The last few years have seen undisputed rock god Sting turning in a widening gyre away from rock, jazz and world-music idioms toward the less familiar airspace of classical music. The singer-bassist took up the lute in 2005 and the following year released a collection of works by Elizabethan composer John Dowland, Songs from the Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon). This year saw the release of Twin Spirits (DVD, Opus Arte), a theatrical production about the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann. Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, portrayed Robert and Clara in words and were backed by the singing of Simon Keenlyside and Rebecca Evans, who performed songs and Lieder by both Schumanns. Sting spoke to Listen at a New York recording studio, where he was putting the finishing touches on his new winter album, If On a Winter’s Night (Deutsche Grammophon).
Looking over your musical path — from jazz fusion to rock to world music, from three- and four-minute pop songs to longer-form pieces, from 4/4 to more complex time signatures and mixed meter — does your burgeoning interest in classical music come as part of a natural evolution in your search for greater musical complexity?
I’ve always been interested in classical music and was exposed to a lot of it as a child. I don’t really view classical music as a monolithic structure that is impregnable. And there are more ways into it than through the conservatory, as much as I respect that route and that discipline. I treat it with respect, but I feel there are things that I can tackle and make my own, or at least put a different spin on it. I mean, I’m not competing with Plácido [laughs], I’m being myself when I tackle these songs. I’m not a classically trained singer at all, by any means. But, as you well know — with as much respect as I have for that form, it’s a very artificial way of making sound, employed to fill a concert hall without amplification. Now that we have amplification, I think music stylistically tends to follow technology, whether it’s the piano or whatever: you can argue that you can’t play Bach on a pianoforte if you want, but that takes a huge amount of beautiful music out of the canon. So I think sometimes you can afford to innovate, even allowing a parvenu like myself into the fortress just to see what happens.
In Songs from the Labyrinth, your vocal sound begins to differ from that of your earlier solo work. More of an emphasis is placed on longer vowels, legato phrasing, hairpin crescendos and I would even venture to say that you are using more air. Can you discuss your approach and the thought process behind it?
I suppose that material itself would dictate a few stylistic changes. Just the way you need to sing a diphthong is different than the way you’d do it if you were singing a blues or singing rock ‘n’ roll. And so I had to compromise to a certain extent. I had some help there from an American chap, Richard Levitt, and he said, ‘Look, I like the way you’re singing, but take a breath there and don’t take a breath there.’ It was very simple help, but it was very useful help. And I’ve felt that Dowland songs were written before bel canto was invented, when they would sit in small rooms around tables and sing. I can’t imagine that they’d be belting it out like Luciano. So there’s an argument that that’s the way they were designed to be sung. There’s no way you can prove it either for or against [laughs], and I have a great deal of respect for the way it’s normally done by tenors and countertenors — beautiful, amazing technique, but it’s not me. And so I wanted to do something . . . that was me.
You’re still playing the lute. Tell me about the challenges and rewards of taking up an instrument like that you started it a couple years ago?
I started it four years ago. It’s a bitch. It’s a very, very difficult mistress: too many strings, tuning is a nightmare, and nonetheless I’m fascinated by it. It’s almost a symphonic instrument; it has this huge range. I’m enjoying that — it’s probably a path for life. There’s not much lute on this record, maybe one track, but it’s still a part of my musical life.
Turning to this Schumann project, it’s one thing to know abstractly that Robert and Clara had difficulty receiving consent to be married and that Robert Schumann was overtaken by mental illness, but to watch and hear it play out in epistolary form makes the Schumanns’ story so much more immediate. What did you take away from this project, either musically or extramusically?
I knew Robert Schumann’s music, I never heard Clara Schumann’s music — I knew her name. And I suppose that’s part of the misogyny of music history [laughs]: you would tend to ignore her because she’s a woman. But I was fascinated by her work particularly, and some of the songs are fantastic. What I took away from the whole thing was an incredible sense of sadness — a terrible tragedy those people lived through, and yet [they] created this timeless and eternal music. I have great admiration for that.