I’ve been obsessively listening to “The Hounds of Winter,” one of the tracks on If on a Winter’s Night, Sting’s latest CD, a winter-themed album. The song isn’t new—it first came out more than a decade ago on Sting’s Mercury Falling—but it’s a superb new arrangement that pulls several excellent instrumentalists into the mix, including people like classical cellist Vincent Ségal and jazz/world percussionist Cyro Baptista. On that track there’s also Kathryn Tickell, a traditional violinist from Sting’s hometown of Newcastle, England, whose wonderfully haunting repeating line of fourths and octaves against Julian Sutton’s moaning Melodeon sounds like the “lonesome, lonesome sound” of the hounds of the song’s lyrics. The album has a whole range of pieces that relate somehow to winter, including an arrangement of Schubert’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (from Winterreise), English carols like “Balulalow,” and an arrangement of a Bach melody from one of the cello suites, set to new words by Sting.
Serial obsessions are a hallmark of Sting’s career. Classical musicians and audiences took notice when Songs from the Labyrinth came out in 2006—here, Sting sang Dowland songs with lutenist Edin Karamazov. (Sting also took up the lute-playing for the project.) He’s nothing if not prolific, and lately he’s dipped into several projects, the first being a film whose subject is Robert and Clara Schumann, and the second being the Winter’s Night album. Just before his December appearances in New York in connection with both those projects, and the premiere of Great Performances’ Sting: A Winter’s Night broadcast premiere on Thanksgiving evening, he spoke to SundayArts blogger Jennifer Melick.
I’m curious to know about some of the musical choices you have made—there was Dowland several years back, who’s sometimes referred to as the melancholy madrigalist, and then Robert Schumann, who struggled with his own difficulties, his mental illness. And now, with “If on a Winter’s Night” you’ve got this new album with a winter theme—the coldest, darkest season. Does melancholy in general interest you? How did you put together this latest album?
Sting: Well, I did a lot of research with my producer, Bob Sadin, into the music of winter. And I looked at songs from many centuries, of many genres—classical songs and folksongs and sacred music, and some modern song. I suppose I was looking for my resonance, my ambivalence of feelings about the season: its cold, its discomfort, its bleak, profound beauty. But also its magic. So I was looking for magical stories. So I think it is the season of the imagination. And it’s a very very rich season.
“If on a Winter’s Night” is definitely not a religious or “Christmas” album, but there are several songs on it— “Balulalow” and “Lo, How a Rose” for instance—that are traditionally sung at Christmastime. How important is keeping those sorts of traditions alive? (Below you can listen to a 30 second sample of “The Hounds of Winter.”
Sting: I avoided “Frosty the Snowman” and “Jingle Bells” and … things that have become just bromides, or just overused symbols. I was looking for a more spiritual approach to the season, and that perhaps more familiar songs would give us. If “Lo, How a Rose,” maybe a lot of people know “Lo, How a Rose,” but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people hearing this album, have never heard these songs. So from a pop audience’s point of view, these songs are very obscure. The cognoscenti have heard of Peter Warlock but most people have no idea.
Listen to part of “Hounds of Winter”:
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While you’re here in New York you’ll be performing in one large venue—the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on December 8 and 9—and one very small one—a private event at the Greene Space on December 3 that will be streamed live (at wnyc.org/thegreenespace and wqxr.org). Is there an intimacy that you try for, regardless of the style of music or how big or small the space is?
Sting: I think variety is important. Not only in terms of music and style of music and interpretation, but also the type of venues you play. For me, success is having the freedom to explore new territory and making that territory, as far as possible, my own.
The “winter” album and the DVD film Twin Spirits both came out this fall. How did you end up doing a project about the music and lives of Robert and Clara Schumann?
Sting: I knew a little about Schumann before I did Twin Spirits, which we started about five years ago. But I knew nothing of Clara Schumann. I knew nothing of her music, which I suppose indicates a sort of misogyny of music—you know, because she’s a woman, you don’t need to listen to her. But what’s interesting about this production is that the music is placed alongside her husband’s and treated equally, and she more than stands up to the comparison. I think her work is fantastic. Given that she was also raising a family and having a concert career at the same time, while Robert was languishing. It’s really her story.
What’s neat about the Twin Spirits film is that you and your wife, Trudie Styler, are both connected with it—she reads Clara letters and you read Robert’s. I guess this is somewhat of a rare opportunity for the two of you to work together.
Sting: Yes, it is. It was originally the Royal Opera House’s idea that we read these letters, and I was a little reticent at first, but they said, oh, just read the letters, and the story will tell itself. And of course it does, so my job in playing Robert was not necessarily to emote or “act” the part, because I think a lot of his struggle was internal. So I really allowed the letters to tell the story and internalized the emotions as much as possible. When we did it live, Alfred Brendel came backstage, and he said, you know, you were the first person who hasn’t overacted this role, and thank you for that. I was very flattered.
The Twin Spirits Schumann film project is really a step in a different direction for you. Do you think about the broader sort of pop audience reacts to some of these sort of extracurricular” or different projects, for lack of a better word?
Sting: It’s important for me not to underestimate the people who listen to my records. I imagine they are as curious, and indeed about the world, as I am. And basically I am there to express my enthusiasm for where my curiosity leads me. I am led by curiosity more than anything else, more than even commercial concerns, I am led by curiosity. My curiosity has coincided largely with popular taste for many years, so I have to trust my instincts.
You perform in Twin Spirits with actor Derek Jacobi, baritone Simon Keenlyside, violinist Sergej Krylov, pianist Iain Burnside, soprano Rebecca Evans, cellist Natalie Clein, and pianist Natasha Paremski Watching your conversations on the Twin Spirits supplementary DVD with them and with the director, John Caird, I was struck by how much you seem ask questions, and appear to be in a listening and learning type of mode.
Sting: I am the eternal student—from Chekhov.
When you’re in New York, what do you like to do for culture?
Sting: I go to the theater, to see a show, to a concert, to restaurants and to the cinema. The last show I saw was South Pacific. Which I adored. I was very shocked by the production, how the racism had been excised from the movie. And I was very shocked to see that it was back. It’s quite a piece of theater, to realize that this girl who you’ve been sort of rooting for suddenly reveals herself, it’s quite shocking. A much heavier piece than the movie.
Photo by Clive Barda/ DG courtesy of Deutsche Grammophone.