MUSIC, COMPUTERS & SOFTWAREFebruary 01, 1988
The following article appeared in the February/March 1988 issue of Music, Computers & Software magazine...
It was an incongruous sight. Sting at the podium extolling the virtues of technology, in particular New England Digital's Synclavier. After all, Sting has been perceived as an artist dedicated to his craft; few people associate him as a hawker of goods. Nevertheless, there he was displaying a genuine excitement, a passion that could only be borne from the artist who has found the toy of his dreams. This technology clearly means something to one of rock and roll's most accomplished and stylish practitioners. He loves it, it is his mistress, a mistress that willing succumbs to his whims and delivers all the secret pleasures rampant in a constantly active imagination: Indeed, at times, the Synclavier seems to take on near mythic proportions: "I'm very grateful to the inventors of the Synclavier," he noted, "for making me a whole person, not just a mind." Pretty heady stuff.
Yet once again Sting has shown us what he's worth; never the manipulated always the manipulator. He has personalised and harnessed a technology, making it his creative whipping post. He has embraced the future without sacrificing his past. He has bent technology to his will and taken his next, natural musical evolutionary step. Sting is a man out to beat his musical genre and set new standards in an age where the beat box has stifled imagination.
In his most popular incarnation, The Police, Sting's innovative songwriting and tantalising arrangements broke through the pop charts with a sonic awareness that catapulted the band into the annals of pop stardom and Sting into the nether reaches of pop idol. Even if Rolling Stone chose to ignore them in their top 100 albums. His affinity for infectious hooks allowed him to indulge in arrangements that were both impressive and biting, and his lyrics wrought such an indelible mark that it was difficult to perceive The Police without Sting. But then again it was a band, and Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland were hardly hack musicians, their contributions were never subordinate to their front man. And it is encouraging that each has achieved a personal musical identity. Neither, however, as dramatically as Sting.
On his departure from the band it was hard to speculate where Sting might turn musically. It seems this was only a complexity to the outside world. It was, apparently, obvious to Sting that his musical vision, despite his many artistic endeavours, would reach back to his early love of jazz to enable him to fuse his rock sensibilities with the style and substance that a jazz genre provides. The result, 'Dream of the Blue Turtles', although a particularly strained and self-conscious effort, clearly delineated Sting from his counterparts and shook the very foundation of his rock stature. No longer a died-in-the-wool rock and roll artist, he was now a composer/artist stretching to push his talents beyond the rudimentary restrictions of rock: Now, in '...Nothing Like The Sun', Sting has extolled whatever virtue there is in deception, because it is an album as deceivingly brilliant as it is understated.
Sting lures the listener, stroking him gently into a state of false security. Many listenings reveal that simplicity is only for the inattentive. The album abandons the security of pop and reaches for the instability of jazz, although it is neither; rather it is the amalgam of the artist, a style that defies categorisation yet yields a stunning musical experience in familiarity. It is this strength that pulls Sting through; substance without alienation.
Throughout the album Sting recognises past strengths and incorporates the hauntingly expressive soprano saxophone of Branford Marsalis along with the jazz-riff based keyboards of Kenny Kirkland. The combination of these two musicians provides a solidity to the work, one which Sting uses to entwine his themes. The explosive energy and complex riffs of Omar Hakim are missing but they are aptly supplanted by the solidity of Manu Katche. There are special appearances by the likes of Ruben Blades and Mark Knopfler, as well as a wide array of musicians who add particular textures to the work. All of this, however, serves only to underscore the symmetry that Sting has been able to develop. It is the work of one man, one man and his Synclavier, and although he is a musician who loves the work and input of his fellow musicians, he is a bandleader who enjoys the completeness of composition; a control that only the Synclavier seems to have brought him. a control that can just as easily become a crutch.
"I've had the machine for four years and every song I've every written, every tiny little musical doodle that I happen to have thought of during the day, every completed lyric, fragment of a lyric, all the information about my gear and travelling around the world is contained on this machine. It is basically my whole life; if I travel the machine comes with me, and if it doesn't, I feel I can't work."
Much like in his recent video, it appears Sting has developed a technological alter ego. It may be a question in the future who controls who, but for now it is a machine, clearly to be used at will, and Sting shows an uncanny ability to be emotive and sure-footed when exploring the infinite musical possibilities the Synclavier provides.
For this modern age composer this is an amazing palette of continual discovery, yet while being dreamlike it also sports a horrific side. "One of the problems," he contends, "is that you have this infinite choice and when you have this infinite choice you have to make decisions. So now I make fairly stringent decisions of what sounds I want to use on a particular day, because I don't want to spend hours trying to find sounds. I want to get on with composition. So you have to limit what you have available, because if you have the whole world of sound here... which you do... you'll do nothing else but try to find new sounds. As a composer, I always think with a double bass, a piano, a cymbal and a saxophone, and then once the music is completed, I experiment with sound."
It is evident from his enthusiasm that Sting has found a musical world where self-indulgence is mandatory and experimentation standard operating procedure. Where in one instance this can provide an acute wholeness to a project it is also possible that this confined, almost narrow scope of working can prove damaging; it can lead to pretentiousness, for example, a musical line Sting often straddles without always successfully escaping from the bog. However, Sting always champions the virtues of the interaction of musicians, the dynamics that lead to succinct contributions from his carefully assembled cast of characters. Yet, as it was evident in 'Bring on the Night', the input is encouraged but there is always one leader; there always needs to be a beginning and an end and Sting is indeed the full circle in this voyage. It is a sensitive subject for the musician. When he's asked about the lack of input in composition he hotly contends: "I want musicians who want an input into the music. I don't just work with people that say, 'Sting, you're a genius.' Because I'm not."
In many aspects the Synclavier, to Sting, is not any different from the demo tapes that any songwriter would bring in for his band to emulate. It provides a basis for the development of the songs, a foundation for musicians to quickly understand the intent of the composer and to readily grasp the musical line. "The Synclavier," noted Sting, "makes communication with musicians much easier. We, as a band, have been together for three days and we learned the tunes by my having the parts written out. The Synclavier, at the push of a button, will write a bass line, will write a keyboard part. This is a far better basis for the musician to see something rather than me humming a tune to them saying, 'that's a B flat, followed by an A flat.' It makes it easier for the bandleader to transmit his ideas to the musicians."
In the pre-road concert that followed the press conference at The Palladium in New York City to celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of New England Digital, it was immediately apparent that the band had found the live groove of '...Nothing Like The Sun', although they'd only had three days to rehearse. It was also apparent, as Sting added more musicians to the stage with each song, that the energy and dynamics of musicians will never be replaced by the ultimate sophistication in machinery. Although that's not really the question here, because Sting is proving a very significant point: If you are an artist/composer you now have the tools to realise your individual dream, rather than a collective nightmare. There is a democratisation underway. "Music is available to everyone," said Sting. "I don't feel the need to protect it, as a closed shop, where only musicians can play. After all, everyone's musical to a certain extent."
Part of this expansion has been Sting's new awareness of different musical genres, places where in the past he might not have felt comfortable. "It's most difficult to try and imagine in your front room what a string would sound like. I don't have access to an orchestra when I'm writing song parts. I was taught in college how to write string parts, so I have this thing which is a string section and I know how it sounds. It's the first step to being able to learn how to write the string... just actually having them there. I don't play the violin, I play the keyboard. The Synclavier, fortunately, is very sensitive so I have vibrato, I can attack the string; basically, everything a violinist can do, I can reproduce.
"Someone asked me to write a string quartet and before I would have shied away from it. When I first started out I was writing the string quartet in a very linear way; the machine tends to dictate a linear approach to things. So I worked out a new way of using it. I would write the viola part, for example, and then I would fly it random down the line. And then I would write the violin part and try that... random down the line. Introducing the concept of random into the computer, and then they would meet at a point which I hadn't decided. And sometimes it's very exciting when they meet because you'd find things you hadn't planned for. You also make a lot of mistakes and things come out that aren't very good. But then you can go on the screen where everything is written down for you and edit. I'm writing this symphony by using the computer, but I'm also using what I call serendipity, which is 'happy accident'. There is a lot of criticism that electronic music is too mechanical, that there are no risks and no chance in it, but I believe that this approach I've invented allows for that."
Sting has keyed on an acute problem. As musicians, we discover our abilities and musical ears through "playing " our instruments, letting mistakes be our guiding lights and learning from them. Too many people feel that this is not a circumstance of electronic music. However, more musicians than ever are talking about the wonderful sounds or musical threads they've accidentally discovered through the implementation of MIDI into their lives. Technology can no longer be perceived as a slave to our ideas, but rather as a new form of musical instrument that allows us to approach and adjust to its dramatic evolution.
"When I first got this machine, about four years ago," Sting noted, "I'd merely been a spectator. I wasn't exactly user friendly at the time. I think I was the first individual in England to have one. It took me a couple of months just to turn it on, but then my assistant and I spent day after day exploring the machine and when we'd find a unique facet it was like, discovering a new country; a new continent would suddenly appear."
For Sting, the Synclavier has provided the idyllic symbiosis with his musical ethos. "My musical philosophy," he explains, "is that I think in a rather holistic way. I really find that most music is xenophobic... you know, a classical musician is very afraid to enter pop or jazz or blues. And a jazz musician doesn't want to play pop or classical. I see the whole thing as being "one" thing. I don't see music in categories as being real. I think that barriers are put there by the media because it makes it easier to talk about music if you can label it. This machine, however, accesses me to the entire world of music, so to me it has become real. I can write a string quartet; I can write in ways I've never done before."
This methodology can also break down the formats in which music is traditionally recorded and released. In this 'studio will travel' age, Sting is stretching out once again. A lot of this album was recorded in my apartment and then some work was taken to the studio where we made the record. What you'll hear tonight is what I did in my apartment which is basically backing tracks, backing vocals, occasional live performances from a saxophone player who just dropped in. I was making records in my living room." Could this be the recording studio of Sting's upcoming record label?
"I feel confident enough that this machine is a recording studio, and I would think that my next record will be done solely on this machine. My reservation in the past has been, you know, I like live musicians: I like them to play. But now the machine can accept live performance that can be used and utilised and framed, and has parameters. So I don't see any problems; I can make records in my kitchen!"
There is little doubt that New England Digital with its Synclavier has permanently altered the way we perceive the mechanical construction of music; and although few of us can afford a six figure instrument. we can all experience what Sting so clearly points out: "I really do believe that, like the piano, this is a revolutionary instrument. My problem, as a musician, is that when I play the music, somehow at my wrists there's a barrier, where all this wonderful music gets stuck. With this machine I've been able to realise my dreams, now I can make what's in my head appear, or, at least... well, you can hear it."
© Music, Computers & Software magazine