IN TUNENovember 10, 2009
In Tune: My next guest is one of stars of the pop world who also has a deep feeling for the classical, when Police reformed recently they trailed more than their glory days with them, millions turned out all over the world for and including the unmistakeable voice of Gordon Sumner, better known of course as Sting but he's turned his talents in the past to classical music like Purcell's lute songs when he was last here and his latest recording with an eclectic and wonderful group of musicians is a little trip into winter. You're very welcome to 'In Tune' and on the face of it that may seem a rather gloomy and chilly prospect. Why winter?
Sting: I think it's an undervalued season. I think it's a very rich season in terms of imagery, for me it's the season of the imagination, and the season of stories, of spirits and ghosts in the chimney and mystery. They so asked me to do a Christmas record and I point blank said no, no I wouldn't do that I'd like to do something broader. Let me tackle the winter.
In Tune: Well, winter duly tackled, we'll come back after this. We'll start on a good classical base with Mr Henry Purcell and the Cold Song from the Fairie Queen where we're firmly in the mask of winter where he really wants to go back and freeze.
Sting: King Arthur...
In Tune: King Arthur, rather, where he wants to go back and freeze, freeze, freeze... (plays Cold Song)
In Tune: ...The Cold Song from King Arthur by Purcell with Sting and friends. You've gathered a lot of people together - a lot of people we will know from this programme, Daniel Hope of course a great violinist you've got involved, Kathryn Tickell the great Northumbrian piper. How did you select them all?
Sting: I think because I was tackling the winter I wanted to address the idea that winter draws us home, back to our roots, back to the family home, back to the church, back to somewhere cosy, somewhere warm. So I brought my traditional musicians from Newcastle I've worked with for many years - Kathryn Tickell being one of them and filtered this music through them through their traditional sensibility and then mixed and matched. Daniel's one of my favourite concert violinists but he also has an affinity with improvised music. He can improvise with the best of them, so it was nice to mix those two styles together and with rock musicians and some jazz too.
In Tune: Is it a bit of ying and yang with the pop world or not? It's interesting that Police reformed again a couple of years ago and were fantastically successful, It's a dangerous operation to bring back something hugely successful but it's obviously deeply part of your nature as well.
Sting: I like contrast and I'm led by my curiosity. I don't ever want to get stuck in a rut and I just like to explore new territory because it gives me more and more freedom. So I tackle a lot of different things, I'm not afraid of failure but I'm curious and I'm here to learn. I love classical music but I'd never call myself a classical musician but I read music and I sing in tune, largely, so I select carefully some pieces from the classical canon that I think I can adapt to my own particular style. But I'm not trying to ape classical musicians at all.
In Tune: But it's interesting I think what you said before about maybe a few years ago people were brought up listening to music and there was a great variety of music there wasn't that so much what we would call choice and now kids can listen to one sort of music all the time and they're not maybe exposed to another sort at all.
Sting: It's true, I think it sort of ghettoises music in a way, where we are trapped in one music form. I was educated musically in the fifties by the BBC and I heard everything from Beethoven's Fifth to Cathy Kirby to Carousel so I have a very catholic understanding and appreciation of music, in the universal sense.
In Tune: When we talked about Bach earlier what does he do for you?
Sting: I would say Bach is my teacher. I sit and play Bach every morning. I play the guitar and I play either the cello suites or the lute suites or the partitas. I enjoy playing the partitas. You wouldn't want to pay money to hear me play these things but just going through them just as an exercise, you sit at the feet of the master and you can watch him in the notation making musical decisions, some quite stunning musical decisions, and you learn. You can't help but learn by playing Bach.
In Tune: Could you trace some of them in your great hits to bigger classical...
Sting: Oh, I've stolen wholesale from J S Bach. If a musicologist listened he'd say 'You're a robber, sir. You're a thief.' I always identify my sources and say this particular line comes from the great master.
In Tune: I think Bach would be perfectly pleased about that, after all, he rearranged Vivaldi and didn't mind a little bit of re-arranging. Neither did Handel for that matter.
Sting: Music is borrowed.
In Tune: Nothing new under the sun really, except the way that we look at it. The filter of what you've put of course on this latest recording - 500 years - did you decide on a particular continuum, a particular space or what?
Sting: I did a lot of research. I did six months research into songs about the winter - anything that mentioned cold, frost, wind, snow, Christmas, I looked into and I think it covers about five centuries. Some sacred songs, some secular songs, some from the classical canon, there's a bit of Schubert, a bit of Bach, a bit of Purcell, some folks songs and a couple of my own cheekily inserted in there. But I think songwriting is a legacy that's thousands of years old and as a modern songwriter I feel part of that legacy.
In Tune: Absolutely. Well we'll have you in a moment or two, but it's a traditional piece that I think Kathryn Tickell introduced you to... this was one from your native north-east that you hadn't heard?
Sting: I asked Kathryn if she knew any songs from the north that would fit this brief and she said do you know 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest'. I said, 'I don't', so she sat me down and in good time honoured folk tradition she taught it to me orally and it's called the 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest'. It was published in a book of northern songs in 1821 and attributed to Thomas Doubleday who was a radical whig poet from Newcastle. He said he got the tune from a Newcastle street singer so the song has made full circle... (plays 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest')
In Tune: 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest' a traditional Newcastle piece sung by Sting with Dominic Miller and Ira Coleman on bass and that song was taught to him by Kathryn Tickell and I gather her father gave you a huge compliment for your rendition?
Sting: Yes, I sang it at Durham cathedral in September and he came - he's a very famous Tyneside singer - and said 'That was a canny rendition of 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest' and I loved the moaning in the middle'. (laughs)
In Tune: What about the early days and musical influences? You talk about being exposed to absolutely everything but it was quiet a while before you took up the role as it were of troubador and composer and singer and entertainer. There was teaching, there was rough work I think as well...
Sting: My mother was a piano player and for some reason she gravitated towards playing tangos. She loved playing tangos and one of my earliest memories is of my mother's feet watching this very rhythmic thing on with pedals while she played tangos. My dad would do a turn at parties and sing - he had a nice tenor voice, I remember. So I must have inherited something from them.
In Tune: Well, it's there. It may have taken a little time to come out but did you always want to do this, when you were teaching, when you were coaching soccer players and working manually?
Sting: As a child I used to help my dad on the milk round in the mornings and we used to be up at five in the morning. He didn't say much apart from how many milk bottles to deliver to whatever door, but I was always allowed to fantasise and dream. I was a daydreamer. I dreamed I would become a musician and I'd have some sort of international career. Where this came from I do not know - a sort of vague idea that there was glory at the other end of all of this. But I dreamed it, I swear.
In Tune: Well if you dream it hard enough perhaps dream can come true.
Sting: I think it's true.
In Tune: Maybe you rubbed the magic bottle and it just happened? There was a genie in it somewhere underneath the cream?
Sting: I was blessed. Very blessed.
In Tune: When did you decide you would venture into the classical canon, if we can call it that?
Sting: I've always been interested in classical music but I never really saw an entree because I'm not a classically trained musician or a singer even, but when I tackled the Dowland it was interesting because Dowland...
In Tune: Again, there we are, in a dark world too with Dowland...
Sting: A very dark world, the world of the Elizabethans. But his music was written at a time before bel canto was invented and there's an argument to say that it was not sung in large opera houses or music halls it was sung in small rooms around tables...
In Tune: Indeed, proper chamber music...
Sting: So perhaps the way of singing, the head voice that a pop singer uses nowadays with a microphone is maybe the authentic way. It's just an argument, there's no way of proving it wrong or otherwise but I'm saying that it's an interesting one... So I felt there was an entree there. I select my classical music very carefully. I wouldn't sing Puccini or Verdi or anything like that because I can't. But anything old I'll have a go at.
In Tune: Well, interestingly whether it was true or not in Rose Tremain's tremendous book about Dowland and the court at Denmark and King Christian didn't want any musicians in the room and so he played and sang in the cellar and it was piped up so it could be heard upstairs.
Sting: A nice reverberation...
In Tune: The original recorded sound¬Ö so you picked the right man. Maybe if he was around today he'd be doing exactly the same thing. What do you think next? Have you got a plot in your head for another project?
Sting: I haven't the foggiest about what to do next, but I'm led by my curiosity and I'm still here learning music. I've spent a lot of time learning the last five or six years immersing myself in the creative process of other people who are great masters, so perhaps it will bear fruit in that maybe I'll write something original soon. I don't know. There's no guarantee about anything, but I've no idea what next.
In Tune: Curiosity will do I think. Curiosity and musical intelligence will see you through. The recording 'If On A Winter's Night...' is out now and I think there's a DVD which was done in Durham... was that from Durham cathedral?
Sting: Durham cathedral.
In Tune: What an extraordinary place to do it, because that is a terrifying and wondrous place. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the first sight and the first expectation and the first realisation of it is awe-inspiring, in a dark way.
Sting: I think it's the most wonderful cathedral in Britain, frankly. It's eleventh century and must have been a massive demonstration of Norman power at the time to say basically not only do we control you in the temporal world but when you die we control you as well. And St Cuthbert, my patron is there, protects the place still.
In Tune: St Cuthbert of course, is patron to everyone in that part of the world, he's obviously been taking a special interest in you. Well, you talked about cheekily insinuating a couple of pieces of your own and we come to one now. What was the genesis for the 'Lullaby For An Anxious Child'?
Sting: Well I've reared six children and they've all been anxious at various times and I've lulled them back to sleep on my shoulder many a night. I just had this idea that I'd like to write a lullaby and Dominic Miller and myself wrote this song about fifteen years ago. It seemed appropriate for this collection and so I put it on there. Cheekily, as you say. (plays 'Lullaby To An Anxious Child')
In Tune: Well I hope that if you a fractious infant you just managed to put them on your shoulder and get them off to sleep like Sting did with his children. 'Lullaby To Anxious Child' written by Sting and Dominic Miller. And goodness there are so many people - there's Dominic, there's Kathryn Tickell, Vincent Segal, Julian Sutton on melodeon, Mary MacMaster on harp, Ira Coleman on bass we've got Cyro Baptiste on percussion. All the people you've got together for 'On A Winter's Night'. It's out on Deutsche Grammophon, DVD available from Durham cathedral and you're going to do another little live gig on it or is this it?
Sting: I'm playing St John the Divine in New York City in December, and then I'm playing in Baden Baden and Paris. But then I'll have to put it to bed until the Spring.
In Tune: Yes, the wrong seasonal time to be talking about winter.
Sting: It's true.
In Tune: We'll wait for the icicles to form. Sting, thank you very much indeed, it's been lovely to have you with us and bring your guitar and play some Bach next time.
Sting: I'd love to.
© BBC Radio 3 'In Tune'