Sting and Strings

What is the soundtrack in eternity? Will it be a choir of angels that welcome the saved in heaven or will it be apocalyptic trumpets?  Will it be voices or instruments or both?  Such questions have exercised writers on music in Christian Europe over a good part of the last millennium. To those who objected that a heavenly body without earthly substance could not hold a violin or trombone with mass and dimension came the response that if the body could be transfigured by God then so could instruments. The earthly concert was a foretaste of the heavenly one, which would resound with all possible instruments, from krumhorns to kettledrums.

Ironically perhaps in the godless world of pop, many a star yearns to be canonized by an orchestra, that seemingly timeless purveyor of musical truth and beauty. A shining legacy requires granted by the blessing of high culture. Present day immortality requires a symphony.

This desire to have one’s hits sent aloft on the updrafts of symphonic sonority is parodied in the 1982 film Spinal Tap, the definitive account of the delusions of a rock band. After the group breaks up, or seems to, the lead singer David St. Hubbins (played by Michael McKean) tries to put a brave face on things. He claims that now he’ll have the time to pursue his other projects, first on the list “a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic.”

One could argue that such strivings for immortality are more like an embalming, a concession that one’s music is already dead, to be entombed in the vast graveyard of forgotten pop culture, to be listened to by former fans as both star and devotees mellow into their golden years. Later, if the former hits play in heaven, the charts back on earth do not register such success nor pay the royalties to the heirs.

Symphonic detours such as these are generally a bad idea. Sinatra and the Basie Band from 1962 steamrolls over the soporific Sinatra with Strings from the same year.  This judgment holds for Charlie Parker with Strings from 1950. The orchestra doesn’t elevate the great saxophonist. Instead, Parker constantly frees himself from his symphonic birdcage. Yet these recordings were his most commercially successful during his lifetime. Similarly adulterated by strings were the efforts of Clifford Brown and Billie Holiday’s in their symphonic outings from later that decade.

Perhaps it is only a brave or foolish star who still yearns for the supposed immortality provided by the symphonic aura: better to leave the oeuvre intact then attempt to repackage one’s work as a monument for the ages.

Undaunted, Sting has called on the sanctifying sounds of the symphony for his latest CD, Symphonicities released in the middle of the summer on the yellow label of Deutsche Grammofon, the brightest star in the classical firmament. The clever title is a play on Synchronicity, the last studio album of the Police, made way back in 1983— more than a quarter century being an eternity in pop.  Curiously, none of the tunes from that album, not even the #1 hit “Every Breath You Take” is included here, though it is in the repertoire on the on-going tour, the twelve songs on the album requiring some expansion to fill out an entire concert.

The project began with Sting’s appearance with the Chicago Symphony in 2009, which was so well-received and so much fun, says Sting, that he decided to record an album and take the music on the road, with the Royal Philharmonic, one of the groups backing him on Symphonicities. The RPO and Sting have been touring this summer in North America and will carrying on into the fall across Europe, from Bilbao to Moscow, with some forty concerts across the continent. The tour extends to New Zealand in February. The album topped the charts only in Poland, but got to number six in the US. The orchestra was pulled to such high elevations and receipts by the lasting appeal of the songs and the authenticity of Sting’s voice.

For all their massed numbers the orchestral players are often a stealthy presence on Symphonicities. Contracting the RPO for the recording often seems like overkill, as if far fewer had showed up for the sessions than the fifty or so musicians listed in the booklet. It comes as something of a surprise to see live footage of all the players on stage for the tour concerts, the orchestra’s grandeur finally unleashed, at least visually.

The track of Symphonicities seeks to explode any sense that this Sting and Strings will be a plush, sedate affair. The first track “Next to You” rockets out of the speakers in one of the most punkish symphonic outbursts on record. From the other side of the River Styx, Sid Vicious shakes his head, imagining what it might have been like to stand in front of an orchestra, a billy club rather than a conductor’s baton in hand. On “Next to You”  the RPO’s bows saw away at high speeds, with lightning bursts of melody that crackle brightly through the texture then disappear. This manifesto proclaims that Sting will be giving the orchestra lots to do on his songs, not revisiting them with excesses of irony, but trying something ambitious, challenging, and somewhat ill-advised. Sting is aware of the navel-gazing dangers of the project, and acknowledges this with a musical grin.

Sting is a hugely creative and brave musician. His Songs from the Labyrinth from 2006, also on Deutsche Grammofon, found its way to the top 25 on the charts. The album  was a miraculous reanimation of the haunting music of the renaissance composer John Dowland, one of history’s greatest song writers and master of that most intimate of plucked-string instruments, the lute.  For the project, Sting learned to play the lute serviceably, though the brilliant Edin Karamazov does all of the virtuosic work and the essential accompanying. Sting’s edgy voice, one not denuded of expressivity by excessive training and technique, constantly finds something new in this endlessly rich music.

Occasionally one could be forgiven for a momentary doubt, as Sting’s sensibilities threaten to distort Dowland’s Elizabethan melancholy towards Gothic fright. But Sting’s compelling reading of Dowland was all the more appealing for his own admission that he was a newcomer to the music, and that he was doing what he did, as he put it, out of “respect and care.” To be sure, it was Sting’s star power that brought Dowland to the popular imagination, but the project ranks as a singular achievement in the annals of both pop and classical music. Little wonder that the Chicago symphony wanted to tap into the roaming vitality of Sting’s musicality.

The second track on Symphonicities is the slyly self-ironizing “Englishman in New York” with the strings receding behind playful pizzicato replace the keyboard chords heard on the original version from the 1987 album … Nothing Like the Sun. For that earlier album Sting also moved beyond the pop boundaries that would have enclosed a lesser musician and worked with noted jazz players, chief among them Branford Marsalis, whose solo soprano saxophone so enlivens the definitive “Englishman in New York.” While the Symphonicity “Englishman in New York” sounds much like its predecessor, the orchestral arrangements do lend a wistfulness not to be heard in the younger, cockier original.

The new album’s arrangement of “Roxanne,” that haunting love-song to a prostitute, offers the most thorough revision of a Sting original. The stabbing guitar chords that introduced the Police’s version and preceded the young Sting’s entrance high up in his piercing, earnest voice are defanged on Symphonicities and soaked in reverie.  The cutting sonorities are replaced by a polyphonic introduction involving a range of instruments, woodwinds and strings.

This most “classical” section of the CD lends the proceedings a recherché quality. An almost folksy groove follows these learned investigations, with the loping beat of congas allowing Sting to settle lower in the range of his nearly sixty-year-old voice, still clear and defiant but also mellower, rougher, more knowing. The arrangement deploys the well-worn cliché’s of Broadway—arching woodwind and string countermelodies, orchestral swells toward the song’s chorus.

The fierce resistance of the original, gives way to resignation: the symphonic aesthetic becomes a refuge, like a painful memory anaesthetized by a glass of expensive Scotch.  One can see the movie scene, the narrator in his leather armchair in his deluxe apartment looking out over the Parisian cityscape, where three decades before he once loved a streetwalker. “I won’t share you with another boy” of the original lyric, has been tactfully changed to “with another man.” Sting is older and so is his original audience. Only at the very end of the Symphonicities track does Sting take it up the octave and reach into his highest range, suddenly, fleetingly transformed to his younger self, his younger song. He is not immune to the perils of nostalgia, nor deaf to its pleasures.

Rather than substantially revising his oeuvre, the new aural packaging mostly steers the songs towards an unavoidable maturity. That there are rewards for this golden glow is undeniable: there is humor at the distance from previous musical incarnations, but also joy in the songs themselves, in both their longevity and their mutability. But even when surrounded by a symphony of violin-playing angels, Sting triumphs over weight of orchestral immortality by singing as if no one was there.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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