Uncut, January 2001

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Puck art, let's dance

Jens Christensen

No one expected Elvis Costello to spend his entire career re-writing "Pump It Up," but his latest project - composing the orchestral score for an Italian dance company's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - is his most surprising departure yet.

Earlier this year, Elvis Costello received an invitation to attend a performance by the Italian ballet troupe, Aterballeto, whose artistic director Mauro Biaonzetti had wanted to discuss with Costello the possibility of his participation in the company's forthcoming adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

As he would later tell me, Costello had at that point very little understanding of the world of dance, but was absolutely captivated by the Aterballeto company's grace and dynamism. There was, therefore, no doubt in his mind when Bigonzetti formally asked him to collaborate on the project. He was happy to take on the commission. The musical score for the ballet was written over the summer, after close consultations with Bigonzetti and his associate Nicola Lusuardi.

"Every aspect, from the dramatic outline and choreographic intention to the stage design was examined in relation to the musical content. I then returned home to Dublin to write and orchestrate each scene in the production," Costello would subsequently recall.

At the end of October, he was back in Bologna. Europe's Capital of Art 2000, to complete orchestral rehearsals and to promote the ballet.

I met him the night before the production's world premiere in the studio of the Italian live music shows, Roxybar and Help. He was in typically talkative mood, keen to explain how he approached the challenge of writing for a dance company and why he would never tour again with The Attractions. Describing his disappointment at the commercial failure of Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Costello also talked frankly about his estrangement from the musical mainstream, his strained relationship with the music business and why he hasn't made an album for four years.

To what extent has working with such different artists as Paul McCartney, Bill Frisell, Brodsky Quartet, Richard Harvey, Burt Bacharach — to mention just a few of the people you've collaborated with — changed your understanding of music?

"I think everything that you do — and I mean something like this most of all [he holds up the huge score of A Midsummer Night's Dream] — everything that you do gives you a bit more experience. You learn and you adapt what you know to what they play. I used to work with a band and especially within the last 10 years there's been many more collaborations, and you learn from each one and you take something into the next collaboration."

Do you have an inner drive that forces you to explore different musical directions?

"No, I don't think so. It just sort of happens and I'm very lucky with the opportunities. They often come through friendships, you know, I mean, with The Brodsky Quartet I was a fan of theirs before I worked with them. The same with Ann Sofie von Otter [Swedish classical singer, with whom Costello first worked in 1996], whose record I have just produced, which won't be out until next year.

"She didn't know that I was coming to her concerts. Then we were introduced and we became friendly. I wrote songs for her and The Brodsky Quartet, and little by little you reach a point where you understand one another and then you can actually talk about a serious collaboration. We have just made a beautiful record with her in Stockholm, which I think will be such a pleasant surprise to so many people. People don't expect people from a classical background of singing to be able to sing songs that come from popular music, without it being very awkward, but she has such a natural gift as a singer. We chose the songs together and we chose them very carefully and through that you get to know people and it is just a very, very natural process. It's not, as intense as people would like to imagine, you know; it's not unhealthy at all. It's very healthy, it comes out of friendship, understanding and appreciation of other artists, and if you're fortunate you become friendly with them, and through that you're able to work together."

Has Elvis Costello, the pop/rock songwriter, outstayed his welcome?

"No, I don't think so. I have just had a long-term collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which took about three years from the time we first started writing together to the making and release of Painted From Memory, and then I spent all of last year touring with Steve Nieve, which was very exciting, and in that way I got to learn, not just about how to sing those songs, but also which songs of my own from the last 20 years I really enjoyed singing. I've made a different programme every night, and we had the freedom to go everywhere... we played everywhere. We played in Australia twice... we played in Japan twice... we played in America twice. It was the most touring I've done since the early days. even though it didn't have the same... you know. . . anxiety and edge that it obviously has when you're touring with a rock 'n' roll band.

"But it doesn't mean that I'll never do that again. but I certainly won't tour with The Attractions again, that's definitely disbanded permanently... I always hope there's an opportunity to work with Pete Thomas again and my relationship with Steve Nieve is very good, you know. I was in New York to sing in his opera in the summer and he is coming to see the premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He is a great friend and he was in Stockholm, playing on Ann Sofie von Otter's record and he's a terrific player and he is a great composer in his own right now we spent so much time touring with The Attractions and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do... he gained a lot of confidence in the last few years. While I have my collaborations, he has done the similar thing in his own way. He's worked in France with all sorts of artists, been touring in Mexico and places that I never got to play. He's really on quite a journey of his own, which eventually will lead somewhere, I'm sure.

"I was sort of waiting this year. I felt that I'd done enough touring last year and this opportunity came up [A Midsummer Night's Dream] and the Ann Sofie von Otter record came up and a couple of other things that I was doing and I didn't really wanna talk and I didn't really wanna make a record. I've made one nearly every year for 20 years, although I did have two years off in the late Eighties and I was really ready to do something very special and ‘'Spike was a very different record. The next record I will make... well. . . it has got to be special. I have made a lot and there's no point in making a record just because the clock says it is time to make one.

And I am a little suspicious of all the record labels buying one another, you know it's a very unsettled time. I don't want to sacrifice any more releases. I have had two or three releases getting caught in the middle of the corporate nonsense. Particularly Painted From Memory really suffered commercially because of that and it's too upsetting. I knew Painted From Memory wasn't gonna outsell Mariah Carey, because it's not that kind of record, but it should have done much better, particularly in America, and it would have done better if we'd not had a company that was falling apart... everyone was getting fired and everyone was afraid they were gonna get fired.

"So I think it did remarkably well considering all those things and I'm waiting until they have decided that they've finished ‘changing'. The only thing I am going to change is from this form of expression [A Midsummer Night's Dream] to a form of expression that might be more appropriate for a record, but it will still be me. But they haven't decided who they are yet, and when they have decided they can ring me up and tell me they are ready, then I'll make a record."

But are you ready to wait for that?

"I can wait 10 years, you know. It doesn't make any difference to me. I mean, I'm not ‘young', so it makes no difference if I make a record when I'm 46 or even when I'm 50. You know Bob Dylan took nine years off and he made a great record when he came back. I'm not saying I'll take nine years off, because I'm anxious to do things. But when I've got opportunities like this [A Midsummer Night's Dream], I would turn down making records so that I could do something that is not even gonna be well received by record companies — they are not gonna be ready for it. I am ready for it. I am ready all the time. They can ring me up and tell me when they're ready and then I will make a record."

At the press conference of A Midsummer Night's Dream you mentioned that you weren't even sure if that was every going to be released as an album…

"We don't know that. It seems like a crazy, rather arrogant attitude to take, but I know for certain that it will be so good, that I would want to commit it straight to record. Maybe not in its entirety because obviously some of the themes are reused to underline the reappearance of certain characters, but if you took the very best of the themes and recorded them as suites, that could be it.

"In this new piece, we have made subtle changes to the expression. This score isn't definitive yet. Eventually, I will have to take the conductor's score and decide where I want the balance different or where the tempo has to be exact for the things that Mauro Bigonzetti [artistic director] wants and for the things that the dance is going to achieve. I have learned from watching them, I mean…. It has been an amazing sight for me.

"This was written very specifically. The dramatic outline was a distillation of everything in Shakespeare — so I knew what I was supposed to represent and there were descriptions of what was supposed to be in the music, but then I put things in the music, which I hope are gonna be useful for Mauro in his choreography. And then you see them … and then you think: ‘Wow, how did he know that I meant that?'

"So it's like you develop a kind of telepathy which is very fascinating to me, because it was obviously impossible to collaborate on every part. We couldn't sit down together all the time. I had to go away to compose and he had to go away and develop his ideas and then hope that his ideas could make use of what I wrote — and they have coincided more often in a favourable way than not. There's nowhere in the score where I can't understand why he is using that music to do that. Every time it is kind of what I hoped, but much, much more."

But that's also a way of communicating, I mean there are no songs included in the score...

Yes, but here it's not completely without another sense of meaning, because if it was purely orchestral music then it would have to have still more substance. I think this is good music, I am proud of it.

"I think that when I wrote with Burt Bacharach, I said that the words were only there to underline the meaning in the compositions. They weren't the same kind of words that I would have written for myself.

"In this case, it is the opposite. The music is underlining the meaning that was in the dramatic outline and in the dance itself. Maybe at some future time I'll write a piece that is purely orchestral, but this is it, I mean this is something else. It's an orchestral score, but it is an orchestral score for dance.

"It might be pleasurable to listen to just as music, but it has really been written to accompany dance, so the sense of meaning, symbolism and the emotion comes through the movement, and this sort of underlines the meaning."

I read your Top 500 album list in Vanity Fair recently. I saw your interest in string quartets, but you seemed to have missed out on Dvorak.

"Dvorak didn't make it into the list, strangely enough. There's always somebody you forget, and I do love Dvorak. There's a lot of people missing from the list. A list like that, it's very frivolous and like a party game, but it's also something you put quite a lot of feeling into, because it's quite private, I mean ... they are personal choices, though some of them are like joke choices. This kind of list is completely biased, you know... there are nine records by Miles Davis, nine records by Bob Dylan and one by someone that somebody else thinks is a genius, and none at all by The Doors and none at all by Led Zeppelin."

But all this depending on the day that they ask you...

"Yeah, then it would have been a different list. I did that list to kind of rest my brain from working on A Midsummer Night's Dream and at the end of the evening I'd type a few in an I'd think of some things. I didn't just want to put things in that were just, you know... I thought that would look good on the list. You know, it was quite a personal list.

"I also put on some music that I don't listen to every day, but whenever I hear it, it's startling.

"So it's all the different ways music works in your life. I mean, obviously you don't sit down and listen to a Luigi Nono piece every day, but I know that piece is great. You have to be in the time of your life ... in the mood in your life to listen to it. It doesn't work on every occasion. But there are certain types of music that always makes me happy to hear... Help by The Beatles or something like that — I can never get sick of hearing that record."

I think the list tried to represent all of this and after all… it is only fun.

"It was great fun that Vanity Fair asked me to do the list and I thought it was an imaginative choice to ask me to do it. They could have done any number of people. But whether other people would have been as patient as to do that many, I don't know.

"When I got to 500 I said, "Do you wanna make it a thousand?"

I saw you in Copenhagen in 1999. Why did you sing "Couldn't Call It Unexpected # 4" (from Mighty Like A Rose) without a microphone?

"Well, I love that song, I think it might be my favourite of all the songs I've written, along with ‘I Want To Vanish'. The rock 'n' roll show that I used to do would always end with ‘Pump It Up', or something logical to end the excitement of a rock 'n' roll show.

"But on that tour I wouldn't want to give in to the impulse just to do something ‘rockish' to end with. I wanted it to be more personal than giving up the one thing that separates you and the audience, which is the microphone, the fact that I am standing there singing. And I can sing loud enough to be heard in most venues. It seemed to work, because people seemed to be very affected by it.

"Not only is it a beautiful song when it's sung correctly, but I find I sing it better without the microphone. I think it's a 19th century melody or something."

What is the status of your unfinished project, The Delivery Man?

"Again, it's one of those things. I sang one of the songs at the Island Festival, Washington DC last summer with Emmylou Harris and it was kind of an idea of mine, that the original suite of songs that were just kind of sketchy, that could be done in collaboration with other singers.

"I have quite a lot of unfinished songs, but I've been so busy. I never liked to finish fast songs unless I know that they're gonna come out right away. You know, I wrote nearly all of Brutal Youth in one day and I wrote all of the Wendy James record with my wife over a weekend.

"Fast songs are better when they're written quickly and then recorded and released right away. Then something like The Delivery Man is something that you can work on at a later time … you can work on it for 10 years, try to get the right people and Emmylou said that she would sing with me if it came to that.

"I don't wanna have all of that corporate nonsense standing in the way. When I have decided to ‘go', they better be ready, because I am not gonna do it twice. The next time that I wanna make a rock 'n' roll record – a really loud record, for what that's worth – it's got to be fresh and exciting to me, because I have made a lot of them. And if I get in the mood, then they'd better be ready. "

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Uncut, No. 44, January 2001

Jens Christensen interviews Elvis Costello.


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