Interview: STERN (2006)

September 03, 2006

The following article appeared in a September 2006 issue of Stern magazine...


"Pop is dead. Rock music is dying."

Harsh words - spoken by somebody who became "filthy-rich" by this music: Sting has discovered classical music and published an album with 400 year old songs. A conversation about the banality of old habits and the thrill of the past.

Sting, you were always a trendsetter of Rock. Now you unbury a 16th century composer: John Dowland. He sang to women in the Elizabethan age. Don't you have something new to tell?

It is madness how matter of fact we are about music being ever evolving and ever being in progress. We lie to each other here. Just now, music is in a non-creative, endless loop and the only thing which helps against that is curiosity.

A view into the past makes it possible to have visions into the future?

It is a fact that we are at the end of pop music which is getting steadily more monotonous. Rock music is dying. I am not interested in searching for fancy computer effects or samples any longer. We just thought that rock and roll is revolutionary. Forget it, folks! Rock is dead reactionary. Stravinsky was a real revolutionist.

Revolutionary comes from the Latin "revolvere" and this means "rollback" - will your rollback in music history give new impulse to Rock?

I am not a prophet, cannot tell what the future will look like. But I know that we can't move forward. In his compositions, Stravinsky referred to the Baroque era but he shocked people's ears at the same time - just as he does now! I just listened to Debussy: such finesse, such complexity and so sensual!

He was an impressionist - do dreams really help us?

Music is a spiritual way for me on which you steadily go forwards, but always recognizing that every step you take the less you know. I have learned that everyone who takes music seriously stays a student all his life because there are no answers, just new questions.

It's crazy: In classical music there is talk of a crisis and you as a rock star claim that there are more musical ideas in Stravinsky than in rock...

I like good rock music if it has real emotional strength and classical music, on the other side, can be horribly academic. However, you can learn a lot about forms of music with a composer like Dowland. You learn that emotions make sense if there are forms which can be broken in order to express them. Rock music was revolutionary because it threw all forms over board and expressed them without any limits on stage. It is just that emotions alone have become boring by now.

Well, music is an art form expressing direct emotions, isn't it?

They have to be in the music, not in the show. I never go on stage in order to prostitute myself emotionally. Of course, emotions play a role if I write my songs. I battle with them and put them into a certain musical form. Composing is a very intimate process because of that. You face yourself and you have to come to terms with it. But if a song is finished, I hope that my songs carry all the emotions inside them and they just have to be sung. I don't have to fall on my knees, jump in the air or smash my guitar.

Do you think that rock music has become too eccentric?

I compare rock music to Italian opera: highly emotional and flamboyant. In contrast to that, Dowland and early music in general teach you musical economy. Not a note too much, no effect without a cause. This impresses me. Dowland's music is both simple and complex, it implodes instead of exploding.

The Beatles' songbook can be more or less accompanied by 5 chords.

As a rocker, of course it is crazy to demand that you want to have the harmonic variety of Sch??nberg. You would play in empty halls! But I believe that a bit more complexity wouldn't damage rock music. Dowland created inharmoniousnesses in his music which we don't know any longer today. If you listen to pop music in the car nowadays it is nursery rhymes with three and five part chords putting you to sleep! It is all monotony competing with a running car's engine.

But Pop means "popular" and people like simple things.

I think that there is a part in the brain which likes simple harmonies. But there is another part which reaches out for more complex structures. One comes naturally, the other one needs training and practising. You can't expect that everyone likes a flattened fifth at once. People sat with whistles in concert halls listening to Gustav Mahler's first performances of his symphonies. He was ahead of his time - if you listen to his music today, you don't know what the scandal was. So it can't hurt to connect parts of your brain to each other.

You just sound like Wolfgang Rihm (a Modern Composer).

Don't worry, I will stay a populist, but I would like to be a curious one. Not just serving the purpose, but questioning it. I look for simple songs which are open to chromatics. They don't need to attack simple ears, but tell them that music is a bigger cosmos than the ghetto we are in just now.

Dowland was a storyteller just like you are. What do you have in common with a songwriter of an English court?

He was a pop star! Perhaps one of the first! He didn't have radio, CDs or anything, but he made singing to a mass phenomenon by printing his songs in a book. In Europe and America, songs like "Flow My Tears" were big hits!

Which he carried himself from royal court to royal court.

Another thing we have in common. Pop stars do travel a lot in order to tell or sing stories - not from royal court to royal court, but from city to city. You laugh, but it is just the same principle as it was in the 16th century.

Nevertheless, 400 years lie in between you and your pop ancestor - no alien feelings at all?

Dowland is nearer to us than we think. He wrote and composed before the age of Belcanto voice. Opera has been a real break up in music history. Singers had to be able to fill great opera halls with their voices, project them artificially, blow them up and sing with a vibrato - at Dowland's times, this didn't exist. I know my limits and never would record Verdi or Puccini pieces. But Dowland has, just like me, sung in a room with a fireplace in front of a handful of ladies...

...just like singing a lullaby.

Absurd it may be, but a real achievement in rock music was the microphone because everybody could sing with their normal voice again. One reason I feel attracted to Dowland. I listened to contra tenors, sopranos and altos singing his songs. But I believe that I am closer to Shakespeare's Age with my interpretation - just because I sing Dowland with my normal voice.

Crossovers are very popular right now. Paul McCartney has composed an oratorio. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra have recorded the soundtrack to the movie "The Perfume" (a book by Patrick S?ºskind)

This isn't about crossover. I never think of rock and classical music as being separate worlds. I don't want to bring Dowland alive with the means of computers, drums or modern rhythms. Every note I sing he has written down in ink. It is my job to interpret his music as close to the sheet as possible. I hope that Dowland doesn't turn (or spins) in his grave because of it! If so, I would be so sorry.

There is a Shakespeare revival at theatres and you discover Dowland songs. Are we fascinated and feel close in general by the Elizabethan era with its myths, world view and longing for harmony?

I can imagine that we are on a search for the meaning of life after the postmodernist age. Somehow, we end up with Dowland and his Age. It is crazy that someone like me from the 21st century sits down, reading a sheet with music written down 400 years ago. You see a man whom you confront with questions from today.

Just like Sleeping Beauty awakes - kissed by the prince?

The coolest thing is that you aren't astonished by actually waking her! In classical music the early music in our present time has become a science already. It is "authentic performance practice of early music*". I don't want this matter to become too intellectual, I am just a singer.

[* This term was coined by the conductor Nicolas Harnoncourt. He was the first to conduct and perform early music in this way. (6.9.2006)]

© Stern magazine by Axel Bruggemann (very kindly translated by Anne Guntert)


Sep 2, 2006

There's something a little odd going on. Sting comes off stage after his Bergen concert, hits the hotel bar and opens a bottle of Chablis. And then he talks about 18th century keyboard music. I suppose I started it. There's a song of his I particularly like for its harmonic interest: 'Whenever I Say Your Name', a duet with the American R&B star Mary J Blige from his 2203 album 'Sacred Love'. So I ask him about it. "It's based entirely on Bach," he reveals, not without a little pride in his voice. "Look at the bass line and you'll see it's all him. It's one of his preludes - in C, I think..."

Sep 1, 2006

Sting loves to pick at strings. Everyone remembers him from Police videos playing his favorite instrument, the upright bass. It's the sound that gave the Police songs their timeless originality. But last year, Sting decided to try a new stringed instrument - the lute. You don't hear a lot of lutes on pop records. You hear mandolins, but no lutes. They are usually left to classical musicians with a lot of training. You know that wouldn't stop Sting. The result is a new album that drops next month, called 'Songs from the Labyrinth', for which Sting has used the songs of 16th century composer John Dowland for his foundation...