So there was this professor in Verona who answered letters addressed to Juliet.
Well, if that sounds like the start of a tall story I suppose it is. There was a tiny newspaper item about a Veronese academic who had taken on the task of replying to letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet." This apparently continued for a number of years, until some gentlemen of the press exposed this secret correspondence. Quite how he came by these letters in the first place remains unclear. We can only make a guess as to their content. After all, these people were writing to an imaginary woman, and a dead imaginary woman at that. Perhaps they were simply scholarly enquiries, or letters of sympathy from others disappointed in love, or even a plea from somebody forced into an unhappy arranged marriage. Whatever was contained in these letters and their replies, the idea of this correspondence provided our initial inspiration.
I first saw the Brodsky Quartet play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1989. They were giving a series of concerts in which they were to perform all of the string quartets composed by Dimitri Shostakovich. Having arrived in town in time to attend the concert in which they played Quartets Nos. 7, 8, and 9, we returned on two subsequent evenings to hear them complete the cycle. I recall running out of a B.B.C. television studio where I had anxiously completed a programme presenting the album Spike in order to get to the last concert on time. Such was the impact of these performances. Not only did I come away with a clearer impression of the music, but also a strong sense of the love and dedication with which the Quartet played it. Over the next two years we went to see the Brodskys play some wonderful music: Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, and Bartok. Little did I suspect, but members of the Quartet had been to my London concerts during the same period. Somehow the connection was made, we exchanged letters and recordings, and finally arranged to meet after their next London appearance. It was after that lunchtime concert in November 1991 that we began our collaboration.
At first we just talked and talked and ... talked. This led to several informal musical sessions. We looked at the characteristics of the music that we loved and admired. The Quartet played pieces, I played songs, sometimes we listened to records. Naturally, some of the music introduced was unfamiliar, but this only added to the number of possibilities. Soon our own ideas began to emerge.
We wanted to explore the under-used combination of voice and string quartet, but were anxious to avoid that junkyard named "Cross-Over." This is no more my stab at "classical music" than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album. It does, however, employ the music which we believe touches whatever part of the being that you care to mention. It also conforms to, and occasionally upsets, the structures found in our respective disciplines and indiscipline!
With The Juliet Letters as our title, we thought of the many types of character that the letter form would allow us. Somewhere there is a list of the letters which we considered. Love letter, begging letter, chain letter, suicide note, etc. In order to make the work more personal we decided that each of us would contribute to the text, not forgetting the words written by Michael Thomas's wife, Marina. As the lyricist in the house, I could also act as a kind of editor. From these early drafts came a curious advantage. Of course, each of us had different approaches to the common subject, and through some unconscious poetry, and in the absence of much of the crafty language of the songwriter, we were able to assemble strong and varied texts. It seems that only poets and politicians write letters with a view to them being printed in collected form. In my experience the language of most letters swings wildly from the lyrical to the banal and from the courteous to the confessional, sometimes inside the same paragraph. I hope we've caught something of this in the words of The Juliet Letters.
The process of composition and arrangement was varied and is mysterious to contemplate. Some pieces arrived with both words and music complete. Bridges were then built between smaller related items, while at least one song and a crucial passage of the music was effectively composed "spontaneously." While the job of compiling and creating the "draft arrangements" was shared among the members of the quartet, the process of arranging was often one of trial and error involving all five of us. This has continued throughout the rehearsals, the first two performances, and even during this recording. Having previously been unable to read or write down music, my own recent studies have allowed me to progress, since January 1992, from picking out my ideas at the piano (using what is known in certain circles as "the crab method"), through piano scores to full proposed four-part arrangements. I have to give credit to the Quartet for their perseverance in deciphering some of my early intentions from the most wayward of playing. As I have found with other collaborations, the music that you most confidently attribute to one party invariably turns out to be the work of the person you least suspect.
The Juliet Letters begins with a short composition entitled "Deliver Us." It simply serves to open the story, for although the following letters are not intended to create a dialogue, you may choose to draw your own conclusions from some of the resulting juxtapositions.
One of the conventions which we have taken from classical song, or for that matter folk-song, is the acceptance of a man singing a woman's story. In "For Other Eyes" a woman confesses her jealous suspicions and fears.
The "letter" in "Swine" takes a more unusual form, being a piece of deranged, political graffiti carved on a wooden door.
For the next song, "Expert Rites," I have taken the liberty of imagining a reply made by a character similar to the Veronese professor who unwittingly provided our title. If he should ever hear this piece I hope he will not be offended by our presumption — in this version of the mystery the author of the letter is a compassionate and romantic soul. "Expert Rites" leads without pause into Paul Cassidy's "Dead Letter," which darkens the already melancholy mood into one of sadness and loss.
After a short introduction of my invention comes Michael Thomas's first song, "I Almost Had A Weakness," to which I added the tango passages. It is an eccentric aunt's curt reply to a begging letter.
The text of "Why?" was derived from Ian Belton's version of a child's note. I added the final repeated lines and the music.
Without dragging the listener through the mechanics of our working method, it should be stated that in naming the "main composer" we hope to indicate who was responsible for the initial music and defining structure of the collaborative pieces. Even if others have amended the melodic line or added further musical content, when such a credit is stated it is because we still regard it as "their" song. In the case of "Who Do You Think You Are?" this credit very much belongs to Michael Thomas. The song begins with a young man sitting down in a seaside cafe to write a postcard in which he details all his estranged lover's faults. The truth of the situation is gradually revealed.
In performance, "Taking My Life In Your Hands" concludes the first half of the sequence. The music was developed from a piece first outlined by Jacqueline Thomas. The letter portrays an obsessive and deluded person, writing letters never sent, expecting impossible replies.
The second part of The Juliet Letters opens with a rather extreme form of junk mail: "This Offer Is Unrepeatable."
The text of "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is a suicide note that turns from blasé and bored with life to desperate, and is finally lost in a dream.
"The Letter Home" employs contrasting musical sections, predominantly from Ian Belton (I contributed the music for only the "Why must I apologize" section), as the story dissolves from the formal courtesies, through nostalgia, and into bitterness.
"Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" is the name of a firm of solicitors which reoccurs as a motif among images of both childhood and adult disillusionment. The authorship of the two verses is divided between brother and sister, Michael and Jacqueline, while the music is Michael's.
The music of "This Sad Burlesque" is mostly the work of Paul Cassidy, although between us Michael and I proposed the related material in the bridge section. The events described in the letter should be familiar to those who lived in England in the spring of 1992.
The next letter is spelt out by a moving glass. "Romeo's Seance" tells of a strange young man's struggle to contact his ghostly lover. He even claims that she composed this song. In fact, the music is by Michael Thomas, although I think I should admit responsibility for the rather daft tune which Jacky plays during the central "flying furniture" section. In concert performance, Michael, Ian, and Paul all play standing up, with Jacqueline seated on a small platform. This not only allows us to maintain eye contact, but also to change the grouping of the Quartet in order to heighten the focus on certain unconventional instrument balances. Without the visual aspect we decided to minimise these changes of configuration in the studio. However, as Michael and Jacky create most of the rhythmic and percussive interest in "Romeo's Seance," Michael took up his "concert position" between the voice and cello. Do not, as they say, adjust your set.
In "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet" a cynical writer quotes the contents of a letter that he has received. This "soldier's letter" is closely related to one sent to me during the build-up to the Gulf War tragedy. I would not like to comment further, except to say that it is not included as a simplistic political gesture, either "for" or "against" anything, but rather to illustrate the predicament of the two characters in being forced to reconsider their assumed positions. From the concluding mayhem a single note emerges leading into Michael Thomas' "Last Post." Despite its title this piece does not have any military significance. It seems to me to have a clear sense of peace, though not without strong feeling. It also serves as a preface to the trio of songs at the conclusion of the sequence as it runs without a break into "The First To Leave." In this song, a man who believes in the afterlife leaves a letter for his atheist lover, which, we must assume, she is reading after his demise. "Damnation's Cellar" gives a glimpse of a fantastic kind of immorality. The final letter is also delivered from a place beyond death, although the intention is not at all morbid. So it is a song of condolence and renewal, "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," which brings The Juliet Letters to, what I believe is, a hopeful conclusion.
The Juliet Letters was performed for the first time in public at The Amadeus Centre, London, on 1st, July 1992, and again at The Great Hall, Dartington, on 13th, August 1992. This recording was made and balanced at Church Studios, Crouch Hill, North London, between 14th, September and 1st, October 1992. It was recorded, as we say in the popular music parlance, "live in the studio."
Here follows a brief technical note. Our "Tonmeister" Kevin Killen, who engineered and balanced the disc, assures us that there was no equalisation of the signal coming from the studio. There are no overdubbed or additional parts. In order to preserve the clarity of the Quartet's tone the vocals were recorded simultaneously, but behind isolation screens. Therefore, the only artificial reverberation that you hear is that added to the voice in order to match the natural reverberation of Studio B. Although this was a multi-track recording, employing a combination of close, distant, and wide microphone positions, the very minimum of adjustments were made to the internal balance of the Quartet in order to preserve the integrity of the performances. The decision to make an analog recording was an aesthetic one, founded on my firm conviction that for everything that digital recording gains in noise reduction and supposed clarity, there are unacceptable losses of warmth and depth. For the same reasons, the record was mixed to half-inch analog tape. All other applicable methods of noise reduction were employed. We trust that the results justify these decisions.
- — Elvis Costello
October 21, 1992
At this distance it almost seems strange to reflect that The Juliet Letters recording was funded and released by the pop division of Warner Bros. During this sequence of re-issues, I have had the occasional harsh word for my former label, but in this case I can only say that this might have been one of the last acts of the great W.B. label that I had admired as a record fan; the imprint that had backed and continued to issue releases by Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, even when they didn't seem to sell, simply because the music needed to be heard.
Following the completion of the composition and the first performances of The Juliet Letters, I took the idea of a recording to W.B. President Lenny Waronker. I told him that I thought that we might be able to sell 100,000 copies — substantial sale for a "chamber music" release — and he gave me the recording budget without hearing a note of the music. This trust was somewhat rewarded when the record went to sell in excess of three times my estimate.
The sessions at Church Studios, London, were overseen and engineered by Kevin Killen. The only technical problem was to keep the volume of my voice in balance with the quartet during the higher and louder passages in such a live room. This was achieved by placing me in a little booth of glass screens in the centre of the quartet.
Other than that, we performed everything as we had done on stage, completing the record with very little editing and no overdubbing.
The initial media reaction to the eventual release was not that encouraging. Having already done much to horrify the pop pundits with my wild appearance during my tours with The Rude Five after the release of Mighty Like A Rose, collaboration with a string quartet was seen as further evidence that I had lost my mind. This was especially stridently expressed by those who revelled in their musical ignorance. Without any obvious frame of reference, they carelessly flung around technical musical jargon in the hope that none of their readers knew what any of those terms actually meant any more than they did.
None of this would have mattered had it not been that The Juliet Letters was the first release of my career that had to reach the public with absolutely no presence at radio. Consequently, the response of the classical media, which in England ranged from hysterical to merely patronising, was a further disappointment. The tired old article about the validity of musicians "dabbling" in classical music, which I had first read in reference to Frank Zappa or even Deep Purple, was trotted out once again. It is not as if we had protested that we were creating a brand new language of modern music. Nor were we attempting to ingratiate ourselves with a mass audience with some watered-down classical hybrid. All we were doing was writing some songs together.
There are much simpler ways to court popular success and almost none of them involve writing a piece such as The Juliet Letters. The most absurd and patronising suggestion in the classical media was that I must be doing this to make myself seem more important, in order to be "taken seriously."
Clearly anyone who made such a statement had little or no knowledge of critical hyperbole that can rain down on even the slightest talent before the bloom goes off the romance in pop music. I had found myself being taken too seriously and over-analysed from the very outset of my recording career.
Happily we found that opinions were more varied in Europe and judgments less swift and more considered. A world tour was planned. The Brodsky Quartet and I played nineteen concerts in twenty-five days, deliberately choosing the venues so the definition of the work was unclear. We played the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, followed it with an appearance at the Folies Bergères in Paris, sharing a dressing room with the feathered costumes of showgirls. We proceeded on through a converted chocolate factory outside Pisa and the exquisite Palau de La Musica in Barcelona.
When we came out for an encore at the Royal Concert Hall, in Glasgow, one wag called for "Oliver's Army," but the tone of his voice suggested that he knew that we were not going to play it. However, as The Juliet Letters ran for approximately one hour and ten minutes, we decided to arrange a number of encore tunes, several of which are included on the bonus disc.
By the time we had played in Japan and concluded our American itinerary at Town Hall in New York, those in attendance had realised that this was not a stiff and forbidding art music piece at all and that it was okay to laugh in a recital hall if you felt like it. Needless to say, our approach to the music loosened up considerably, but there was no way of knowing how far the piece might travel without first having got the recording on tape as a starting point.
Over the next ten years, The Juliet Letters was responsible for me connecting with a different audience in several parts of Europe. At first, the Brodsky Quartet and I were asked to reprise the entire piece in the Spanish province of Castilla La Mancha, culminating with a performance in the wonderful city of Toledo. However the so-called "encore" material continued to grow until it was possible for us to play a mixed programme featuring excerpts from The Juliet Letters alongside new compositions, such as Michael Thomas' "Skeleton," which he wrote entirely, and "King Of The Unknown Sea" for which I contributed the text.
We also continued to arrange songs from a variety of sources, including my own re-working of "Scarlet Ribbons," incorporating the Scottish folk song "My Son David." Paul Cassidy arranged "She Moved Through The Fair," and this turned out to be our next recording together for the album Lament, on which the quartet featured the works of a number of contemporary composers.
In late 1994, I received an invitation to become the curator of the 1995 Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre, London. The festival had previously been the exclusive territory of clearly defined "Contemporary Music" composers, so the announcement was once again accompanied by the needless death of many trees to provide the wasted newsprint debating the validity of my appointment. Nearly all of the most over-heated and damning arguments were laid out before a single note had been played.
Nevertheless, the festival provided a unique opportunity for me to programme concerts in which I did not appear, including the first UK appearances of the Fairfield Four and the final London performances of both Moondog and Jeff Buckley. It was also the beginning of a number of musical alliances that I came to value in the subsequent years.
Needless to say, the Brodsky Quartet and I appeared together again, firstly playing selections from our quintet repertoire, before expanding the line-up to eleven musicians, including woodwind and brass, allowing us to perform a number of specially commissioned arrangements in the second half of the concert.
I also made my first collaborations with Roy Nathanson and the Jazz Passengers and Bill Frisell, continuing to work with Fretwork, for whom I had written a song earlier in the same year, and having a first discussion of my future collaboration with John Harle in a Festival Hall dressing room during one of the brief moments of respite in the frantic nine-day schedule.
Happily, the Meltdown Festival survived the invasion of the cultural Visigoths so feared by the pundits and has continued to feature unexpected curators in the years since 1995, including Robert Wyatt, Patti Smith, Scott Walker, Yoko Ono, Nick Cave, Morrissey, and the great John Peel.
I continued to write for the Brodsky Quartet. In 1996 they appeared on "I Want To Vanish," the final track of my last album for Warner Bros., All This Useless Beauty. I also composed "Three Distracted Women," a trio of songs for mezzo-soprano and quartet that were performed by Anne Sofie von Otter and the quartet on a short European tour, which took in Paris, London, Madrid, and Bologna.
Recordings and performances of classical repertoire by the quartet have continued to be acclaimed, but they have also established valuable musical alliances with Bjork, Jacqui Dankworth, and Steve Nieve.
On the occasion of a private benefit concert for the Royal Academy of Music, the quartet and I both collaborated with Paul McCartney. Paul and I made our only duo performance on stage, playing our co-composition "Mistress and Maid" and the early Beatles song "One After 909," while the quartet played several of Paul's greatest ballads with chamber accompaniment, including "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday."
Since the departure of Michael Thomas from the Brodsky Quartet line-up, we have not given a complete performance of The Juliet Letters, but I have continued to perform and record with the quartet that now features first violinist Andrew Haveron.
The most recent recordings have been for the Brodsky Quartet album Mood Swings (featuring two Paul Cassidy arrangements, for my rock and roll song "My Mood Swings" and the Randy Newman ballad "Real Emotional Girl"), and their appearance on the song "Still" for the Deutsche Grammophon album North.
The quartet appeared also alongside The Imposters and special guest guitarist Rise Kagona at Kenwood House in the summer of 2005, and we will perform together again at the Sydney Festival, New South Wales, Australia, in early 2006.
She Moved Through The Fair
Recorded for the album Lament, this was arranged by Paul Cassidy. I have known this eerie Irish song since childhood.
Pills And Soap
This Paul Cassidy arrangement of a song first issued as a single in 1983, credited to "The Imposter," was first performed at the Meltdown Festival. The song continues to be featured in our concerts, although with an amended lyric as I continue to lobby ceaselessly for my knighthood:
- "The King is in the counting house
Some folk have all the might
And majesty will run on Bombay gin
and German spite"
King Of The Unknown Sea
Another tune with royal associations, Michael Thomas brought this composition to the rehearsals for The Juliet Letters world tour. I provided a fable inspired by the character of the music. It was featured as an encore during the tour, and this version was recorded at a soundcheck.
This lovely later Michael Thomas composition is his work in both music and words and speaks of family secrets.
More Than Rain
This track is from the Warner Bros. promotional EP Live At New York Town Hall EP. I arranged this Tom Waits song that I first heard as part of the stage production of Frank's Wild Years at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
God Only Knows
This is less of an arrangement by Michael Thomas, more of a "re-composition" based on the famous Brian Wilson song. It was usually the last song of the concerts on The Juliet Letters tour.
They Didn't Believe Me
This track is also from the Live At New York Town Hall, this Jerome Kern song from 1914 was beautifully arranged by Jacqueline Thomas. It may be possible to detect the audience's amusement as I threaten to go into a soft-shoe routine during the instrumental section.
O Mistress Mine
Come Away, Death
These are two of a trio of settings from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by the composer and saxophonist John Harle. I recorded for his album Terror and Magnificence and toured with John's ensemble, performing these pieces along with his arrangements of "Shipbuilding" and "Flow My Tears," by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland.
John briefly considered casting me in the leading role of an opera about another notable Elizabethan figure, the scientist and alchemist John Dee, but we were never able to agree schedules. John and I did work together again in 2002, when he played the alto and highly virtuosic soprano saxophone parts in the recording of Il Sogno.
Put Away Forbidden Playthings
Can She Excuse My Wrongs
Early in 1995, I was among the musicians commissioned as part of the tercentenary commemorations of the death of the great English composer Henry Purcell. The idea was to create new material for the viol, an instrument popular in Purcell's day, which would be presented alongside the composer's remarkable Fantasias.
I contributed "Put Away Forbidden Playthings," a song for the viol consort Fretwork and the counter-tenor Michael Chance. The piece received its premiere in the appropriately-named Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre, London. I reprised the song with Fretwork in one of the themed Meltdown concerts entitled "Flow My Tears," which featured contributions from June Tabor, Patricia Rozario, The Composers Ensemble, and Jeff Buckley, who sang Purcell's famous aria "When I Am Laid In Earth." This recording was made for radio, which also featured a transcription of another song by John Dowiand.
Fire Suite 1
Fire Suite 3
Fire Suite Reprise
The Meltdown Festival was my first opportunity to work with Roy Nathanson and the Jazz Passengers. I performed a number of Roy's compositions at the opening night concert on a bill that also featured the Rebirth Brass Band.
Over the last ten years I have worked on a number of Passengers recordings and concert performances. I recorded a duet version of "Don'cha Go Away Mad" with Deborah Harry — a frequent Passengers collaborator — for the album Individually Twisted. This also included "Aubergine," which I co-wrote with bassist Brad Jones, who later appeared on the album North together with vibraphonist Bill Ware.
Roy Nathanson's Fire At Keaton's Bar And Grill might be described as a "jazz oratorio," but that might scare off listeners who would appreciate this remarkable and generous composition. It tells the story of the destruction of a place of tolerance, central to a community, through the eyes of its patrons.
It was the last recording of the great Jazz Hammond B3 player Charles Earland and also featured a large cast of players and singers, including Deborah Harry, the great Nancy King, and Darius De Haas, who would later make the first recording of "My Flame Bums Blue," my lyrical text for the final Billy Strayhorn composition "Blood Count."
My contribution begins with a piano prelude played by Cyrus Chesnut and later moves into faster music led by a quartet of saxophones. The full recording of "Keaton's" is still in catalogue, and I urge you to check it out. We have continued to perform excerpts from the piece whenever the opportunity presents itself, most recently at a midnight post-Hurricane. Katrina benefit concert at the Angel Orensanz Center, New York City.
Deep Dead Blue
I first met Bill Frisell at the session to record "Weird Nightmare" for Hal Willner's album of Charles Mingus music Weird Nightmares. The ensemble included Don Elias, Marc Ribot, Michael Blair, and Henry Threadgill. Bill was one of the few musicians not playing a microtonal instrument originally devised by the composer, Harry Partch.
Having had this experience together and being an admirer of Bill's recordings, he was among the first names on my list of invitees for the Meltdown Festival.
I had originally suggested that Bill play an entire solo concert but in the end decided to perform in this fashion and also with a trio of guitar, trumpet and Chinese violin.
A second concert was our first ever performance together. I gave Bill a list of songs, and he provided beautiful guitar transcriptions that incorporated many elements of the original arrangements but played them with his unique sound and approach to his instrument.
The concert was recorded and a limited edition release was made on the Nonesuch label. These are my two favourite cuts. The first is a Lerner and Lowe song from the musical of the same name, although I learned it from the recording by Bing Crosby.
The second song, which provided the title of the Nonesuch release, was a co-composition. It was later arranged by the Irish composer Michael McGlynn for his choral group, Anuna, and recorded for an album of the same title.
In 1999, Bill arranged and recorded a largely instrumental album of the twelve newly completed compositions that I had written together with Burt Bacharach. The Sweetest Punch was completed at almost the same time as Painted From Memory, the album to which it was a companion and released on the Decca imprint:
I made a vocal guest appearance on the record on a different arrangement of "Toledo" and in a duet rendition of "I Still Have That Other Girl," with Cassandra Wilson.
In 2004, I appeared at the Century of Song Festival in Essen, Germany with Bill and his ensemble that included trumpet, violin, double bass, and drums. The repertoire reprised these two numbers and "Weird Nightmare" but also included expansive versions of more recent songs, such as "Radio Silence" and "Needle Time."
Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue
Bill Frisell also contributed the chamber group arrangement for this excerpt from a concert at the Meltdown Festival in 1995.
Following a selection of numbers with the Brodsky Quartet in the first half of the programme, we expanded the line-up to include double bass, two French homs, trumpet, alto flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet.
The first of these songs was originally written for the blues balladeer Charles Brown and recorded in a highly adapted version under the original title, "I Wonder How She Knows." I retained the first draft of the music under the title "Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue."
This arrangement has been adapted several times and performed over the last ten years with the Swedish Radio Symphony, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, and most recently with Metropole Orkest. The fullest rendition of the chart will appear on the Deutsche Grammophon release My Flame Burns Blue in early 2006.
Lost In The Stars
This song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson had been among our encore numbers during The Juliet Letters world tour.
We were later approached to contribute this version to a film about the life and work of Weill called September Songs. The quartet and I flew to Toronto during some of the coldest weather in living memory.
I cannot pretend that filming of our performance — which was actually done to the existing track — was the happiest experience of our careers, not least of all because it took place in an unheated, disused factory at 3 a.m. in temperatures approaching -20°.
By contrast, the recording session was completed in just a handful of takes. The arrangement was by Michael Thomas and the recording produced by Hal Willner and first released on the soundtrack record for September Songs.
- — Elvis Costello