THE WALL STREET JOURNALOctober 06, 2006
The first time Sting and the lutanist Edin Karamazov met, years ago, Mr. Karamazov's group was performing the music of Mozart, Vivaldi and Khatchaturian between acts at the Circus Roncalli in Hamburg, Germany, and Sting was in the audience. Afterward, the British pop star invited the group to come to his estate in England to play at a birthday party. As Sting tells it, the answer was a curt no, with Mr. Karamazov informing him they were serious musicians and not "performing monkeys" at his beck and call.
A mutual affection for the music of John Dowland, the 16th-century British composer and lutanist, eventually brought the two together, but Sting and Mr. Karamazov still bicker. We're in Sting's duplex apartment overlooking Central Park, and he is attempting to explain his invasion of the world of early music and whether it's appropriate for a pop singer to tackle Dowland. Mr. Karamazov interrupts.
"You keep repeating 'me as a pop singer, me as a pop singer,'" the Sarajevo native says. "You're a Dowland singer as well."
"Well, Dowland was a pop singer too," Sting replies. He's moved from a well-worn sofa to the floor, his legs now tucked in a lotus position.
"You've made an entire album of Dowland songs," continues Mr. Karamazov, a thickset man with wide, piercing eyes and a mop of brown hair. "These are not modern songs."
"In Dowland's time there was no distinction between pop music and music," Sting says. "It was all popular. Dowland made songs for the mass media."
Mr. Karamazov concedes, which is what one does if you're a musician and your host is a household name with millions of albums sold and bushels of awards to his credit. Their collaboration, 'Songs From the Labyrinth' (Deutsche Grammophon), to be released Oct. 10, shows there's a deep sympathy between the two. Its 15 songs by Dowland are delivered with an urgency not often found on recordings of early music. Frankly, the urgency is uncharacteristic for Sting, whose pop albums have become increasingly cloying, though never at the expense of his distinct voice, which has grown more alluring with age.
Unlike some other vocalists who seek to project far and wide while singing early music, Sting sought intimacy with the listener. Dowland's "songs were written at a time before the bel canto technique of singing was invented. They were sung in small rooms, not in auditoriums," he says. "I can't sing like Luciano Pavarotti, but I can sing like me. So there's a niche here for me to explore. Edin and I had the same idea: to put the listener close to the lute and put the voice right there too."
If you come to their Dowland project through contemporary pop music, you'll find much that's familiar: imagine vivid, romantic, often melancholy folk music with Mr. Karamazov's rich, ringing lute instead of an acoustic guitar. For Sting's pop fans, the tracks on 'Songs From the Labyrinth' may fit alongside, say, 'Fragile' from his 'Nothing Like the Sun', the instrumental 'St. Agnes and the Burning Train' from 'The Soul Cages' or 'I Was Brought to My Senses' from 'Mercury Falling'. If you're of a mind to challenge his conversion to the classical canon as late in coming, remember he's recorded with Mr. Pavarotti and quoted Hanns Eisler on 'Nothing Like the Sun' and Prokofiev on his 1985 solo debut, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles'.
Sting was introduced to Dowland's music in 1982, but it wasn't until more than a decade later that he joined pianist Katia Labeque in a few informal performances of Dowland's 'Come, Heavy Sleep', 'Can She Excuse My Wrongs?' and 'Fine Knack for Ladies', all of which appear on the new album with Mr. Karamazov providing the instrumental accompaniment. Later, Sting's guitarist Dominic Miller gave him a gift of a lute specially made for him, and Sting developed a facility that allowed him to play with Mr. Karamazov on 'My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home'.
Though he's performed Dowland's music with other vocalists, most notably Andreas Scholl, Mr. Karamazov says he and Sting spent a year exploring Dowland. Of the songs, he says, "They are very powerful and like old Venetian paintings with very precise brush strokes. They are difficult to perform."
"And there's an economy about them too which is very attractive to my modern ear," Sting says. "There's nothing flowery about them. I think what he managed was to take a lot of European styles and synthesize them into something that's quite English."
"Very English," Mr. Karamazov says with a firm nod.
"Quintessentially English," Sting adds.
Dowland requires passion, Mr. Karamazov says. "When you sing 'Flow, My Tears', you have to do something else with it. The listener has to be captured inside this melancholy."
"You have to be honest when you sing it," Sting says. "It's just too intense."
I note that the duo's tender reading of 'Flow, My Tears', perhaps the disc's most arresting performance, seems to contain references to many familiar folk melodies.
"The songs are full of pop hooks, what the Germans call 'ear worms,'" Sting says. "They're 'hooky' songs, which is why I'm obsessed with this music now. I play it every day. It's hard to get out of it once you're in."
But even after Sting realized he enjoyed singing with Mr. Karamazov, he wasn't sure they'd record an album. "I was intrigued by the music and working with Edin," he says, "but it was a labor of love, a labor of curiosity. Weeks would go by and I would be thinking I ought to go do another pop record. It wasn't until I read the letter that I saw how we could do an album."
In 1595, Dowland, who had left his homeland to perform for royalty throughout Europe, wrote a rambling letter to Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I, in which he seemed to pledge allegiance to the British crown in the hope of being invited to join the Royal Court, though some historians believe the letter is code and that Dowland was a spy of sorts. On the CD, Sting reads excerpts from the letter, which he calls "conspiratorial," to give a historical context to the music and a glimpse into the personality of an alienated man who wrote songs that are both joyful and forlorn.
Sting and Mr. Karamazov will perform excerpts from 'Songs From the Labyrinth' at a handful of shows in New York, London and Berlin. They'll also appear together, as themselves, on an episode of NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Producers would be wise to let the cameras roll whenever the two discuss music.
After that, Sting surmises he'll return to pop, though his label has suggested other similar projects. "Blues lute," he jokes. Mr. Karamazov plans to record a solo album of classical compositions he's transcribed for electric guitar and orchestra.
"Electric guitar is a wonderful instrument," Mr. Karamazov says. "Bach played a mechanical instrument -- the organ."
Sting shrugs. "I'm a purist about classical music. I want to hear it on classic instruments."
"I can't imagine Bach not approving what I'm doing," Mr. Karamazov responds.
"Music moves on when you form hybrids in the spirit of adventure," Sting allows.
Mr. Karamazov nods.
"But I don't like classical music on electric instruments," Sting says with a grin that suggests the debate will continue unresolved.
© The Wall Street Journal by Jim Fusilli