The following article appeared in an October 2006 issue of Early Music America...
The British rock star talks about his fascination with the music of the great Elizabethan lutenist.
"The song is so magical that it blew me away when I first heard it. There is simply no precedent for this song. It exists completely alone, and I love singing it." The song is John Dowland's 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell', and the singer is Sting. That's right, Sting, who as a member of The Police and as a successful solo artist, has made dozens of pop and rock CDs. And now for something completely different: Sting and lutenist Edin Karamazov have just released 'Song From The Labyrinth', a recording of Dowland songs, on the Deutsche Grammophon record label.
"The songs of John Dowland have been haunting me over 20 years," says the singer. Sting's first taste of Dowland came after a 1982 Amnesty International concert. The English actor John Bird mentioned the composer, and the seed was planted. Sting remembers, "The next day I was intrigued enough to seek out a recording of Dowland's songs performed by Peter Pears, with Julian Bream on lute." He appreciated the beauty of Dowland's art but did not see himself performing the songs.
A decade later, Sting's friend, the concert pianist Katia Lab?®que, suggested he rethink that position. She coached him on three songs that he performed at informal musical soirees. Time passed, and Sting's long-time colleague, rock guitarist Dominic Miller, stepped into the picture. "Dominic commissioned the instrument maker Klaus Jacobsen to make a nine-course lute for me," says Sting.
Of course, it's one thing to have the instrument, another to play it. Miller introduced Sting to the Sarajevo-born lutenist Edin Karamazov after one of their Frankfurt shows. Karamazov played Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a jaw-dropping moment. Sting, Miller, and Karamazov spent an intense hour talking about music. Karamazov remembers the moment: "I played for him, and I think Sting believes in instinct and felt that we had something in common, something to share. He said, 'Let's do something together.' The first person I though of was John Dowland."
"Edin's rather a mystical character, like someone out of another era," says Sting. "He has a successful concert career, but he also plays on the street in Dubrovnik when he feels like it. He's not of this time. He's absolutely passionate about the music and driven to do things that are refreshing and new. As soon as I met him, I knew that this was the time for this catalogue of songs, which had been haunting me for so long."
He continues, "I immersed myself in Dowland for two years, but it was never planned as a recording until the last minute. It was basically a labour of love."
In addition to studying lute with Karamazov, Sting studied Karamazov's recordings. "Edin had recorded with the countertenor Andreas Scholl. I was very interested in the record they made together because Edin was playing and because, at the time, it was the latest recording of Dowland songs. I listened to it very closely and respected it immensely.
"As a matter of fact, I listened to a lot of Dowland recordings and felt that I couldn't compete with that style but also thought that maybe there was something I could do in my own style that would be relevant, respectful, and new."
Respecting the past included taking singing lessons. "I wanted someone from the serious music side to advise me about breath and where to breath, so I spoke with Richard Levitt of the Schola Cantorum in Basel," Sting says. "I have good breath control, but occasionally I might make a decision about where to breathe that might make nonsense of the lyrics. I needed someone with the discipline to say, 'You should breathe there, at the end of this line, where the comma is not where you think it should be.' I also had a problem with diphthongs, so [Levitt] got me to sing them without whining. He taught me about warming my voice, which is something I don't normally do. It was a great help to have someone with that knowledge and experience."
As Sting himself will tell you, his recording is not what we've come to think of as period Dowland performance. "I'm not really interested in the concept of purity in music," he says. "You hear the phrase 'music purist'. What does that mean? It smells of fundamentalism, anti-progress. We've evolved as a species by experimenting and synthesizing ideas, coming up with something new while at the same time respecting the past and giving it its due. It will be interesting to take it somewhere else."
But at the core is Sting's fascination with Dowland. "He pulls you into the centre," says the singer. "The more I listen to the later songs, the more I realise you can't really understand what he is doing unless you accept that it's a spiritual path for him and he is finding his way towards whatever is next. He's singing very clearly about death - not a particularly common theme in pop music."
He continues, "Dowland's songs are very economic, which is not to say simple; they are complex songs, but there is an economy about them that is quite staggering. There's hardly any dressing up in them, nothing flowery. They are very ascetic. He says a great deal without saying too much. He's very pithy, and his musical ideas stand out like gems in the dark. I'd like to assimilate that into my own work - being less verbose, less flowery.
"He borrowed a lot of European styles, but there is something very English about them," says Sting. "I've learned a great deal by sitting in the room with [Dowland] and playing his notes, watching him make decisions about where the stuff goes, and recognising motifs and his little tricks. It's dazzling for the period, with an amazing sense of chromatic invention. Amazingly, he was one of the first popular artists, and his songs were produced for a mass market. Those songbooks found their way into English homes and probably some of those in the American colonies. He's a comically itinerant musician, like me; I feel a certain sympathy with him."
In addition to songs, the CD includes lute solos played by Karamazov as well as Sting joining Karamazov in the instrumental duet 'My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home'. "Sting is a natural musician," Karamazov says. "During the recording session he came in with some of his own good ideas, wanting me to improvise in some places. In working with him, I improved my own way of playing."
Perhaps what makes the recording unique -as if Sting singing Dowland isn't enough - are a series of read excerpts from a long letter that Dowland wrote to Queen Elizabeth I's secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil.
"I was thinking people would hear these songs without any knowledge of the period or the historical character," says Sting. "People who are not early music fans may not have ever have heard of Dowland and might pick this record up out of curiosity. I wanted to give them the context to understand the songs - a kind of historical soundtrack. So we have this rather paranoid letter where Dowland is trying to save his livelihood and perhaps his life [Dowland was a Catholic during a time when that could prove fatal] by speaking to the highest courtier in the land during a time when England was a police state. It has a drama to it that provides a kind of ambient context to the songs. I enjoyed reading the letters, and we improvised some music behind them - an experimental idea. It was doing this that clinched the idea of making a record for me. I thought people would respond to it, that it would make sense to them."
Sting continues to play his lute every day. "As a bass player, I have some disadvantages with it, but Edin has given me great guidance, and I've played every note that Dowland has written. Whether you'd want to pay money to hear that is another issue, however." Is there another early music recording in the future? "I am very open to suggestions about where I should go further with this," Sting says. "I'm rather interested in taking what I've assimilated in this music and making something new with it - and I don't mean just adding drum beats to it. I'm not quite sure where it could arrive or what it could be, but it excites me. I like to think that good work is never wasted. Even if this never became a record, it would have somehow bled into my development as a musician."
"I've tried to bring audiences along with me on my little journey," Sting continues. "For me, music is a spiritual path and is about learning, I'm still a student. If I bring a certain percentage of people along from The Police to my own work and now to a new place, like Dowland, then I feel my job is very satisfying. I know it's not going to be a platinum selling record on the top of the Billboard charts. But who knows? You just don't know what this music can do to people."
© Early Music America by Craig Zeichner