Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sting Sings Dowland's Come Again

One of the recurring themes of my vocal literature class at the Glenn Gould School this semester was that of the art song in popular culture. Early in the semester we looked at the songs of John Dowland, and one of the most fascinating recordings I found was this one of Sting singing Come Again with lutenist Edin Karamazov from his Songs from the Labyrinth album. From a televised performance:

The class was pretty evenly divided between those who thought that this was a fascinating look at the past and those who thought it was an outrage. My question to the class was whether or not they felt that the performance was authentic. One argument in favor of Sting's being an authentic approach to the singing of Dowland was that he is completely untrained in the classical operatic tradition, which did not yet exist in the time of Dowland. David van Ooijen sums up the Elizabethan singing ideal:
Voice production was not an issue Elizabethans were much concerned with. Learning to sing was equated with learning to sight-read.
Which is precisely how Sting manages to make this repertoire work. I feel his limitations as a pop singer combined with the clarity of diction learned from several decades of pop singing make for a convincing performance, both from an authentic and crossover perspective.

Nevertheless, as a classical music blogger, I'm damned either way I call these crossover attempts. If I like them, I'm a Philistine. If I don't, I'm an Elitist (as already has been charged in a previous opinion regarding an interpretation of Berlioz).

What are your feelings on Sting's crossover attempt? Is he breathing new life into this repertoire and bringing it to an entirely new audience? Or should he stick to repertoire more in his milieu?


  1. Anonymous1:27 AM

    Very interesting! I think I like it!

    I guess I would encourage most things that promote Classical music gaining a new audience. So I'm curious, what else did you tell your class about art song in popular culture? I always get the feeling that very few people know what art song is, because it's such a subtle genre, and not very widely performed even compared to other types of Classical music. I believe in the power of art song to impact people at least as strongly as any other type of music, but I also don't see it becoming widespread enough to do that. Is there a solution to this dilemma??

  2. That's what this blog is about!

  3. I once voted for this album as "worst classical crossover album ever," but it's not that I don't approve of the concept. I've also used this example in classes to talk about the fact that Dowland is, in many ways, much closer to our current pop/folk styles than it is music in the classical tradition. I just can't stand the particular affectations that Sting brings to these songs - I think the timbre of his voice is well-suited to them, though, and you're also right about his diction.

    I find his recent rendition of Der Leiermann more convincing, actually.

  4. Just to be clear, by affectations, I mean the way in which Sting scoops up into "love," "thy," and especially "die." The sudden well on "love" annoys me as well. Perhaps he's meaning to text-paint the word "die" (I'm not entirely kidding), and I know this kind of scooping is much more common outside of classical style. I just can't hear the way he sings those notes as anything but grating. Again, the basic vocal quality is lovely, and could work very well. The first "Come again" is quite nice...

  5. Michael, my students were way harsher on Sting than I was when I presented the recording in class. Their main criticism was that in spite of the fact that the performances with lute were mostly historically accurate, his singing simply did not move them the way that other singers did. I suppose you have to grow up on early Police albums in order to fully appreciate Sting's work...

  6. I get very tired of this "classical versus popular music" debate. On the one hand, isn't it terribly ironic to hear classical enthusiasts or performers complain about the decline in popularity of classical music, while at the same time disparaging pop music? It's like they are their own worse enemies when they define "classical" as "not popular" -- don't they see the irony in this? On the other hand, there is very little traditional "classical" music that wasn't inspired from popular music of it's own day. How many pieces of Liszt, Chopin, even Mozart were inspired -- or were just other arrangements -- of popular dance or popular ballade tunes of their own day? The whole concept of "pure music" -- music only for music's sake, not to echo any dance tune, or conjure any scenes of battle (to wit: Beethoven's Eroica Symphony) or alpine meadows or communing with Norse Gods -- is much more theoretical than reality, especially for the rank-and-file classical music goer. Lastly, it is without a doubt that classically trained musicians have much greater technical ability to control the sound and make music out of traditional acoustic instruments, but to claim they have greater talent overall is to be a little near-sighted. The many skills and talents required by a successful popular musician, including the gamut from how to inspire large audience, how to write catchy tunes that draw in ordinary listeners, and how to arrange music and the whole gamut of electronic sounds on computer are indeed very difficult (and rare) skills as well. For this specific piece, it's really hard even to call it classical music. Seems pretty much like an ordinary pop song from the Elizabethan era, and Sting, also a musician from the Elizabethan Era (albeit Q.E. II), seems entirely appropriate for him to be singing it.

  7. Dale,

    I think you're making the same point that Chris and I are making. We both agree that the Dowland has a lot in common with some modern popular song styles, and that hearing Sting's approach can be illuminating. Still, it makes sense to call the Dowland songs classical (in the small 'c' sense) because they have stood the test of time, and because they are part of the repertoire sung by classical singers. Is that second part of the definition reflexive? Of course it is, but classical culture (or any culture) is partly defined by itself. We wouldn't even know Dowland or his songs existed were it not for a classical culture that is invested in preserving and bringing to life music of the past.

    If "Every Breath You Take" is still being sung and learned as part of a standard repertoire in 400 years, it will surely be appropriate to call it classical as well. I fully admit that my reaction to Sting's approach is significantly based on ways I've been taught to listen and perform - but that's true of just about any style judgment.

    The divide between "popular" and "classical" is of course frustrating and sometimes problematic, but there are practical cultural reasons why we tend to categorize different types of music in these ways. I would agree that we shouldn't automatically assume that "classical" means "better," and there's no question that that kind of association happens a lot.