VocalEssence Perform Choir Composition by The Police’s Stewart Copeland
by Steve Marsh
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine | May 7, 2022
The Police drummer Stewart Copeland is in St. Paul this weekend for the regional premiere of his new chorale piece inspired by Paradise Lost.
Courtesy of Shayne Gray
Stewart Copeland is in St. Paul this weekend to debut his new chorale piece Satan’s Fall, sung by the vaunted VocalEssence Chorus, and conducted by Phillip Brunelle. The piece is inspired by a 355-year-old poem, Paradise Lost, by the English poet John Milton. So to quote Professor Dave Jennings in Animal House, “Was Milton trying to tell us that being bad was more fun that being good?”
I met Copeland in the lobby at the St. Paul Hotel before he left for a day of choral rehearsals. He’s in chill rock star rehearsal mode obviously—dressed like a Jedi in a black jacket with black jeans and black Converse all stars.
Now 69 years old, Copeland’s life has been as epic as any heroic poem. Born in Virginia, he grew up in the Middle East before his dad, who was secretly operating as one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s first spies, blew his cover and had to spirit his family away to London. Copeland went to boarding school there, before going to college in Berkeley in California, before coming back to London and getting into the new punk scene. It was there that he founded the only Police everybody actually likes.
But it’s almost unfair to him that people still want to discuss a band that hasn’t actually played together since their reunion tour in 2007, and hasn’t really been a band since the Synchronicity tour circa 1983. After all, in the intervening years, Copeland has become an accomplished composer, scoring classic movies like Rumble Fish for Francis Ford Coppola, among many others. And the man has written seven of his own operas. He still plays drums, like in his rock supergroup Oysterhead with Trey Anastasio of Phish and Les Claypool of Primus. He even won a Best New Age Grammy this year, for his album Divine Tides, with Ricky Kej, but he remains generous enough to indulge any lingering curiosity about his group with Sting.
So let’s get into it: who wants to talk about Satan?
I was an English major in college. So I dusted off my old Norton’s Anthology and read some Milton again. I remember being fascinated by this fallen angel.
How much of it did you crack open? All 10,000 lines, or a quick glance?
I don’t think anybody’s read the entire thing, have they? I read the first two books and skipped to Satan talking to Eve.
My part is based on books five and six, when Gabriel comes down to describe the story of Satan to Adam and Eve.
When’s the first time you came across Paradise Lost?
At English boarding school.
So this was initially just a large choir commission. Why did you pick Milton?
Because it had all that great language. I’ve adapted Edgar Allen Poe to opera, where I wrote the libretto myself, except that I used all of his language. I created a libretto, but it’s written by Edgar Allen Poe. In this case, this is all written by Milton, but I redacted it.
Milton was a genius for all kinds of language, not just English. He knew like 15 European languages and Hebrew. He used all that knowledge to recontextualizing English words, using certain words in ways they hadn’t been used before.
Really? I did not know that. Sounds Joycean. One of my missions is adapting Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I’m going to get around to it one day. Because it’s unreadable.
It is. Why not Joyce’s Ulysses? You can actually follow that one.
That’s even worse. But I learned all kinds of words adapting Paradise Lost. “Writhing to and fro, convulved.” Convulved! Cool! Basically to reduce the two books of Paradise Lost from 15,000 words to 1,500 words, I just sort of pulled out all those similes.
Yes, Milton is famous for those similes.
“He raised like the rising of…a bunch of Greek references.” “His sword, like the sword of…yada yada yada.” And, “It fell like the falling…yada, yada, yada.” I just put “he raised his sword and it fell.” So keeping the action sentences pretty much intact.
Milton famously makes Satan the most exciting character in the entire thing.
Blake said of Milton, “he’s in the camp of Satan without realizing it.” And there’s a logic to that. I personally am not a man of faith, but I appreciate faith and I respect people of faith. My analysis of Milton’s logic, was that right and wrong have no shades. Up is up, down is down. It’s bipolar. That’s it. And any nuance is of Satan. Satan has all the good lines because he has to use all his connivance and his serpentine logic to get around the absolute that right is right and wrong is wrong. And that’s why God doesn’t do any persuading. His logic is “cause I said so.” And for people of faith that makes perfect sense, because it’s that’s clear. Clarity is why people have faith. All the nuance, all the confusion, all the “how bout if?,” all the alternative logic, those are of Satan. And all that is much more sexy, of course.
Satan’s mission is seduction. He’s in hell, realizing he’s beaten, badly, so if God is right, his only path is to tempt people into being wrong, to get people who are good to buy into being bad.
“Rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.”
Yeah, it’s kind of like a Billy Joel line.
[Laughs] Don’t tell Milton you said that! Can it be a Bono line at least?
When you’re re-reading Milton’s crazy musical poetry, and imagining it for a choir, are you reading it in an English accent in your head?
Well I wish I could talk that way in normal conversation. I haven’t got the mental agility to construct sentences back to front like that.
You were around Sting and all those pretty boy private school kids and you can’t do a posh accent?
He’s not a pretty boy private school kid. I was the pretty boy private school kid. Sting and Andy are two of the most well-educated people I know. Autodidacts. Particularly Sting. He has read Ulysses.
I know Sting is well educated, but you had descended into this late ’70s ska and punk scene in London.
That’s all instinctive. There was connivance. But the only part we connived was the part we ditched. The only thing that was a decision—a commercial decision—was to be punks. And it didn’t last, because we weren’t. That was our uniform of convenience. A flag to fly under, because there were no other flags flying. There was no other scene that was happening. There was no other way into the business because the old wave scene was dead and gone and buried.
So you were trying to be something that you were not just in the way that you were like “well we have to be something.”
Exactly. And there was a scene that we could thrive in, sharks among minnows. And so that’s where we projected ourselves, but the quality of his songs, and the sophistication of Andy’s harmonies and chords.
And the spare, but powerful, and fucked up timing of your drumming.
The fucked up rhythms…
It is on this reggae time. Where did you learn how to do that?
By a strange happenstance I was raised in the Middle East. Lebanon mostly. Egypt and Lebanon. American Community School of Beirut.
Prince thought you could tell a Black musician from a white musician just by listening to them.
He’s not entirely wrong. And it’s not racial, it’s cultural. A Black kid grows up surrounded by Black culture, and white kids do as well by the way. But it’s cultural.
So what was up with the culture of Beirut that got into you?
Arabic music. The Baladi rhythms. Which is basically Arabic for country rhythms, has some foundational similarities to reggae. The emphasis on beat three for a four beat bar, and the hiding of beat one. Dih-dah-UHN-dih-dah… Arabic: daht-daht-UHN-daht-daht-UHN. So they both have that rhythmic foundation that’s quite similar. So in the punk clubs of London in 1977, there was no chill punk. The only way they could chill would be when Don Letts, a DJ, he started playing dub reggae. Which was [posh accent] suitably hostile.
See you can do it!
It was hostile but chill. And so all of us skinny white musicians in London were hearing this dub, saying “what the fuck?” All of us drummers: Topper Headen, Budgie, and me. All of us, were all “what the fuck?” I had already heard this, because I was a DJ in UC-Berkley at KLAX. I had got my first Bob Marley record and bonded with it, listening carefully. “Oh the snare and the kick together, on three?” Just physically figuring out what it is. It came very naturally to me because it was already in my DNA because of Arabic music.
Did you play Arabic music?
I didn’t listen to Arabic music at all. I wanted to be American. Because America represented everything that was new, modern, clean and good. And I left America at 2 months old. I was born in Virginia, so America was this shining tower on a hill. And so I didn’t really absorb that much Arabic culture. But I was surrounded by it. It was in the water, it was in the air. It was coming out of every radio. And it sunk in without me paying attention. I was listening to The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles. This was before Hendrix. Soon as Hendrix came along, that was it. My daddy raised me to be a jazz musician. The wrong jazz, as my jazz friends now tell me. “Stan Kenton? That’s your problem with jazz.” But when Hendrix came along that was it for everything. Even Ravel and Stravinsky. Actually Ravel kind of stuck. But as I walked down the street I would have “Rites of Spring” raging in one side of my head while Hendrix was blazing on the other. I would marry them in my head, which is sort of what I do know.
So growing up in the Middle East, and then London, and thinking of yourself as American, you understood what it’s like to be kicked out of a place you can’t go home to. This weird Satanic Paradise Lost-style exile.
My father was in the CIA and when his cover was blown, he shipped his family off to England. But when I arrived, I was coming from Cairo and Beirut. So in English boarding school, I’d try to hold onto my American accent. Culturally, I always wanted to feel American. But when I went to England from Lebanon, I didn’t realize that about a third of my vocabulary was not in the English language, it was Arabic. Because you’re surrounded by it. I was raised by a Palestinian nanny. And I didn’t know which words were English or Arabic or what. And I’d get there and I’d be talking to people and go, where’s the ma’? “The what?” “Water!”
Ah, ma’ is Arabic for water.
And when I got to college in Berkeley, I didn’t realize how English I was. I thought I was [cowboy accent] American, goddammit. And I got there and all my Californian buddies thought I was totally English. The syntax and the melody of the sentence and everything, but I always wanted to be American.
So you started The Police after going to Berkeley.
Yeah. I was at Berkeley. I went back to England for the summer, intending to come back to Berkeley, but I joined a band and the rest is history. Never made it back.
Your first band wasn’t a punk band.
I played in Curved Air. And then I was a tour manager, a roadie. I did anything to stay in the scene.
I thought good drummers were always in such high demand that the drummer always gets paid first.
Not true. The singer is one who gets paid.
But with The Stones it was like, “Charlie is so good we had to make sure he got paid.” Because he could be in three other bands.
Well that was Andy Summers for us. He was the triple skilled session guy, way above our station. In fact, when I first ran into him—his book is called One Train Later—we both got off the train, and he says, “Stewart, let’s have a coffee: Look dude, you and that bass player, I really think you’ve got something, but you need me in the band, and I accept.” He hates when I tell the story that way, but that is what happened. That is who he is, to his credit.
So how did you fit into this English punk scene?
Mercenary. Carpetbagger. And Sting also. He was playing in Newcastle in a jazz band, but this loud, fast-talking American—me—called him up out of London, because I had seen him play in his jazz band, Last Exit, in Newcastle when I had a night off. He was a bass player who could sing. Great. That’s what I need. I had no idea that he could write songs like that. I don’t think he did either, until Andy joined, and opened up those harmonic possibilities. Sting discovered his own songwriting then. Before then he was writing jazz opus kind of things, and soloing. But he learned the construction of pop songs by playing with the house band on these ocean cruises. He was forced to learn all these pop songs. The format: verse-chorus-verse.
So like The Beatles on the Reeperbahn?
Yeah, kind of. He learned the technique of how a song is constructed. But he wouldn’t have been caught dead doing that. But Andy came along, and that, together with the punk ethos of short and sweet, inspired him to start writing those songs. This is my theory—you would have to ask him if this is actually true. But the singing as well—I had no idea he could sing like that. I hired him to sing in a punk band and we were playing punk clubs. You know, Aaaaaaaarhghaaa!—and it wasn’t until we did a gig that we figured out he could sing. When Andy joined the group, he canned all of his sessions. I didn’t want him in the band at first, because I said, “Dude, you’re gonna quit after two weeks. We’ve got no management, I’m the management. We’ve got no record company, I’m the record company. We’ve got no road crew, you’re the road crew.” But he insisted, to his credit once again. He wanted to finally be part of something. Not just a hired guy. And he believed mostly in Sting, but since I was the fast talker, me too.
Where did you get your fast-talking abilities?
My father was a great talker.
Oh man, I bet.
But there was one gig in Germany, that Andy held onto, which was just too well paying, and by the way he needed a drummer. So Andy and I went over to Germany to do this tour with Eberhard Schoner. And as soon as we’re there we said, “dude, we have this great bass player.” So Sting came over. Schoner had a mix and match, and a laser show, and he had this jazz singer girl. All kinds of different elements. And on opening night, he has this American girl, this jazz singer, singing out of tune because she likes it that way, and she regarded us as scum of the earth, hardly worth even glancing at, because she’s a jazz singer. And you can guess how much I appreciated that sentiment. And she’s singing out of tune and flat, and liking it that way, and Sting walks up to the microphone and gets on the mic, and the sound that comes out, the birds start weeping, every heart is broken, Andy and I are looking at each other going, “HOLY FUCK.”
You’d never heard him sing?
Never. I’d heard him shout through punk songs that I wrote. But the singing. Andy and I are in the dark shadows beside him going “Jesus, what happened?” That was a big moment, and it was because of Eberhard Schoner that we discovered each other. He wanted us as a punk band—he thought that was really cool—but he wanted us to jam and stretch the material out.
Didn’t The Police do an album with him?
Yeah, a couple. He had had a couple albums, he’s had ten albums since. And we were just kind of session players on there, but he encouraged us to go for it, and that’s when I discovered that Andy wasn’t just good at chopping chords, he had some cool shit. And when Sting started singing… Of course, when we got back to London we had to bottle all that up. That was verboten. Against the rules. No love songs, no guitar solos, no songs longer than 2 minutes. The straight jacket of punk was very real.
So how long did it take you to get out of that straight jacket?
About five minutes. As soon as Andy joined, and Sting’s musical mind kind of clicked. I could have it wrong, but I think the first song he brought to the band was “Born in the Fifties.” Cool! Let’s play that. And then he brought “Can’t Stand Losing You” or “Visions of the Night.” And every song he pulled out of the bag, we went “Fuck! Let’s play that!” Because I’d written all the set ups to that point.
He would sing it in front of you guys?
Oh yeah. He was overjoyed. We hired rehearsal rooms. We actually were making money. Unlike my first band, Curved Air.
So you approached it as a little business from the get?
Well in Curved Air I was the drummer that had a past. I was the last rat to jump aboard the sinking ship. Old wave prog rock, which I’m bragging on now that prog is back. At the time I denied, denied. Now it’s, “Yes I was prog! I was married to Sonia Kristina! I played in Curved Air!” That’s pretty damn prog.
So The Police, even though it was a punk band, was a business.
Well in Curved Air we worked for the record company. The record company gave us an advance. There was management. They would give me 50 quid a week, and we would play the shows on the roster. We had a crew, lights, the whole schmear. But every show we did ultimately we were getting deeper in debt. Photo session, we’re deeper in debt. Anything we did—record an album, we’re deeper in debt. The whole business model was fucked up. With The Police, we go play a show, I’d get 30 quid from the promoter. I’d pay 7 quid for the truck, 5 quid for the PA, and split the money with two other guys, and we’d take money home that we earned today. So we actually had a little bit of money for rehearsals and so on.
Our first single, I forget how many it sold ultimately, but the first batch of 2000, I printed. I took the acetate down to EMI at the factory, and I borrowed some money from a friend to record it, 400 quid or whatever, and I was on the phone to the record stores around the country. “What’s the name of the band?” “Police.” “Is it punk?” Yes. “Does it got a picture disc?” Yes. “Send a box.” I used [his brother Miles Copeland]’s company for billing but it was me on the phone selling those boxes of records. And we actually made money. It was hit, even though it got no airplay, and wasn’t in the charts, but it was a hit because unlike Curved Air, we made the money directly.
One more question about The Police, before we get back to Milton. Why “The Police”?
Because it was hostile. Crap name, because we can’t copyright it. My idea was free publicity all over the world. It was hostile because peace and love was out of fashion. The Police was hostile, and it was easy to remember, and spell. Although I should’ve misspelled it. I should’ve fucked it up in some way. You know, last week we played with Oysterhead in Atlanta. There was a tweet somebody sent me: “sure saw a lot of Phish and Primus t-shirts, and good to see some of the kids remembered Stewart’s old band.” And there was a picture of a cop with Police across his back. Funny. But we can’t copyright it. You google “police” and you get the St. Paul Police Department.
There’s this drummer from St. Paul, Grant Hart, who was in this band called Hüsker Dü.
I’ve heard of them. With the umlaut?
Yes. Grant Hart’s last album was called The Argument, which was also inspired by Paradise Lost.
Argument: a very good word.
The subtitle of the poem.
Explaining the ways of God to man.
This Paradise Lost stuff is still in the air. I just watched a Marvel movie, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. And it’s really about going to Hell. And there’s this misogyny baked in, of course. The Scarlet Witch is this Satanic figure, who’d been kicked out of her perfect life and wants it back, and will learn any spell to get her children back. So this idea of knowledge being dangerous.
This is very Miltonian. Righteousness is very simple. I buy into that fully. And here’s the thing, atheists such as myself will see that for what it is. It’s stark and it explains everything. That righteousness has no argument, any argument is of Satan. Yeah. And people of faith say, “Yeah.” So it’s kind of cool that it actually addresses both points of view.
And by the way, couple weeks ago, it was performed at Pepperdine, a Christian college, and they totally bought into it. And some of the lines are quite stark. The Messiah, who isn’t called Jesus, he’s just called Messiah. The Messiah says to his Father, “whoever you hate, I hate. And we shall hate them all. And punish them and hate them.” Hate, hate, hate, hate. Which is very different from the Christianity that I grew up adjacent to. But the Miltonian version of it, that resonates perfectly. So for a non-religious audience they hear that and go, “yeah.”
So you think that the religious and the non-religious are kind of getting the same thing out of your argument?
It applies to their different worldviews, their different ideas of the cosmos, but it suits both sides of the argument.
So there is music intrinsic to Milton’s poetry isn’t there? The sounds of the words mean something.
Yeah, phonetically, rhythmically, there’s a lot of rhythm there. And even though I took out the similes there’s still a lot of rhythm. I wonder, was it meant to be declaimed or read quietly by candlelight.
I would say because Milton was blind by that point, he was dictating the poem to assistants or something. And then maybe having it read back to him. So writing it aloud. The music of the language has to be a part of the deal.
Well for opera composing you’re looking for the music of the language. Looking for the music of the language. Looking for the music of the language. And from there, you derive a melody. And hopefully the next line will be complimentary rhythmically. And that’s the whole trick of writing opera. And when I worked with Poe or with Milton, when I work with a librettist, he figures that out, or I nudge it into shape, but working with great works of literature, which have incredible language, you want to preserve the poetry of it, and the Milton-ness of it, while nudging it just slightly so it has a strong rhythm. That’s what you’re doing all the time, you’re working with the rhythm of language. The emphasis needs to be on the first syllable so you need to put it in a rhythm where the emphasis is on the right place with all the words.
And when you’re designing something to be sung by 80 people on a choir, how does that change the rhythm of the language?
A little bit stripped down. I’m probably a little bit optimistic. I’ve written some stuff that’s a little tricky for the choir. But they learn it, they get it. And plus, they gotta deal with the harmonies as well. Many of them are singing the inner voices and have no idea what the top line is. So it’s quite sophisticated what those chorusers have to do. And they’re mostly semi pro by the way. The orchestra players are all professionals. The chorusers have musical training and it’s amazing what they can do, but it’s not all they do for a living.
When you’re trying to find the music of Milton’s language, and trying to transpose that to this massive choir, but what does the music do to how the ideas are received by the audience?
It directs their emotional experience.
Is this something you learned from scoring cinema, like your score for Coppola’s Rumble Fish?
That’s right. But often in film, and opera, or any kind of musical storytelling, the music is in opposition to the text. A classical example would be a love scene. Handsome male lead, beautiful female lead, the moon is shining, he looks into her eyes and says “I love you.” And all the visual information tells you handsome guy, beautiful woman, but the plot needs the audience to know that he’s a lying son of a bitch. So I put the shit chord on it when he says “I love you.” Now the audience, they’re not believing their lying eyes anymore, they believe my music. So I bypass plot to go to their emotion. That’s an example of how the music tells a different story from the text purposefully. it’s incredible how clear music is in communicating specific emotions. Happy, sad, with a little tinge of optimism and a slight whimsy to it with an underlying sense of doom. Really complex. And this is where Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, Ken Loach, all these directors, are looking for that complexity. Because they’ve built the lighting, the casting, the scene, the script, the location, all that stuff, but really it’s kind of dead in the water until you’re told how to feel. With comedies, a car crashes off the freeway and goes slamming into the market stall, things are flying in every direction, and we’re laughing! The music tells you to laugh in a comedy. You’re looking at a tragedy, but you’re kind of laughing, with them/at them, whatever. Music provides really clear instruction on how to take this.
There are themes of good vs. evil, and order vs. disorder, that you can cover in 40 minutes with your choir. That’s very efficient. Does anybody need to know anything before sitting down though?
It’s not a comedy. I’m usually more comedic in my proclivities, but this isn’t that.
So are you over Milton yet?
No, I still love that language. In fact, I had an epiphany on the plane flying over here, because what’s my next commission? I had a piece last year, The Electric Saint, about Nikola Tesla, opened in Deutsches National Theater in Germany. Very prestigious, the highest in the land. This next summer, The Witch’s Seed, is opening in Italy. Doing opera in Italy is living the dream. So what’s my next opera? Finnegans Wake? I now know that I can do a three-year mission. I will complete the mission. I have confidence in myself that I can embark on that journey knowing that I will finish it, because I’ve done so. I’ve written seven operas. But it occurred to me, how about finishing Paradise Lost as an opera? Now I need to go back. What’s the first act, second act, third act? Satan’s fall would be in the middle, so that’s act two.
Milton starts immediately after Satan’s fall, and then later in the poem, Adam and Eve’s fall is reflected by Satan’s fall.
You just reminded me of a really cool thing. To parallel Satan’s fall with Adam and Eve’s fall. The bad guy falls, but so do the nice, original humans. “He deceived the mother of mankind!”
Eve always gets such a bad rap. Why?
I think our modern sensibility would answer that question. Toxic masculinity.
So you have an opportunity to recontextualize that.
To blame Adam?
Or to blame Satan.
So you can be woke here and tell this story in a way that’s more resonant with contemporary morality.
Yes, but I want to keep the Milton. And I want to keep the religious folks happy. Because that’s the purpose of the underlying literary material. I want to be true to that. I don’t want to desecrate it.
So is this ambition for women to gain knowledge that’s so terrifying to the patriarchy?
Why did she fall and not him? I’m pretty sure Milton would’ve said because men are strong and women are weak. Women are frivolous, easily tempted. They are temptresses themselves. And it would be interesting to be true to that in the same way that I have the Messiah, Jesus, saying “whoever you hate, I hate.” Which is so fucked up. I could present it as stark as that. And it’s starkness and wrongness would reveal itself.
Another piece I’m considering is The Ballad of Sarah Palin. From her point of view: where all of the left wing TV pundits are dribbling idiots, and Rush Limbaugh is a man of great wisdom. I’ve had this idea for awhile and then The Book of Mormon came along, with exactly the atmosphere that I want. Which is a loving parody. I’ve read that Mormons like it.
They liked it more than the Jon Krakauer novel that they turned into a Hulu series.
I can’t wait to see that. Oh man. That was a great book. I’ve read every word he wrote. But I would like to achieve that. Because you know, our nation needs healing. We’ve been told by clickbait to hate each other. I’ve realized on CNN or FOX, and I watch both, they’re in the same business, and CNN is just a bad. They introduce what will make you mad so that you click on it. Because anger is the most gravitational click bait. And FOX, they each have their strengths and weaknesses, but they’re both in the business of pissing you off.
Isn’t clickbait seduction?
If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
I don’t know if I got this from Donald Sutherland in Animal House or somewhere else, but somewhere I read that Milton introduced the sexy Satan. The Satan from Dante’s Inferno was this big monstrous ugly Satan, frozen in hell.
Obviously bad. The sexier Satan is when it’s not obvious. Milton’s Satan is handsome, has good lines. I think sometimes you can present a point of view that you don’t have to explain. You don’t have to say what’s right or wrong with it, no matter your perspective. So with the Ballad of Sarah Palin I would hope to get around that clickbait-y tone, in the way that The Book of Mormon did. I’m so fearful of our society, that we’re being torn apart from each other. When I travel in the south, in red states, I love the southerners. They’re good, hospitable people. I know evangelical Christians who are fundamentally good people. We don’t talk politics too much. They’re being told to fear us. And we’re being told to fear them. And as a result they are becoming a little bit worthy of our fear. And at the same point, with all of our woke stuff and cancel culture, we’re earning and validating their fears about us.
So you’re dealing with some big ideas here man. You know Sarah Palin was introduced as McCain’s VP candidate at the Xcel Energy Center right next door at the Republican National Convention in 2008.
There are many people when I mention my idea for an opera, they’re like oh you’re kidding! That horrible beastly woman! But I think they’re mellowing now. To the point that maybe they would accept the gag.
Are you sure? Why not just do Palin’s successor—Ivanka.
Ivanka! Actually, now there’s an opera. Wow.