Interview: LIMELIGHT

September 18, 2008

The following article appeared in a September 2008 issue of Limelight...


Just as well that first impressions don't always last. Otherwise, the paths of two musicians from extreme ends of the spectrum would never have crossed and a rather fascinating project blending the old with the new would never have shot to No.1 on classical music charts worldwide.

Those two musicians are lutenist virtuoso Edin Karamazov and rock legend Sting. The two first met, briefly, about 15 years ago. Karamazov was playing with his trio as part of a sophisticated circus act, and Sting attended one of the performances with his wife, Trudie Styler.

"They liked the performance so much, they invited us to play at his wife's birthday party in England," recalls the Croatian-born Karamazov. "I didn't like that idea at all. We don't play birthday parties."

But fate was to see these two meet again and start a conversation of an entirely different kind. Turns out, both Karamazov and Sting had a soft spot for the music and life story of Renaissance composer John Dowland. Karamazov had been playing his music since he was a child, while Sting admits he has haunted by his music and lyrics for over two decades.

"The idea of me singing Dowland had been suggested to me before by a number of people, including the Labeque sisters," Sting says from Spain, speaking to 'Limelight' in between gigs with his band The Police. "There's something in Dowland's songs that is quintessentially English, and don't ask me to define what that is, because I can't - I'm not a musicologist. But I can hear it.

"And I'm close to all English song, right to the present day. I recognise that I'm part of that, too, so I felt an affinity with the music. Certainly in mood, my voice does lend itself to a certain melancholy. So I recognised a kindred spirit and wanted to bring my own idiosyncrasies to it."

Australians will be able to hear these idiosyncrasies live when Sting and Karamazov tour their inspiring 'Songs From The Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland' collaboration in concert halls in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth later this year.

The CD was first released in 2006 and shot straight to the top of classical music charts worldwide, including No.1 on the ARIA charts in Australia, as well as the Billboard charts in America. But it wasn't without controversy. After all, what does a 56-year-old rocker know about the music of a 16th century lutenist?

"I released the album with a little trepidation," Sting laughs, "but I hope that people accept that I did it with respect and a great deal of effort, and a genuine interest in the music."

Karamazov saw immediate parallels between Sting and Dowland. "I wanted him to sing John Dowland, because his voice is just right. Not just his voice but also his personality. Both are Englishmen, Dowland was the most travelled English musician of his time, and Sting is one of the most travelled musicians of our time! John Dowland played lute, Sting is playing the guitar. John Dowland wrote his songs, and Sting also..."

But no matter how many parallels or how deep the interest, venturing into early music territory is no easy task. This is after all, one of the areas of music performance most fiercely protected (and debated) by scholars, musicians, academics, passionate fans and more. There were plenty of traditionalists whom Sting needed to convince. As well as constantly consulting with Karamazov, Sting also worked with period specialist Richard Levitt, who teaches at the Schola Cantorum in Switzerland.

The two worked predominantly on vocal technique. "I wanted to make sure I was somewhere near the ballpark of how these songs should be realised, given I'm not an operatic tenor," Sting says. "I wanted to sing in my own voice, but I didn't want to be so far out of the field that it would be ridiculous.

"I wanted the songs to be more sensual than I'd heard them tackled before. They seemed distant, so I was closer to the microphone. I think we achieved that - the songs are immediate. They're not museum pieces anymore."

As for period performance technique, Sting approached it with historical logic. "All the Dowland I'd heard before had been sung by counter-tenors and I'm certainly not that. But bel canto hadn't been invented at that time. So I have a case to make, that at the time the songs were sung in head voices, as they didn't need to fill huge concert halls. That's what I do. Maybe it's authentic, maybe it's not - it's an interesting debate."

Karamazov feels the project has worked not just because of Sting's honest approach, but because of the freshness of the music itself. And that's not something that can be said easily about repertoire that is around 400 years old.

"The music appeals to people today," says Karamazov. "Even though it was written 400 years ago, people can understand the songs today - they sound very modern to me. I wanted to recreate his music in this project, which means imagining John Dowland sitting in front of a blank piece of paper in Europe somewhere, and we wanted to recreate his feeling, when he was writing his music, his songs. To the modern ear, it sounds modern."

This is not the first time Sting has ventured into unfamiliar, and risky, territory. This self-confessed eternal student has previously used jazz, world music and even 20th century classical music as inspiration for his songwriting. It's not so much a conscious decision, he says, but more an instinct.

"I am very curious about music," he says. "I feel like the more I find out about it, the more there is still to know! It's an endless study, you never really know everything about music. I do enjoy putting myself in those situations and becoming a student again. I think that's really what musicians should do, constantly."

And this is one musicians that isn't afraid of a little bit of danger. "I don't mind taking risks, I really don't. I think it's my job, as long as they're calculated risks! It's important not to get into a rut with music and just do the one thing. Expose yourself to as many stresses as you can, within reason."

Well it seems this risk has paid off. Thanks to the rock star, countless new audiences have been introduced to the music of John Dowland. As well as spectacular CD sales, Sting is also filling plenty of churches and intimate concert venues to perform this music live. From November, Sting and Karamazov will perform four concerts in Australia, including in one of the world's most famous classical music venues - the Sydney Opera House. Sting says he is very excited. "We've just been in Australia with The Police in January, so I look forward to coming back wearing a different hat."

Sting is realistic about the audiences who will attend. "People are there out of curiosity to start with, obviously, but by the end of the night you can see people understanding what my adventure with this has been. Also you get some Dowland fans who cast their critical eye, and that makes it worth it, too."

What's more, Sting will be back for more. He is already working on more projects with Karamazov (including giving his classic songs like 'Message in a Bottle' the Dowland treatment) and Karamazov can't wait to continue the musical friendship. "He's so, so honest about what he's doing. It's a feeling that we are going somewhere. That the door is just opening."

And as with Dowland project, Sting is relying on his musical friends to point him in the right direction. "I'm asking my friends if they can suggest more adventures for me," Sting says. "I wouldn't tackle Puccini or Verdi, something that requires a classically produced voice, but certainly something around the time of Renaissance Baroque - I'd certainly have a go at."

But he's not quite finished with Dowland yet. While Sting may still be touring with The Police at the moment, when he starts writing new material at the end of the year, his old Elizabethan friend is sure to make an appearance.

"I'm sure Dowland will pop up in terms of assimilating stuff," Sting says. "And I'm really into the lute. I'm playing it a lot. I'd like to write some modern music for the lute. It's part of my life now."

So what do Sting's Police rocker mates think of this venture? He laughs: "They certainly respect what I've done, but I do get a ribbing every now and then. I carry my lute with me everywhere! They are dead against me bringing it out on stage during a concert."

This modern Renaissance man is in a good place in life at the moment. He's busy and successful at work, and happy at home. "I'm 56 years old, at the moment I'm doing the job of a 26-year-old. I have six children, most of them are grown up. I'm happily married. I have a great deal of sun, I'm very fit.

"But I'm two thirds of the way through my life, so yes, I think a lot. But you do need to give yourself some time to think. I meditate everyday, I've been doing yoga practice for 20 years, I just sit and ground myself and think, 'Where am I at the moment, what am I achieving here, where have I failed?' It's a not brain science, it's all simple things. You can learn more from your failures than you can from your successes."

As for the future, who knows what will come next for this eternal student. More classical inspiration, more charity concerts (in the vein of his Live 8 appearance), more unexpected collaborations? "I'm in a very liberated position of having absolutely no idea about the future. I haven't got a clue about what I'm going to do. I love that. It's frightening but it's also liberating."

What he is sure of is that more artists and popular musicians could, and should, learn from the rich traditions of classical music. "I believe there is a spiritual element in classical music that is missing from a lot of modern music. We need to bring it back."

© Limelight (Australia) by Katarina Kroslakova


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