Stewart Copeland on how film composing makes you a better musician

July 25, 2014
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“I never got the gift of piano-tude,” jokes Police drummer Stewart Copeland during a recent trip to New York City. “I sit at a piano keyboard all day, every day, entering notes, and I can barely play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’”

That may be a bit modest, but even if Copeland isn’t poised for a career as a concert pianist, his three-decade arc as a sought-after composer has never looked brighter. From his scores to films like Rumble Fish, Talk Radio, and Wall Street, to his forays into ballet, opera, and symphonic works, the legendary rocker continues to prove that he’s just as potent away from the drum kit as he is behind it.

Now with the debut of his 400 plus-page score to the 1925 silent film Ben Hur, Copeland returns with a riveting multimedia experience. On a recent press stop in New York City, he sat down with me to talk about his continuing evolution as a musician and composer. Scroll below the video for the full interview.


How did your new score to the 1925 Ben Hur film come about?

The music started as an arena show that I composed the music for. I ended up owning all of the music from it because the production went bust. Later, the show was purchased by a different impresario who’s actually still running it today, but by that time, the music I composed and all of the copyrights had reverted back to me. I hate to see a good tune go to waste, so I thought, “What can I do with this?” So I thought of [organizing] a concert. Next I thought, “What would make the concert more exciting?” And my manager Derek Power said, “How about using the silent film?” To which I replied, “There’s a silent film?” So I looked at the special edition package of the 1959 version of Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston, and one of the DVDs had the 1925 silent version of the movie on it. I checked it out, and it was colossal! The scale of it is just huge, with ships crashing into each other in flames and thousands of Italian extras leaping to their deaths to escape them. It was absolutely amazing, but it was two hours and 20 minutes long. So I ripped the DVD of the silent film and imported it into Final Cut Pro, cutting it down to 90 minutes and adding in the music I had already written for the arena show. Then I set about getting the rights from Warner Brothers to use that edit in our live concerts.


How long did that process take?

It took two years of working our way through the studio labyrinth to secure the rights. My manager had to basically invent a route to connect everybody involved. After we did, we got the 80-year-old print of the film, which took two weeks to “defrost.” It hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1960s, and it was in a format that no longer exists, running somewhere between 18 and 22 frames per second depending on who was cranking the machine at the time. I had to digitize the film at 24fps, so when I got the movie back and cut it to match my original musical cut, nothing matched. Things were running either longer or shorter. At this point I had 410 pages of score where every dot was matched to a frame of picture. So I had to recut every single shot of the movie to make the music fit correctly.


Did you adjust the music or the picture to make things fit?

I adjusted both. Originally, I assembled my first “slash cut” with orchestral music I recorded in Bratislava, overdubs in Istanbul, plus music recorded in Dusseldorf and Los Angeles. I had themes for particular scenes, and I tried to keep the integrity of my original cut. But when I got the movie back, I had to re-adjust everything so it worked and made sense.


What software did you use for composing? Score notation?

I compose in MOTU Digital Performer, but I use Avid Sibelius to get the score ready so the musicians can read it. Sibelius is hell to use as a composition platform. People do it, but it’s insane. But [as a scoring platform], it’s like somebody turning on the lights.


How has your studio situation gear over the years? At one time you were composing with the Fairlight CMI.

Well, I’ve been following the technology. I started with the Fairlight and Kurzweil together, actually.


Do you still use the Fairlight?

No, but I’ve got three of them in storage! I can’t bear to see them go, but obviously now they’re irrelevant. My compositional career wouldn’t have happened without them, though. The Fairlight made me as a symphonic composer possible. I used to joke, “One day they’ll have this in my watch!” I totally got that wrong. It’s not in my watch—it’s in my iPhone! I carried on using Kurzweils for awhile until I started using the M-Audio ProKeys 88 to control software instruments. I had been looking for the longest keyboard with the fewest buttons, because I don’t need its internal sounds. The ProKeys is an excellent machine. I also have an Akai LPK25 that I use for traveling and to send patch changes.


What are your main instrument libraries for composing?

Vienna Symphonic Library and [the instruments included with] Sibelius. The score to Ben Hur is huge, so I often have to work things out in General MIDI because it’s just too large to drive other sample libraries. That’s a bit of a drag. I know the music, so I don’t need the ear candy of huge sample libraries all the time I’m working, but it sure would be nice to hear it that way. There really are two completely different missions: One is to make music sound great coming out of the speakers, and you need something like Vienna or Hans Zimmer’s library for that. That’s actually a relatively easy job. The other is to get the music onto the page so that it reads well and you communicate nuances to the orchestra musicians who will be playing it. That’s the really tricky part. It takes ten times more effort and concentration to do that.


Where did your fascination with film scoring come from?

From a call I got from Francis Ford Coppola to score the movie Rumble Fish in 1983. That’ll do it!


It was never on your musical radar before that?

No, not really. I always had orchestral music going around in my head, but I never really gave it much time, because it wasn’t who I was as a performer. I listened to it, but the idea of marrying my rock drum world with orchestral music felt pompous to me. Film composing is what actually brought me back to the orchestra. In fact, I hold that the film composer has the widest skill set of any musician. 


Why is that?

Because the craft of film composing requires that ultimately every form of music, ethnicity, time period, and emotional state be represented. You have to work with every known form of not only music, but culture as well. There’s also the specificity of it. When somebody like [British composer] Mark Anthony Turnage writes a concerto, he goes where his instincts take him. He’s an artist with a capital “A,” and he never has to step outside of those instincts. But a film composer has to go exactly to the specific emotion that each situation requires—to happy, or sad, or happy/sad with a tinge of whimsy, and so forth. It’s not just, “I have a nice tune and I’ll follow it wherever it leads.” The film composer has to go to complex yet precise emotional places constantly. So he or she learns the skill set of how to get there, and what music takes you there.


Your scores have so many different sonic elements in them. Did you consciously study different kinds of ethnic music?

I never studied ethnic music, but I have studied orchestration. I actually worked with a professor on it. Re-creating different types of music seems to come instinctively to me. I majored in music in college, but the deeper part of orchestration, as opposed to composition, is something I have studied in depth. Understanding how to communicate nuances in the score to the musicians playing it, and how to balance an orchestra on the scoring stage requires you to put those kinds of instructions on the page. I actually had a professor come over and beat me up until I started to understand the craft. I would write a score and he would send it back just covered in red ink. He never suggested what I should do; he just showed me what the problems were, and I had to figure out how to fix them on my own. 

I also learned how to balance the different sections in the orchestra by going directly to the master scores. In fact, right under my studio desk, I have the score for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which I pull out for reference. I’m not trying to write that piece of music per se, but I want those textures. So I’ll look and see, “Oh, he’s got the contrabassoon down there.” I sort of have an idea of how Stravinsky builds his sound palate. But Ravel and Debussy? With them, what sounds like just beautiful waves of sound has all kinds of stuff going on under the hood! It’s like a sonic wash, but it’s percussive with little grains of sand and texture in it. And so you check the score and see exactly what’s going on. That’s how Ravel himself learned—by studying the scores of masters.


So it’s those kinds of textures that you seek out and try to integrate into your own scores.

Exactly. I’m stealing the textures, because it’s the only way to learn. You just don’t get enough podium time as a composer to learn by trial and error. With rock ‘n’ roll, I can pick up a guitar and try things out live. But I don’t get the chance to see if an orchestral idea works without assembling an orchestra. So there’s no way around studying the scores.


I once read an interview where you said all you needed to compose were “ivories and faders.” Are those still your only requirements?

Well, I also need an application. I’m a Digital Performer guy, but I gather Logic and the rest of them all pretty much do the same thing. By now, though, DP is basically invisible to me; my fingers just know where to go. I also recently discovered a new application called Streamers that lets you integrate visual cues for film scores easily. In olden days, they would actually drill holes into the celluloid to give the composer cues. Streamers is a modern-day version of that same principle.


Your work crosses many artistic divides, from rock drumming and orchestral composition, to film editing and direction. Do you find it easy to pick up new creative disciplines?

I love to tinker around. I’m an app geek. Most composers and editors who are younger than me have their own fingers on the computer keyboard when they’re composing. It’s no big deal to them. But no one from my generation does. They pace in the back of the room and their workday doesn’t begin until their engineer arrives. And when the engineer goes home, they’re done for the day. My engineer of 30 years, Jeff Seitz, started out as a drum tech. We both learned studio technology together and went through everything from two-inch analog tape, Mitsubishi digital, PCM, the Fairlight, and the advent of Mac-based sequencing and recording. But our relationship is 100 percent social now. He’s one of my closest friends, but we don’t work together anymore. I’m a one-man show. [Laughs.]


You don’t like having someone at the console with you while you’re composing?

I don’t need to. And he doesn’t particularly like staring at the wall! 


Are any other musical projects keeping you inspired currently?

I have a series of videos up on YouTube called “Live at the Sacred Grove,” which was inspired by the realization that when I’m not composing for film, I still have a studio full of instruments and a trunk full of microphones. So I wired my studio up and miked up all the drums, amplifiers, the Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, everything! Every square foot of my studio is wired up and close-miked. Plus, I have six cameras with six hours of memory in each of them. So the whole studio is ready to rock.

I invite my friends over and I tell them the cameras are on. There’s no camera operator or sound engineer—we’re just drinking tequila and doing what musicians do. We have parties and we jam. There’s no “Can you give me a level?” kind of studio experience. It’s all music. So for instance, the guys from Pearl Jam come over to the Sacred Grove. We play all night and then they leave. But I recorded everything!


So what are you doing with the material?

Well, I can hand the musicians other instruments while we’re listening to the playback of what we just jammed to. So, for example, we’ll overdub ideas for brass parts, singing them through the mouthpiece and just having fun. Then they leave and I can “Foley in” those parts. I can loop a particular part in Digital Performer until I find what I’m looking for, and then I cut up the 15-minute jam down to seven minutes and I start overdubbing different parts, like Tower of Power-style horns, for example. I’ve had Tommy Lang, Ben Harper, Stanley Clarke, Jeff Lynne, Snoop Dogg, Taylor Hawkins, Neil Peart, Matt Stone, and many others. It’s not only about the live jams, it’s about the inception of an idea. They’re literally making it up while they’re there. It’s like [Daryl Hall’s TV show] Live From Daryl’s House, but different, because these musicians aren’t promoting their new song or new album. It’s just for having fun.


Are there any plans for the videos besides just letting them be seen?

No. I put them up for all to enjoy. I’d love to make an album from those sessions—not for commercial exploitation, but just so people can listen to it in their cars. 


As a guy who has worked in seemingly every area of the musical arts, what keeps you hungry and motivated?

Well, I do like “the big mission.” With my 60 years of making music, I feel that it’s my responsibility to what I’ve learned to keep challenging myself and go to places that only a person finally equipped with my experiences can go. I like making these Sacred Grove videos because they’re fun. They’re free. I do them to give back. I feel that I’ve been amply rewarded for my music. Not only have I paid my dues, I’ve earned my due. I really feel that way, and I have no desire to extract more money out of my fans. All I want is for them to enjoy my music. That’s why I do things and why I’m talking to you. I just want more people to hear it. 


What advice do you have for aspiring film composers today?

I would tell them to “eat their vegetables,” meaning study your orchestration, because that’s the one skill that the kid next to you with his laptop and his copy of Reason can’t compete with. Learn about the general theory and use of the orchestra, because the biggest composers working today know it. No one is going to steal James Horner’s job, but the average electronic composer has to be scared for his or her job these days. So know your orchestration!

 


Inside the Sacred Grove

Copeland’s studio is both film composing crucible and space for recording impromptu jams with fellow accomplished musicians. Here’s the essential gear that makes it tick, in Copeland’s own words.


Computer:

  • Mac Pro as main recording machine.
  • PCs for hosting libraries such as Vienna and Gigastudio.


Software:

  • Composing: MOTU Digital Performer.
  • Scoring: Avid Sibelius.
  • Audio recording and routing: Avid Pro Tools.


Video editing:

  • Apple Final Cut Pro, but switching to Adobe Premier soon. Also, Adobe After Effects.

 


Master Controller:

  • M-Audio ProKeys 88.

 

Other Keyboards:

  • Akai LPK25.
  • 1948 Hammond Model M with Leslie.
  • 1935 Blüthner grand piano.


DAW Control Surface:

  • An old Digidesign ProControl.

 


Audio Interfaces:

  • MOTU 2408 Mk. 3 (x3).

 


Main outboard gear:
  • Racked Neve and Brent Averill mic preamps.
  • True Systems Precision-8 mic preamp.
  • Avalon AD-2022 converter.
  • Other than that, audio processing is all software!

Studio monitors:

  • Near: Alesis Monitor One. 
  • Far: PMC.


Microphones:

  • Shure, mostly. I love the SM7B. 
  • There are a couple of big Neumanns, AKGs, and Sennheisers.


Miscellaneous Instruments:

  • The world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy—one or more of everything!

 

 

 

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