Interview: Former ‘The Police’ Drummer Stewart Copeland And Dallas’ D’drum Create Indonesian-Inspired Concerto

On February 3, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will present a concerto entitled “Gaemlan D’Drum,” a world premiere work that is a collaboration between renowned drummer, percussionist, and composer Stewart Copeland (formerly of The Police as well as the overlooked solo act Klark Kent) and local percussionist outfit, D’Drum.  Copeland was commissioned by The Dallas Symphony Orchestra to write the piece.

Influenced by the ancient Gamelan music of Indonesia , Copeland’s concerto utilizes gamelan instruments that have been modified in order to function in a symphony orchestra setting. Copeland and D’Drum, which shares members of the DSO, seem to be a natural fit, as both have spent decades incorporating the stylistic practices of musicians from around the globe.  I spoke with Stewart by phone about incorporating these influences, as well as the regional nuances of gamelan music, the differences in working as a popular and serious musician, and the piece itself.

FrontRow: Your new concerto is in the style of Indonesian gamelan music…

Stewart Copeland: Actually, no.  It’s in the style of a Western composer.  The instruments themselves are extremely exotic and have an inescapable ethnic quality.  But I haven’t attempted to pretend that I’m Indonesian, steeped in Indonesian music.  Although I am somewhat steeped in it; I’m a fan of it.  But this is Western music; the instruments, the concertino, the Gamelan orchestra has such a flavor, that it does have an ethnic vibe to it.

FR: When did you first encounter the music and what specifically drew you to it?

SC: I first heard the stuff when I was in college on the Nonesuch Explorer Series. What drew me to it was that it had just a natural ethereal beauty.  But also, it’s harmonically very sophisticated, and rhythmically as well.  You know Indian music is very sophisticated, melodically and so on, but the Indonesian, the Balinese music is very sophisticated harmonically.  So I’ve always been kind of a fan of it.  But I never dreamed of composing for it, because the bells are normally out-of-tune with other bell sets, let alone a Western orchestra.

Every village has its set of bells but they’re out-of-tune with the next village down the road.  But those wild Texans of D’Drum had several sets made: a Javanese set and a Balinese set, made in concert pitch.  So now for the first time it’s possible to really set the bells with an orchestra.  I mean, other composers have been working on this for generations.  But it’s been very difficult, because it’s hard to get them in tune with the orchestra, or rather, to get the orchestra to de-tune, or find the pitch of the bells.  It’s been constricting.  But now with this concertino that’s in pitch, I can write all kinds of cool stuff.

FR: Since the style can vary quite a bit; for instance the Balinese style is said to be more dramatic and lively, as opposed to the Javanese, which tends to be more mellow…

SC: Yeah, that’s true.

FR: …was there a particular region that you were partial to? Or is it more of a general influence?

SC: Well, it’s down to the bell sets: the green ones are the Javanese ones.  The red ones are the Balinese ones.  And, as you say, the Javanese ones are more introspective.  The Balinese are more celebratory.

Stewart Copeland (second from left) with the members of D'drum, made up of players with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
One of the pieces, the middle movement, is based on a Javaneses scale and it probably is the most ethnically correct, if you like, of the three movements.  But once again, I’m a Western composer, and if you want to hear Balinese music, get a Balinese composer.  Anything else is a watered-down version, so I kind of write with my own instincts and the fun part is, this instrument, which you can’t shake off its ethnic flavor.  But now, that it’s in concert, it is quite versatile.

I mean, hopefully people who attend the concerts who are not familiar with Indonesian music will go and find it.  And it’s a beautiful thing.  And the best form of Indonesian music is made by Indonesians.  This is a debate that I have with artists all the time: about whether or not to be pure.  And my argument, I mean, everyone likes to say “Well, you know, if I use Hungarian melodies I need to go to Hungary and study the Hungarians, and live amongst the Hungarians and be Hungari-,” that’s fake! Because you’re not going to be Hungarian.  Hire a Hungarian to write your music, you know?  Unless you’re Prokofiev.

So my attitude is, that when I steal ideas, whether from Jamaica, or from Bali, or from Zaire, I’m true to where I come from. And I steal these ideas absolutely without any remorse or twinge of conscience, because I think that’s where the melting pot really occurs: not by seeking to emulate sources, but by taking those sources and bringing them aboard once you get going.  And in fact, that’s what American culture is all about.  The reason why American culture dominates the world; people are dancing to our music, watching our movies, is because we are a mongrel nation, and because we’ve absorbed all these cultures without showing the respect that is due to these cultures that we harvest.  Maybe it would be more respectful to adhere more closely to the sources, but Americans don’t do that and that’s why American art is so strong.  It’s got cojones.  American art has got life.  It doesn’t belong in museums.  That’s pretty much my attitude towards plundering exotic sources.

FR: So, my last question regarding the…

SC:  And by the way, by the way, I plunder these sources and I go to a pygmy village in Northern Congo and I’m inspired by their music and I take these ideas away with me and guess what?  These villagers aren’t looking around saying “Hey, where did all our music go?  It must have been that big white guy that took it away with him.”  The music is still there.  It’s not a zero sum game.

FR: Right. The last question regarding the actual composition itself, and I think you already answered this, but you’re still working within a Western twelve-tone setup?

SC: Yes, I’m able to supply notes in the orchestra that the Balinese gamelan doesn’t have.  And the instruments themselves are good at certain scales, and so, I can work against those scales or I can work with those scales, as I do in various places.  But the music is fundamentally Western, but there is this inescapable flavor.

I think when The Beatles used the sitar, it was still fully Beatles music, but the sitar did actually have an atmosphere.

FR: How much time did you spend with the players themselves, or can you give a time-line from the original idea?

SC: It took about two years to write the music.  Actually, it took very little time to write the music, but a lot more time to create the score and to work with D’Drum and go back-and-forth.  I wrote the music for them to play and then I hear them playing it, and between us, we nudged it this way, and nudged it that way.  And it’s kind of gone back-and-forth.  It’s quite collaborative in that respect, with the gamelan bells.

I had to go down there with a movie camera and film each bell, each instrument, so that I would know what the notes are.  Even though they are at concert pitch, to get that distinctive sound, they have parallel bars that are just tuned a couple of cents away from each other, which gives you that weird dissonance, kind of a weird oscillation in every note that just gives it a distinctive flavor.

FR: Your career of composing and scoring has spanned decades now, so you have dealt with symphonies before. Were you surprised that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra had a separate percussion ensemble?  Or are such extracurricular setups common with classical musicians in your experience?

SC: Well, more happy than surprised. A lot of orchestral players play Brahms by day and Steve Reich at night. I think that’s something you find in orchestras; the players live in the larger community of the orchestra but they also have slight specialities: period instruments or certain composers.  You see that in orchestras around the country.  But these guys have been together for twenty years in D’drum.  Two of them are regulars in the orchestra, and three of them have other jobs.  But that is something you see in Orchestras, different units, the brass section will have their little thing that they do when they play weddings and so on.

FR: In the earlier part of your career, you were in a band (The Police) that was perceived as being talented beyond the confines of the punk and new wave music that you were associated with. Then you eventually worked as a composer and you were making music that did display a level of sophistication not exactly common with the groups that came out of that scene.  So, are you equally comfortable in both the worlds of pop and serious music?   Or do you always feel more one than the other when you’re actually there?

SC: Well, they’re very different and they, to a large extent, don’t overlap. When I’m playing rock music, particularly when I’m playing my drums, I am a silverback gorilla, a primate banging on things and swinging through the trees, and it’s not an intellectual exercise.  The composer dude is somebody else. It’s just two different mindsets.  My daddy raised me to be a jazz musician, which is why I’m kind of allergic to jazz these days.  My mother, meanwhile, always listened to Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and so on. That’s always been drifting around in my head, even as I was playing power chords with a punk band and hating the world.

Images courtesy of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

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