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Stewart Copeland talks the power of orchestras

I spent a lot of time in college listening to bootleg cassettes of the Police playing frenzied live concerts in their early days, and can still remember the way that drummer Stewart Copeland pushed the music forward with an almost maniacal energy, a blend of fire and finesse that was as important to the band’s sound as was Sting’s songwriting. (Moreso? You judge.)

At 64, Copeland still seems to be plugged into that same energy source, even if he has spent the better part of his career as a composer for film and television and, more recently, as a writer of operas, ballets, and various other orchestral pieces. One of those pieces, “Tyrant’s Crush,” is a vibrant, percussion-driven conception which Copeland will perform Oct. 28 and 29 with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

I spoke with Copeland by phone from his home in California as he took a break from working on an orchestral score to talk about his shows with the BPO. Charming, enthusiastic, erudite and occasionally irreverent, Copeland sounded an awful lot like that guy I heard attacking the drums with passionate vigor on those old Police bootlegs.  His energy all but crawled across the proverbial telephone line. I’ll have some of whatever he’s been having, please.

Question: I find it interesting that you’re traveling around performing a piece called “The Tyrant’s Crush” right in the midst of a baffling and contentious election cycle. Oh, the irony!

Answer: Yes, the irony is not lost on me, although I was thinking more of (Muammar) Gaddafi  and Libya at the time that I wrote it. But I’ll take whatever irony I can get. (laughs) The Tyrant, his ascent, and his inevitable fall – that’s the story.

Q: Why is it so rare for composers to incorporate drum kit into orchestral works?

A: Well, first of all, it’s too loud. The drum kit is used to complementing amplified electric guitars, right? So a lot of the color, the rich vocabulary of the orchestra, can be lost when you’ve got a drummer bashing away up there. Guitar players go to 11, and drummers go to 12, volume-wise, but an orchestra goes to, say, 4 or 5, and within that, there’s an incredibly broad dynamic range. You have to compose with that in mind, and that’s what I tried to do here. Bear in mind, I’m a composer-guy and a drummer-guy, and you can’t trust that drummer-guy. He tends to get carried away. But if the composer-guy has done his job correctly, and has written so that there is space for the drums within that much softer, yet full and powerful dynamic of the orchestra, then the result can be beautiful. It can also be powerful. There’s no reason an orchestra can’t burn down the house the way a rock band does.

Q: Not that there are any overt similarities, really, but Frank Zappa is another composer who employed percussion heavily in orchestral works, and I’m wondering if he has been an influence on you?

A: Oh good god, he’s a huge influence on me. He was the first person I heard using an orchestra in rock music in a meaningful way, not just as a saccharine thing, or a little cherry on top of the sundae. ‘"200 Motels" was the first thing I heard from him, and it changed things for me, in a big way.  So he’s in there, unquestionably.

Q: It seems that you’re bringing irreverence and an attitude toward rhythm and dynamics to your orchestral works that you learned from playing rock gigs in huge arenas with The Police.

A: What I learned from rock about power has certainly been useful. Playing for 80,000 screaming Police fans gives you an idea of how much power music can wield. But I’m not there to overpower the orchestra, or to bring an irreverent attitude, really, because I have immense respect for orchestras – the musicians, the history, the great works that they play. I’m humbled, but I have to get up there and do my thing, make my contribution, such as it is. People can sense, I think, that I’m trying to do something different, that I’m not trying to be Mahler, and that I have something to say that’s my own, as a living composer. Mahler, I ain’t! (laughs) But I’m me.

Q: Do you ever get any push-back, or attitude, from orchestra members who may think of you as merely a “rock” guy?

A: Once they know that I’m there to work, that I’m right there in the trenches with them, there’s never any problem. Any time you are putting new scores in front of a musician, it’s a challenge. But I find that it’s not hard to engage with orchestras, because they love music, and they’re there because they’re great musicians.

Q: I have something similar to your Sacred Grove (Copeland's in-house recording studio) in my own basement – a place where family and friends get together to improvise, create, and jam in an anything goes atmosphere. What need does your Sacred Grove fulfill for you?

A: Ahhh, campfire music!  It never gets old. That sense of community, that whole idea of jamming with whoever shows up, there’s a life and a vitality there. I’ll work all day on a score, knowing that when I’m finished, my reward is waiting there, in that place where free creativity reigns. There are instruments in every available space in that room. It’s always beckoning me.

Q: You seem eager to take on projects that require an immense amount of detail-oriented work – your score for "Ben Hur," for instance – during a time  when many of your peers are taking it easy. What motivates you to work so hard when you could be kicking back and chilling out?

A: Getting it down on the page. To look at that page and then to ultimately hear it back as music - that’s the payback. Each page is a victory. I find it completely engrossing, still. Every day, I can’t wait to get started.

BEN HUR IN CONCERTx from Stewart Copeland on Vimeo.

Q: So, now what? What’s on the horizon?

A: Right now, I’ve gotta get back to working on my score. Hey, one thing you might be interested in – I have a rock album coming, by accident. Every summer, I get together with my prog-rock friends in Italy, and we play these outdoor gigs there, just to have fun. But this summer, I was asked to record with that band – it’s called Gizmo - along with Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, David Bowie) and Mark King (Level 42). We had a ton of material, actually, and we recorded this summer. So that will be coming out at some point. And then – well, we’ll see, won’t we?



Who: Stewart Copeland and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with Mark Laycock, conductor

When: 10:30 a.m. Oct. 28 and 8 p.m. Oct. 29

Tickets: Friday show, Saturday show

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