Stewart Copeland | My music: “ You have to open your mind – and listening to eclectic music helps me to do that ”
My grandmother was a diva at the Paris Opera. My father was a trumpeter – he even performed with the Glenn Miller Orchestra on one occasion. But then war broke out and he became a CIA agent. I was born in Langley, Virginia, the headquarters of the CIA, but soon after I was sent to Cairo, then I grew up in Beirut.
It was in Beirut that I was introduced to classical music. I heard Carmina Burana on the gramophone, and also The sea and Daphnis and Chloe, as well as all forms of Stravinsky. During this time my dad was in big band jazz. He filled the house with instruments, which my siblings did not know. But I played them all and my dad noticed it: finally, one of his children had the virus!
“ Rock musicians use their ears, they make campfire music – that’s how music is meant to be ”
The Arab rhythms that I encountered really struck me. There is a Lebanese dance where they ignore the first beat and land hard on the three, and every eighth note is an up-chik [an upward-stroke guitar chord played on the offbeat]. Later, I found out that reggae had the same foundation.
My dad raised me to be a jazz musician, but I heard Hendrix and everything changed. It is the rage of rock music that seduced. You’re 16, you only have three hairs on your chest, your voice is about to break, you feel like you should be master of the universe but you’re just a pipsqueak. The drums seemed like a manly instrument to play.
When I went to Somerset Residential School, I was the only drummer. I was in the school orchestra and they kept firing me because I was too loud. It was around this time that I had my first deep musical epiphany. We had our Christmas service at Wells Cathedral and hearing a thousand voices singing made me think: this is music.
There are two kinds of musicians: the ear and the eye. They are separated at birth but there are crossovers (like the brass players who improvise but can also read the dots on the page). Rock musicians use their ears, they make campfire music – that’s how music is meant to be. Classical musicians connect to the music via the visual instructions on the page; with a diagram [score], you can do amazing things.
It was the composition for the cinema that brought me back to the page. Francis Ford Coppola asked me to write the music for his film Rumble Fish and the result was a little out of the ordinary. During the process, Francis told me, “This is all wired, cool and trendy, but you need strings. So 20 guys came in, and they played their parts so quickly they were done in an hour. Since then, knowing what these trained musicians can do, I have been leaning more and more into this toolkit.
Ben hur started with a phone call. I was asked to score a full arena production with a chariot race, horses and thousands of underpaid Ukrainian extras. The show opened to the O2 and ran its course. Later my director told me to watch the 1925 black and white silent film version, made 30 years before Charlton Heston’s – it took two weeks to thaw the celluloid print. I spent two years organizing it, then I had to cut my music to adapt it.
The orchestra is a complicated beast and there is still so much to learn. I’m not a classical composer, but I use the orchestra to do whatever I want to do. When the RLPO commissioned me to write a percussion concerto, I was on the program with some of the greatest British composers: Elgar, Walton, Britten and then my skinny little piece! But I was proud to be part of this bill and, in fact, it did quite well.
At home, I groove on the radio. I listen to Shirley & Spinoza – they play everything from Beach Boys to 50s radio plays with concrete music. Budding composers ask me: “How do I find my own voice? The answer is you have to open your mind – and listening to eclectic music helps me to do that.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Gramophone. Don’t miss any issues – subscribe today