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Karl Jenkins: December 2009

'Stella Natalis' is Karl Jenkins's most recent work that puts a ethnic twist into Christmas music.Karl Jenkins is one of the most celebrated living contemporary composers, often hitting Classic FMs Hall of Fame, and even the Queen recognised his efforts in 2005 by awarding him an OBE. Best known for his Adiemus project, which has sold over 3 million albums in 50 countries, Jenkins has other notable achievements such as his hugely popular The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (which has sold more than 152,000 copies in the UK alone) and has been performed 800 times. He is currently touring his new Christmas work, Stella Natalis, on a Cathedral tour and he has kindly given some of his time to tell us about his new album, the tour, and give his views on classical crossover music.

You released Stella Natalis at the beginning of November which, like all your other works, is built on a central theme - can you take us through the initial concept of the new album and what you were trying to achieve?
Well, it was decided that it was time for me to do a Christmas album. Christmas albums, nowadays, are always the same music sung by different people in different keys, so we wanted to create a new work. With Stella Natalis, which means 'Star of Birth', it is an attempt to convey the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to mankind. Although it's essentially a Christian piece, I have used some Zulu texts; some Hindu Gods make an appearance, there are Old Testament texts which pre-date Christianity and some secular texts as well, which isn't particularly of any religion. For the performance we used Kate Royal; a marvellous soprano, and Alison Balsom on the trumpet, and we used two choirs; one was Tenebrae - who are Western European classical singers, and up against that we have Adiemus, which is kind of tribal; offering a kind of contemporary ethnic flavour. There's Eastern drumming and percussion to propel it along. Also, there's a companion piece: Joy to the World, which is revisiting a lot of carols known throughout the world in different cultures, such as 'Silent Night' which is German, and there's some French and Spanish, Caribbean, and some traditional English, but they are performed with the same combination of instruments and singers. So there are two companion pieces - one that's new, and one that's old but with brand new arrangements.

Your music is driven by welcoming different cultures and ethnic sounds, where did the passion for such an eclectic soundscape come from?
I suppose all of my life I have been something of a musical tourist. I studied classical from an early age, studying at the University of Wales and the Royal Academy of Music. To begin with I had a passion for jazz and worked initially as a jazz musician. In the 1970s I played with Ronnie Scott's jazz band and jazz-rock fusion band Soft Machine. Then I worked as a commercial composer, which in itself was very educational as commercials can vary, as one at anytime has to do anything. So one day one type of music would be in demand, and the next day, something with an Indian flavour would be needed, so I learnt a lot about different ethnic music there as they were in such a variety of different styles. All of these styles coming together after initially being trained classically went into the melting pot, I suppose. And when I came out of the other end of all this, with Adiemus in 1995 it was my own style and I realised what I wanted to do; which was classically based composition, and crossing it over with other ethnic cultures; with both the instruments and text. When I worked on Requiem and Stabat Mater, for example, which are both very traditional Latin texts, I chose to look beyond that for both of them. I used some Japanese haiku poems that deal with death, and Stabat Mater was similar where I used some Middle Eastern texts. It's been a constant refrain with everything I do. It's come from my musical journey in my life - things I have constantly picked up along the way.

How do you organise your time with your projects?
How long is a piece of string? They are all different. The bigger the work, the longer it takes, not just in the sense of how long it is, but also the amount of instruments used. So if it's a large orchestra and a long piece, like The Armed Man, for example, it will take about a year to get from beginning to end. But then shorter works, with just a string orchestra will take a few months. As for my work ethic, I try to get up early in the morning. I usually start between 5-6am and do a few hours later in the day if I choose to. I find that it is necessary for me to write every day; rather than wait for anything - if you wait, nothing happens. The more you do it every day, the easier it becomes; usually things start to happen and flow so that's the way I work.

Are you always satisfied with the end product?
Yes, otherwise I wouldn't release it! It's like any creative person, whether it's Paul McCartney, Mozart - whatever level, not everyone's work is always spot on. Some pieces are better than others and at the time you are just trying to do your best. You have to have a certain level of self-acceptance, I suppose, or self-criticism - once you satisfy that you can be happy to let it go. I find that working to a deadline is very helpful. Much of the best music ever written was commissioned - an opera for a prince, or a concerto for an event, whatever it may have been. I find that deadline useful because you have to discipline yourself and have it all done by a specific time. I know some composers write for themselves so it's open-ended and they fiddle with it forever - it's never completed. Because that's what you can do - you can always go back and tweak things, but once it is committed to print or recording then it's gone forever and that's it.

Which work would you say are you most proud of?
The Armed Man, probably. Because it's affected a lot of people. It's made a huge emotional connection - it's been performed over 800 times which is a huge amount really in the last couple of years. But I think there is some better music in the Requiem than inThe Armed Man so it's not always what one thinks is the better piece that makes that critical connection with the listener.

You are currently conducting Stella Natalis on tour until the 22nd December - is it a particular highlight of your career to get out there and conduct your work yourself?
I do enjoy it, yes, though I don't do a lot of it. I am often asked to concerts of my work as a guest conductor. I do about five a year and I do like doing it. Any premieres I do myself, anyway, with any new work, which is normally close after the recording. Composers conducting their own compositions holds a certain amount of attraction, particularly nowadays but I can't say anything more about it as it's difficult to talk about oneself in that sense. It's a rarity in a way so it's quite nice to do.

You are touring in a number of cathedrals - how do you find the acoustics for your music in such venues?
I like it very much. I did a previous tour with Stabat Mater which was premiered in St Paul's Cathedral. It's such a massive space, there were 3000 people in there - it was fantastic. It's good because you are close to the performers; you hear the immediate sound from the orchestra - so when it's at the end of movements it's quite lucky to hear the sound swimming round. Also, they are quite magical spaces to perform, whether you are Christian or not they're still amazing venues to perform music, so I always find it a pleasure to do them.

Jenkins produced Rhydian's latest album, 'O Fortuna'.You have recently produced the album O Fortuna for fellow Welshman Rhydian Roberts; do you think that's something that you may make a habit of?
I shouldn't think so - I occasionally do. I did a similar thing for Mike Oldfield a couple of years ago. I am often approached with these things, and sometimes I say 'yes', sometimes I say 'no' but there's always problems when working with other people - not the people themselves, necessarily, but sometimes the people behind them. It's not always an easier ride because you are not in charge of your own destiny as I am on my own projects so it may be that I have got used to that, and not a team of people who seem determined to change things! It's a luxury I can afford, fortunately. In the many years that I was doing advertising music where I composed for a variety of things such as The British Airways there was always someone telling me what do to: 'change this', 'make it more optimistic', 'do this, do that', either the advertising agency or the commercial director, whoever, there was always someone and very often these people knew very little about music. So when I return to my solo career it's a pleasure to be in charge of my own destiny and to have the sole responsibility as well.

Many crossover artists such as Hayley Westenra, Faryl Smith, Bond and Escala use your work, particularly 'Benedictus' and 'Palladio' - do you ever listen to their renditions?
I don't listen! (laughs) Hayley Westenra's 'Benedictus' is quite nice but they chopped the cello solo off the front which is a huge part. Half of 'Benedictus' is to do with the instrumental elements - it has a lot to do with spirituality, but she cuts all that off and comes straight in with the vocal part. Escala's 'Palladio' was kind of butchered in a way. They are great players and the sound and production is good but the composition has been chopped about - it doesn't make sense to me - it goes from one part to another and is not performed in the sequence that it was written in. But it was already done before I knew about it in a way, and in retrospect, I would have told them to do what they want stylistically; add percussion to it, whatever - that wasn't the issue, but not to make the edits from the composition and reassemble it. I would have requested that, if I had been approached before they did it, which essentially, one should do. It's done and gone now, anyway.

Are you selective about who you allow to cover and adapt your work?
I get a lot of requests from people that want to do this and that - 'Adiemus' is often requested for different adaptations, such as a brass band version, and there is no brass band version, for example. Sometimes people want to take things to sample. Because I have always had a wide appreciation of all kinds of music, I don't have an issue with pop; I don't agree with the notion that "if it's pop it's no good'. I'm not precious about anything - I'm pretty easy going, as long as it is of a certain standard. I don't like bad music in whatever field it is - as long as it has some integrity and its own style, it's fine with me. I'm open to any interpretation really, as long as it's decent.

What do you think of classical crossover music?
They introduce music to people, I suppose. When you look at any one of these people's albums though, even Rhydian's to a point, which I was involved in, Katherine Jenkins, Aled Jones or Bryn Terfel and you read their track lists... it could be any one of them. It's always the same songs - you get 'Amazing Grace', 'Annie's Song' - it's just the same songs turning out time and time again - I don't know how many versions of these things people need! Some of these artists are better than others; Bryn is on a different level because he is outstandingly good as a great baritone in the hardcore classical repertoire, but he also does these other albums as well. I don't put him in the same league as the others - he is well beyond it, really.

Left to right: Alison Balsom (trumpet), Karl Jenkins and Kate Royal (soprano).Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Next year I'm going to Shanghai - I'm writing a piece for their Shanghai Festival. I'm also going to New York for my new violin concerto, Sarikiz. Thirdly, I'm going to South Africa to perform Stabat Mater - so that's three conducting gigs I'll be doing. I'm also doing a new Gloria text which is going to be premiered at the Big Sing which is a project at the Royal Albert Hall where the audience are the performers. You'll have three thousand people singing the piece. So Gloria will be premiered there, which is pretty unique, so it should be quite exciting to have a few thousand people being involved. I'm finishing it now so the vocal scores will be sent out to anyone who wants to participate!

Karl Jenkins's latest album, Stella Natalis, is out now; order the album at amazon.

Purchase tickets to the Stella Natalis tour here.

Interview by Nicola Jarvis

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