Since the The Police disbanded in the mid-1980s, drummer Stewart Copeland has composed soundtracks for numerous films and television shows and has had works performed by such acclaimed ensembles as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. In May 2013, Copeland’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired chamber opera, The Tell-Tale Heart, was performed by the Long Beach Opera, and in May 2014, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere his new percussion concerto. I reached Copeland at his home studio, the Sacred Grove—where he’s been recording jam sessions with a host of accomplished artists and uploading videos to YouTube—to talk about his approach to composition.
David Brensilver: Your drumming strikes me as rather impulsive. So I’m curious as to how necessarily different your approach to composition is, and whether you tend to capture and develop ideas. Or is your approach more systematic?
Stewart Copeland: Very different. Two different guys. Two different parts of the brain—almost unrelated to each other, although there is probably a connection somewhere.
DB: What about from commission to commission. I mean, do film soundtrack commissions come with specific parameters in terms of mood or attitude?
SC: Oh, absolutely. That’s why decades spent as a working-stiff film composer, I think, is the best education I ever had. Unlike an artist with a capital “A,” you are forced to learn things and go places that you would never go on your own accord. The professional film composer has had to deal with more types of music, more kinds of orchestration, a wider range of emotion, period, than any serious composer—than any serious Artist composer. And by the way, having had that education, I’m not in the film-score business anymore.
DB: Do you make a habit of revisiting and revising music after it’s been performed, like The Tell-Tale Heart?
SC: I’ll probably get around to fixing the score the next time it goes up. I’ll immediately reach for the score and fix a couple things—mainly, removal of percussion. I got a little carried away, because when I was writing it, I was playing it, to make sure it was playable. And the percussionists (would) look at me and say, “Well, of course you can play it.”
DB: You’ve been commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to write a percussion concerto, and I imagine this feels a bit like a mad scientist being handed the keys to a well-appointed laboratory. Was there instrumentation requested or suggested?
SC: Well, yes. As a matter of fact, my last percussion concerto [Gamelan D’Drum] was for gamelan and orchestra. It was a gigantic piece with five percussionists who are actually an ensemble [D’Drum] and they do all kinds of cool stuff—they’ve got not just their Indonesian bells—[both] Balinese and Javanese—but also African stuff, South American stuff, just a really wide array of cool shit that they do. And so, next commission comes up, “O.K., guys, Liverpool, what do you guys do?” “Well, not traps.” “O.K., that’s fine.” “No improvised solos,” like I can’t just write, “Take it away, Bob.” They play the classic, orchestral percussion instruments. Actually, that’s a good thing. Limitations are so often—or, in fact, problems are so often—the seed of great inspiration. So many great ideas are the result of solving a problem. And, by the way, imposing these limitations makes the piece more of a square peg for a square hole as far as other orchestras are concerned. It’s just easier to program if I don’t call for exotic instruments.
DB: Is it fair to say that the “genres”—and that’s in quotation marks—that you work in are really dictated by the commissioning entity and the desired instrumentation, and really not coming from you so much?
SC: Well, it depends what you’re talking about. If it’s a film score, you’re absolutely right. That’s why I don’t do film scores anymore.
DB: But in other words, it doesn’t seem like you’re actively trying to adhere to stylistic traditions.
SC: Oh, absolutely not. And forms of music that demand that are just tempting for me to just trample all over. Reggae, for instance, absolutely does not demand adherence to its rules. You know, reggae musicians are the most accepting and nonjudgmental of all, I think. I learned that [by] playing with a complete reggae rip-off band called The Police. All the reggae guys really embraced us and were really welcoming. Whereas if, say, instead of reggae The Police had had a strong flavor of any other genre—country, jazz, or punk, for that matter—the other practitioners of that genre would be saying, “No, that’s not the real thing.” Whereas reggae guys just don’t have that attitude.
DB: Do you compose on a particular instrument?
SC: Yeah, it’s called a computer. For composing, it’s all about Digital Performer.
DB: Are there moments from the Sacred Grove sessions  that you take note of for potential future composition projects?
SC: Not really. The original material that I work with—[it's] wildly inspiring, really cool, but rarely has there been like a tune or a theme or something. But I do rob myself a lot. A curious discovery is that when you work too hard and too fast, the work is actually better. I learned this on episodic TV, where you have a new show every week, for 24 weeks. Or doing a game, you know, Spyro the Dragon, where for the gig I’ve got to write basically a double album worth of backing tracks. And so you just get your game on and turn on the computer and get working. And I’ve found that some of the themes and melodies and chord progressions that come out of those seat-of-the-pants composing sessions, those are some of the strongest ones. And I tend to go back to those. And when I’m looking to write a big orchestral piece or a really important piece of music, I’m really drawn to that little three-note trick that I came up with on this television series or that.
DB: Are you usually working on commission?
SC: Yeah, I do work on commission, that’s my day job.
DB: So there are no ensemble pieces that you’re writing just for the sake of writing, in other words?
SC: No. I sometimes get a hint of a commission, or even a real commission, and, like I say, I don’t wait around. By the time they’ve sent the contract for signing, I’ve pretty much written the piece. One time I had a huge piece that I was working on and the person who commissioned it was fired, the new person just wiped the slate clean to bring in their own agenda, and before the contract arrived for signing it was over. And so I’ve got this piece sitting in the cookie jar.
DB: What about working with, let’s say, orchestral musicians versus the artists who work with you in Orchestralli  or the guys who come over and play at the Sacred Grove? I mean when you went to do The Tell-Tale Heart or when you did Gamelan D’Drum, is there a different sort of working style that the musicians have, in your experience?
SC: Absolutely. The Sacred Grove players are one category of musician, and The Tell-Tale Heart or Dallas Symphony or Cleveland Orchestra players are an entirely different category of musician. Separated at birth, these two enormous and richly varied families are completely distinct: readers and players. Players experience their instrument through their ears and their fingers. Readers, they get their music through their eyes, and the connection goes straight from the page to their fingers—using the brain to interpret the page, but basically it goes from ink to fingers, and that’s basically where the music comes from. All the musicality comes from expressing that ink and really interpreting it, and the ethos is worship of the composer’s intention.
DB: What are a few things that you’re working on now, in terms of compositions and commissions?
SC: Well, I’ve got the Liverpool piece, which I’ve pretty much written—I’ve got the music, I’m just working on the score, which takes me longer than writing the music, by far, but I’m getting faster at it as I do it more. When I was film composing, I had arrangers. But when I got out of that business, and there wasn’t that time pressure, I got into orchestrating myself. And since I haven’t done as much of it, it just takes me longer. But I’m getting faster.
DB: What about performance indications?
SC: Oh, well that’s where all the fun is. That’s exactly the reason why I’m orchestrating myself now.
DB: So that when you get somewhere, it’s fairly all spelled out for people and there’s not a whole lot of ambiguity.
SC: No, no. As little as possible.
DB: And so rehearsals, I imagine, are—
SC: Much easier than band rehearsals. [Laughs] A band will take two weeks to get an hour set together. An orchestra will take one rehearsal or two.
DB: When you go back to playing the rock stuff, is all the work you’ve done in terms of writing—whether it’s film scores or orchestra commissions or what have you—do you find that you’re much more efficient and is it frustrating to be around people who aren’t working that way, especially after you’ve been doing so much of that?
SC: No, because that’s what you expect. When I’m hanging with my buddies and we’re rocking out, I have an expectation of what they’re good at and not good at. There are many things that they’re good at that I’m so thankful of, such as they groove, they play by instinct, and we can talk in a language that we each understand. And you can ask things that you just can’t ask an orchestral player, such as, “Give me a 16-bar solo,” or, “Just improvise this” But the upside of the orchestral experience is: two rehearsals and you’ve got it. But it is sometimes frustrating. It was frustrating to go back to The Police environment, which was sort of like a harsh combination of the worst aspects of both, but [with] rewards that transcend both. The music is sacred, the songs, which means that you can’t just make it up as you go along, because you’ve got to deliver what folks spent too much money on tickets to hear. And it’s very formal, The Police creative environment. Whereas when I’m jamming with my rock buddies, usually it’s very informal. And when I’m working with an orchestra there’s no debate at all, there’s no compromise, there’s no negotiation, it’s on the page. There it is, count it in.
1. Copeland invites musician friends to jam sessions (at his home studio, the Sacred Grove), which he records, produces, and posts to his YouTube page. Musicians who’ve jammed at the Sacred Grove include Neil Peart, Stanley Clarke, Ben Harper, members of Primus, Andy Summers, and Snoop Dogg, to name a few.
David Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper (a monthly publication of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, in Connecticut) and has contributed to a diverse collection of publications. He is a percussionist with performance degrees from The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The Juilliard School.