Spotted among the audience at last year's Wexford Opera Festival was a figure hitherto not associated with the brand of music purveyed at such recitals. It appears that Elvis Costello, who once travelled to Nashville to record Almost Blue, is now more likely to be found in the back rows of intimate halls where a small-scale, austere music is performed by ensembles such as the British-based Brodsky Quartet. "He has attended a huge amount of classical music concerts in the past three years," Philip King confirms.
However, Costello is not one to rest on his laurels. When this writer went in search of him before Christmas he was already ensconced in studio recording his next (strictly rock) album and it was impossible to talk to him — apparently he takes extra care with his voice when recording. Otherwise, he presumably talks as volubly as one remembers in the Gresham some years back, when he spent upwards of an hour talking about his favourite records.
"I think the thing that is magnificent about Elvis Costello," says Philip King, "is that he is a truly creative artist. He is a writer who continues to write in different forms and in different ways. There is a whole mixture of music in this man: his background is musical, his father worked with the Joe Loss Orchestra. However, it's the excitement of the new form that gives him the impetus to do what he does, and this film unfolds the story of how he and The Brodsky Quartet met and the way in which they wrote the songs."
Philip King's award-winning series Bringing it All Back Home established his reputation as a filmmaker. He recorded part of this new film at a live concert at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, where, in an introductory speech, Costello explained to the audience how it all came about. "This (The Juliet Letters) comes from a small newspaper article regarding a Veronese professor — a professor from Verona— and for a few years he took it on himself to answer all the letters addressed to Juliet Capulet — to Shakespeare's Juliet. Now, quite what was in these letters I can only guess or we can only guess. After all, these people were writing to an imaginary woman, and a dead imaginary woman at that. But we thought that it was a beautiful gesture that he took on himself and we decided that the form of the letter would be our inspiration." There are a host of characters represented in The Juliet Letters, and Costello as singer becomes them all. "It is not in the end a voice and a string quartet — it's more like a vocal quintet, because each of the instruments has a voice, and there is a a great acoustic harmony in the whole affair." A child's note, a suicide letter, a love letter, and a negative response to a begging letter feature among the themes of the twenty songs. Philip talks about how the material was written, and explains the genesis of "Dear Sweet Filthy World," the song which features the suicide letter. "Costello and the Brodsky Quartet all went home one night and they did their homework —every one of them had to write a suicide note, and they came back the next day to see what each had done.
"Letters are intimate by nature, they are personal, and they are personally driven. Quartet music was composed by the composers almost as their private, intimate music, the music which they used to harbour intimate and private thoughts." Nevertheless, Philip King stresses that there are "big songs and big melodies" in The Juliet Letters. "It seems that this collaboration could be a collision between two different musical styles, but it is in fact a coming together of two different musical traditions. The music, the words and the songs are the sum of all of the people who are involved. "
Paul Cassidy of The Brodsky Quartet comments: "Elvis probably learnt a lot from us, on Quartets, how we work the sounds, the structure of the Debussy quartet… I learnt from him the structure of the song…"
Both Costello, and King, as mediator through film of this very daring adventure, insist on a take-it-or-leave-it approach, stressing that it is not for either to decide how the listener should react, or what meaning to take out of any given song. "It is not for me to define the music," King declares, "Elvis Costello himself says 'I know what I think about this song, but I'm not going to tell you what to think about this song, you make up your own mind'." However, interviews with Costello and members of the Brodsky Quartet used throughout the film provide useful insights into the nature of this unique collaboration.
The filmmaker is fully aware that the project will have its detractors. "These people are there to be shot down, particularly when they do anything new. However, the majority of people will see great value in the music, because there is entertainment in it, there's great fun in it, there's great sadness in it. Some of the songs are very humorous, very sad, very wry."
He rejects comparisons with Paul McCartney's poorly-received Liverpool Oratorio, which was a collaboration involving classical and rock. "McCartney was working with a full orchestra, and he was working with grand brush strokes with a big, epic sort of approach. The Juliet Letters is very like a notebook, and I would defy people not to be moved by aspects of the music, if they go to it with an open heart. Some of it is truly beautiful and very moving."
King's approach to making the film eschewed the path usually taken by those high-tech, paintbox videosmiths. He did not want "a series of ten MTV videos". His challenge, rather, was "to capture the atmosphere and the mood of each of the pieces, by subtle and — in many cases — very simple lighting changes and camera-work.
Much of the film was recorded at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow. "I wanted to allow the songs to breathe and not to interpret them by going outside the song for images; by going to Verona, for example, to Juliet's hometown." The film will also be shown on BBC 2 on Saturday January 16 and will be released as an album and video towards the end of this month.