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Emerging from his local Starbucks, former Police drummer Stewart Copeland is characteristically humble when discussing his work as a classical composer.
"It's all about the production ensemble, D'Drum," Copeland says, referencing the five-piece local percussion ensemble that will serve as the core performers in his percussion concerto, "Gamelan D'Drum," which will receive its world premiere with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night with repeat performances scheduled throughout the weekend.
"The ensemble is so good that the symphony knew they had to commission a piece," explains Copeland between sips of coffee. "And they cast about for a composer and somehow landed on me."
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Copeland's modesty is refreshing, but misplaced. Whether with The Police or throughout his lengthy post-Police career in film scores, Copeland has proved his chops, both as a drummer and a composer. Hell, there's a reason Rolling Stone named Copeland the fifth best drummer ever. Staying in character, Copeland brushes even that honor aside.
"It's just someone's opinion," he says. "In my wife's eyes, I'm number one. In my eyes, I'm at the bottom of that list."
But drummers from the bottom of any list are rarely asked to write a piece for a renowned orchestra. Still, composing a piece with a specific instrument in mind proved to be even more challenging than Copeland first imagined. In this case, the instrument of choice was a drum set from Bali known as the gamelan.
"The idea of taking an exotic instrument and putting it with a symphony orchestra has been tried before, but not with a great deal of success because of a problem with pitch," Copeland explains, sounding downright professorial. "Tuning has always been an issue. Uniquely, the Dallas ensemble actually has a [gamelan] set that was made in Indonesia that is in concert pitch."
And he would know: Copeland came to Dallas in 2008 and videotaped D'Drum playing the gamelan, before returning to his California home to begin the compositional process.
"I needed to know what notes each drum could play," he says. "I went home and wrote 35 minutes of music. The piece took a fat two years to write and orchestrate. I delivered it several months ago and I can't wait to be sitting in a seat in Dallas getting to hear it."
But is the piece and its concept too highbrow for rock fans to enjoy? Copeland doesn't think so.
"The Dallas Orchestra is a rocking orchestra," he says. "When you have these five wild Texans playing the gamelan, the place will be rocking."
Which brings up an important distinction in Copeland's life of late. While he's quick to describe his classical "Gamelan D'Drum" piece in rock terms, it's actually been several years since he's played with musicians commonly associated with mainstream music—aside, of course, from The Police's worldwide reunion tour, which launched in May of 2007 and lasted until August of 2008. But, even before the first break up of The Police in 1984, Copeland began scoring films and writing orchestral pieces.
"Francis Ford Coppola got me started in the film scoring business," Copeland explains. "The film was Rumble Fish and Coppola was looking for originality. I was the rock star brought to the tea party. I had to learn how to conform and to be a professional."
These days, Copeland believes that his talents are better suited to concert pieces than scores. Scores, he insists, too often mean being reined in.
"Not much about my music lends itself to film," Copeland admits. "I really had to clip my wings to get my music into a film. I had to trim my music back as to not interrupt the dialogue. My music doesn't belong in every film, and some of my best music has made its way into some not-so-great movies."
Film scoring did, however, help Copeland make contacts within neo-classical circles. Soon after Rumble Fish, he found himself scoring ballets, operas and other theatrical pieces. And those efforts, in turn, led to other outlets for his musical endeavors. These days, with Copeland's music also appearing in various PlayStation games, on some BlackBerry applications and even on The Weather Channel, it's hard to find many areas where his music isn't used.
"There's no escape from my music," Copeland says, with a laugh.
Just not so much in the rock realm any more. These days, he says he only plays rock music on a recreational basis. And he doesn't see a return behind the traditional drum kit any time soon. In fact, he admits, his experiences on The Police's reunion tour may have soured him on being in a rock band for good.
"We had every amenity at our disposal," he says of the tour, which netted somewhere in the vicinity of a whopping $350 million. "We were pampered like poodles."
While Copeland says he detested the royal treatment, there were other, more detrimental issues, afoot.
"Dealing with each other was the big problem," he admits of his interactions with his old bandmates. "We were so used to being the masters of our own domains. Having to put up with another emperor in the room was decidedly difficult."
Though Copeland, bassist Sting and guitarist Andy Summers smiled and acted friendly on stage, backstage found the trio faced with an undercurrent of intense animosity.
"I'm not used to the bass player turning around and giving me his opinion about my playing," says Copeland. "And the bass player was certainly not used to telling the drummer to play something and having the drummer say 'Fuck you.'"
So, OK: It's safe to say that there won't be another Police reunion anytime soon. But their money was made—and that money has afforded Copeland the chance to dabble in less commercially viable ventures, such as concertos and operas.
"I just do what I like," Copeland says of his work of late. "Perhaps, as a composer, I am a bit more intellectual in my pursuit of novelty. It is fun to push the parameters."
Still, there are moments when Copeland says he misses making the simple rock music of The Police, the music that made him a star.
"I'm sort of aggressive," he says. "For me, playing drums is all about hairy-ass, silverback ape, male dominance. It's a noise-making experience—very primal. When I sit behind a set, it's all libido."
But this week, it will be about five other guys performing Copeland's concerto—these "five wild Texans" performing on those exotic drums from Bali, and playing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. And Copeland will be stuck front row, taking it all in, fighting the desire to get on stage and show that he's still got it.
And that's just fine by him.
"I enjoy playing rock music—music that is very limited in scope," Copeland says. "I still enjoy power chords. On the other hand, there's more interesting stuff out there to explore."