and respect for a range of music that has gone before or who works so hard to add to those varied forms. Can you say what drives you?
Pardon the brief answer, but I really believe that is all the result of curiosity and love.
A number of talented artists have told me they go through their careers feeling like imposters, with that "at the exam in pajamas" angst. When scoring for an orchestra, writing alongside McCartney or singing with Tony Bennett, do you ever have your doubts?
I try never to bluff the musicians and colleagues with whom I am working. I am always forthright about being a comparative novice in the notated form. However, I had written more than 200 songs before I learned to write music down. It hasn't been too much of an inhibition. I did once appear on a TV special in the '80s with Tony Bennett and Count Basie and his orchestra. I had lost my voice at an Attractions show the night before, and that was as close as I ever got to feeling the way you describe. Still, I wouldn't trade anything for having shared the stage with the Count. I got to sing with Tony on his Unplugged show, so he knows I can do a better job, and I even got to sing with the Basie band in London many years later, and I think a few in the saxophone section were surprised to find that, on a good night, I can hold a tune.
What music are you enjoying lately?
Dr. Ralph Stanley's new album [titled Ralph Stanley] on D.M.Z., Tom Waits' remarkable new albums Alice and Blood Money, and Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up on Me. I should declare an interest in this last choice. My wife, Cait, and I have a song called "The Judgement" on that one.
I hear a lot of artistic malaise about and wonder if this isn't a response to the world at large—the Bush presidency; the consolidation of power to the top 1 percent; global warming; innocents killed to revenge the death of innocents; and ever so much more. There certainly aren't too many singers today chirruping, "We can change the world" with any conviction. What keeps you motivated?
In the words of Oscar Wilde (later borrowed by Chrissie Hynde—you go, girl), "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Aterballetto Co's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 740-2000. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $15-$55.