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Sting Sings Dowland

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Sting, Songs from the Labyrinth, Edin Karamazov (released on October 10, 2006)
Where does modern pop music fit into music history? In a sense, that staple of the pop singer, the love song in its thousands of permutations, is as old as the hills, as is the concept of a singer accompanying himself with a simple instrumental part while he sings a love song. Whether it is a guitar or a lute and no matter the musical style, the rules are remarkably similar. Once you get past the language issues and the changes in society governing courtship, troubadour songs in Occitan, French or English lute songs, German Lieder, and, say, a song by Sting have more in common than you might think. So, in his new CD, Songs from the Labyrinth, Sting sings a few of Elizabethan composer John Dowland's lute songs and even plays the lute on two of the tracks.

Other Reviews:

Chris Pasles, Sting's only in it for the lute (Los Angeles Times, October 17)

Martin Hodgson,
Sting plucks lute composer from obscurity
(The Independent, October 16)

Elizabeth Blair, Sting's 'Labyrinth': 16th Century Pop Music (NPR, October 16)

Jessica Duchen, Hooked on classics: Rock stars who attempt the crossover (The Independent, October 16)

Sting's Journey Through History (CBS News, October 15)

Elysa Gardiner, Sting's 'Labyrinth' mines the oldies — from the 1600s (USA Today, October 4)
Having been in high school in the mid-1980s, I have a natural appreciation for Sting's voice. Even so, my estimation of him has risen several degrees because of this album. It was interesting that the members of the American Musicological Society discussed this new album last week, as people processed the media flurry that accompanied the CD's release. New recordings do not get discussed in that forum all that often, but musicologists are thrilled whenever historical music intersects with the mainstream media. One professor substituted a Sting track on his "drop-the-needle" exam, instead of the performance from the anthology he had played in class, but was disappointed that the students did not even notice. It turns out that students in college in 2006 are too young to have a connection to Sting. He is just some old dude singing music by an even older dude.

Even so, the effect of seeing anyone on a commercial television network singing the lute songs of John Dowland and playing the lute cannot be overestimated. Dowland's music, of stunning melodic beauty and facility, hardly needs an advocate among informed listeners. It must be said that, purely in terms of a performance, this is not an ideal version of Dowland's music, but its beauty and Sting's name appeal will do much to bring some much-needed variety to the ears of musically impoverished listeners. Some moments are both impressive and kind of silly, such as hearing Sting's multiphonic voice singing all four parts of some of the polyphonic arrangements simultaneously (Can she excuse my wrongs).

Certainly, such tender, fragile moments as the refrain of Have you seen the bright lily grow (you can listen to that track, by Robert Johnson and not Dowland, here) and Weep you no more, sad fountains make this disc very easy on the ears. Sarajevo-born lutenist Edin Karamazov, the midwife of this recording, plays with impressive grace. I wish the duo had selected more Dowland songs, instead of filling the time with readings from John Dowland's 1595 letter to Sir Robert Cecil. At just under 50 minutes, even at the reduced price now offered by Amazon, this disc is not essential for the serious classical listener. However, it will make an excellent gift for that person in your life who needs a sympathetic introduction to the wealth of historical music.

Washingtonians have a chance to hear some lute music by John Dowland (and Francesco da Milano) in two weeks, when lutenist Hopkinson Smith plays on the Friends of Music concert series at Dumbarton Oaks (November 3 and 4, 8 pm; November 5, 7 pm).

Other blog responses from On an Overgrown Path and The Rambler.


Todd said...

I hope the Russians love this music too.

jfl said...

Sting always sounds like Sting, which can be off-putting or comforting. The letters with the electronic bird-twittering in the background is rather off-putting to me, too. An odd bird of a recording...

Anonymous said...

Yuck, is what I think of this recording. I was standing in Border's the other day and I heard it overhead and my first thought was that it was out of tune and un-cultured. I like Sting! I loved "Ghost in the Machine" & "Roxanne" in the 80's. But I do think Dowland Lute Songs are a bit above his vocal ability.

Unknown said...

This is certainly a very unorthodox redering of Dowland's songs. However, Sting's raw approach to these works does beg the question: was the vocal technique of Dowland's day as pristine and refined as we think of classical singing today?

Sting does miss some opportunities to exploit the subtlties of this music -- opportunities a early music scholar would recognize.

The main criticism I have is that I just wish Sting wouldn't be in such a hurry with the musical line. He clips endings of phrases and seems to think that tempo is ridgid and cannot be played with. He rushes to get breaths in so that he doesn't miss a beat rather than artfully rounding off phrases and taking time with the breath, as if he doesn't believe the lute player will follow him.
I do have to say that the performance, for all it's "popish" roughness, is heart-felt.