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KARL JENKINS: Unclassifiable Ethnic, Classical & Rock Fusion Becomes World Class

Interview | Artist By Paul Tingen
Published June 1997

Karl Jenkins' music mixes ethnic and classical influences with rock's production techniques; his unclassifiable first album sold a million copies. The latest master of crossover tells Paul Tingen why he doesn't care about categories.

The music is powerful, unmistakable; it instantly grabs your attention. It makes you sit up straight in your seat within seconds and ask: 'What on earth is that?' As such, it makes a perfect accompaniment to a TV ad, and that is indeed how it initially became famous: as the 'uplifting' theme tune to the Delta Air Lines commercial. Most of you will realise by now that I'm talking about Adiemus, one of the most commercially successful exponents of this decade's cross‑everything‑over‑with‑everything‑else wave. Adiemus mixes an ethnic‑tribal vocal sound with a romantic orchestral sound, ethnic and sampled percussion, and a rock‑music approach to production. Unsurprisingly, Adiemus' debut album, Songs Of Sanctuary (1995) caused huge arguments within the classical music establishment, who couldn't decide whether to allow it in the classical music charts or not. Equally unsurprisingly, the public couldn't care less how it was defined or categorised, as long as they could get their hands on it. With one million sales worldwide, Songs Of Sanctuary is one of the most successful contemporary classical albums to date, and it even made inroads into the pop charts. Earlier this year a follow‑up was released: Adiemus II: Cantata Mundi, which also achieved impressive chart‑crossover success in the UK by entering at Number One in the classical‑crossover and classical combined charts, and at number 15 in the pop charts.

High time, therefore, for SOS to talk to the main man behind Adiemus, composer Karl Jenkins. Our meeting was, however, slightly more troublesome than expected, the composer taciturn and our exchanges lacklustre — although the lack of chemistry might have been because I was still trying to make up my mind about Adiemus' music, and so some scepticism may have been evident on my flu‑flushed face. Later, I heard that it was just Jenkins' regular, introverted, phlegmatic temperament — but this sits uneasily with the very passionate nature of much of his music.

It sounds like spiritual music for secular people.

The opening, title track of the first album, parts of which were used for the Delta Air Lines ad, is Jenkins at his best: melodically inventive, strikingly original African‑sounding vocals; very effective rolling, bubbling percussion, and a deliciously lilting flute, all contained in a wash of gentle, harmonious strings. It's stirring stuff, even if the influences are numerous and obvious: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 'Cantus Inaequalis', with its gorgeous melody and soft, subtle singing, accompanied by delicate percussion and pizzicato strings, is another example.

On the other hand, there are tracks such as 'Amaté Adea', which sounds as though it's been lifted in its entirety from some well‑known romantic classical piece and just had a few bits of Bach thrown in; or 'Song Of The Trinity', from the new album, Cantata Mundi, on which the child‑like, African vocals and phonetic, meaningless words become somewhat mannered. Although Cantata Mundi incorporates some new musical influences, such as Eastern European and Arabic sounds, and adds different textures such as woodwind and brass to the strings‑only orchestra of Songs Of Sanctuary, it's really just more of the same; and it's only occasionally, in the dramatic, monumental brass sections of 'Song Of The Spirit', that it comes close to being as exciting as that opening track on Songs Of Sanctuary.

Spirit Level

Most of Karl Jenkins' Adiemus music is actually perfectly tailored to advertising and other occasions where an instant effect on the listener is needed, but in my opinion it's often a bit too easy on the ear — so it was fascinating to hear the composer talk about the ecstatic reactions he gets from his fans. Many people do perceive a great deal of depth and meaning in his music, to the degree that some claim it has changed their lives.

"It's quite a humbling experience to have people come up to me and say that, or write it in the many letters that I get," says Jenkins. "People say that the music touches them deeply, and that they have spiritual experiences listening to it. Whether that's valid or not, I don't know. I didn't put any spiritual message into it. I compose in a completely intuitive way and just express myself through music — which may be a naive comment, but that's what I do! I'm not conveying a message; particularly because the language is made up by me and is purely phonetic: it means nothing. So I'm certainly not conveying a dramatic message in a libretto or a lyric. But the aura of the music is spiritual: it sounds like spiritual music for secular people, and that's what people respond to. The title, Songs Of Sanctuary, suggests a different world. Sanctuary is a place you can escape to — not necessarily in religious terms, just in general terms. So the music provides a world of escapism, in a way.

"It may or may not still be played in 10 years' time, and that's fine with me," he remarks prosaically, in an even Welsh drawl. "I don't have any ambitions. I don't think that I or Adiemus is that important. I consider myself totally of no consequence, ultimately, compared with the great composers. I wouldn't presume to put myself remotely at the same level as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, Stravinsky, Bartók... My music doesn't deserve all the fuss and controversy that it has generated in some circles. It's not that important. It's just music that I've written and that a lot of people have responded to, and that's all."

But how does he see himself in relation to contemporary composers such as John Adams and Steve Reich (with whom he shares the same prestigious music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes)?

"I don't place myself in the same category as Reich or Adams, because my music is not classical in the way theirs is: it borrows more from other cultures. But it's a question that doesn't need to be answered, really. I don't feel a need to place myself next to anyone. And I wouldn't put anyone writing music in the last 50 years in the same category as the great composers I mentioned. John Adams is great, and Steve Reich is fantastic too — I went to one of his concerts and it was like going to a Weather Report concert; there was a great buzz. But I wouldn't in a million years put that next to the body of European classical music, next to Mahler or Bartók.

"I also think that rock music has assumed an importance in our culture that it doesn't really deserve. You get Mick Jagger in the arts pages next to Picasso, and I don't think any pop musician or band remotely deserves that... no, not even the Beatles. I don't wish to sound cynical — there's fantastic music being written nowadays — but when you look over the whole history of music, our period is pretty insignificant."

Jazz Age

Karl Jenkins' music explores and fuses different music styles and cultures — Adiemus uses influences from Celtic, African and Arabic music, and rock too, of course — but his return to the semi‑classical fold is actually quite recent. Born in Wales in 1944, he studied piano and oboe as a child, eventually becoming principal oboist in the Welsh National Youth Orchestra; he took a degree in music at the University of Wales, and went on to a post‑graduate course in London, at the Royal Academy of Music. At university he became interested in jazz and started playing the saxophone; after leaving college he embarked on a long spell of playing in two jazz‑rock crossover bands. The first was his own band, Nucleus, which won first prize at the Montreux jazz festival in 1972. Soon afterwards he joined the well‑known progressive rock/jazz band Soft Machine, and he played with them until 1982, eventually expanding his sonic armoury to include synthesizers. He also met keyboardist Mike Ratledge, and when they both left the band they became musical partners, producing records, writing music for theatre, and eventually building a reputation for themselves as top‑class media composers, winning several prestigious awards for their advertising music in the process. Songs Of Sanctuary, which featured Ratledge as percussion programmer and arranger, was their first album as a partnership. Since then, Ratledge has moved off into CD‑ROMs, and Jenkins has composed and produced two more albums on his own: Diamond Music in 1996 (featuring Palladio, heard in the 'Diamonds are forever' TV commercial) and Adiemus II: Cantata Mundi.

I think that rock music has assumed an importance in our culture that it doesn't really deserve.

Karl Jenkins spent more than 10 years working on advertising music, but he's unapologetic about using his musical talents in this field.

"We had to earn a living, so why not apply our skills? I preferred writing TV music to driving a taxi — as Philip Glass did — but people prefer you to starve for your art!"

In fact, he took little interest in the protracted debate over whether Adiemus counted as 'proper' classical music, as the BPI classical committee first banned Songs Of Sanctuary from the classical charts, and was then overruled by its parent body after protests from Virgin Records and the London Philharmonic. "It's meaningless," he says. "My music is in one of those difficult areas that people don't know how to categorise, and that bothers them. It's nonsense that it bothers them, really. It's just silly. Why don't they just enjoy it if they like it, and not listen to it if they don't enjoy it? It's of no consequence to me what it's called."

Delta Bravo

Adiemus is difficult to categorise because it's the culmination of 25 years of experimenting with and integrating different kinds of music. The composer explains how it came into being...

"I had the idea of writing a piece of music based on European classical music and an ethnic world music vocal sound, and using a meaningless, phonetic language — I didn't want the distraction of words, of any dramatic message conveyed in the lyrics. I wanted to use the voice as an instrument, because the voice is the first instrument of man. So I wrote some of the tracks, including the first track, in manuscript form, with the phonetic vocals structured and written out and scored. Then, in autumn '94, I was approached to do some ethnic crossover music for a Delta Air Lines commercial. I made a demo of the opening piece, it was accepted, and we recorded the music at Angel Studios in London."

Funnily enough, it was the ad's spectacular footage — aeroplanes flying in close formation over a coastline, interspersed with shots of dolphins — that really got it noticed:

"The visibility of the Delta Air Lines commercial sparked record company interest, and I agreed with Virgin Venture that they could have the piece if they allowed me to finish the album."

My music doesn't deserve all the fuss and controversy that it has generated in some circles. It's not that important.

There's been some confusion about exactly who or what Adiemus is. Many people seem to think that it's simply part of the first album's title, and therefore regard naming the second album Adiemus II: Cantata Mundi as a cheap commercial ploy to sell more CDs. Karl Jenkins has a different explanation.

"It's an identity, both in terms of people, and in terms of doing music in a certain style. Adiemus means my compositions within a certain style, with Miriam Stockley's vocals, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ethnic percussion and Pamela Thorby's recorder playing. It's like a band; it's not like a Karl Jenkins solo record, such as Diamond Music, which is. There have been performances of the music of Adiemus by symphony orchestras and choirs all over the place, but these are not Adiemus performances, they are Songs Of Sanctuary or Cantata Mundi as performed by XYZ. That's why when we did the Royal Albert Hall performance last year, it was the first‑ever time Adiemus performed live."

To sound like the album, Adiemus had to use backing tapes to reproduce elements of the studio recording that couldn't be performed live: Miriam Stockley's vocal overdubs and some of the percussion. The music does have a score, so it can be performed by classical performers anywhere on the planet. But modern studio technology and rock production techniques are also essential ingredients of a 'proper' Adiemus performance, and of the albums: to achieve the spectacular massive tribal vocal sound, Miriam Stockley's vocals were overdubbed up to 30 times, and samples of ethnic percussion formed an integral part of the 'jungle' percussion sound. The Adiemus sound could not have been achieved without extensive multitracking and the use of computers and samples, so it's in terms of the hardware it uses as well as its combination of musical influences that this is genuine crossover music.

Tribal Culture

At least some of the creative process remains untainted by modern technology, though.

"I write all my music with pencil and paper," says Jenkins, "the old‑fashioned way. I first write it down in short score, with a piano on two staves and two or three vocal parts, and then I orchestrate the piano part, again only on paper. Finally, I use the Acorn computer with the Sibelius 7 system for setting and printing out the music. Mike Ratledge programmed the percussion on Songs Of Sanctuary, using an Emu Emax for the samples and a sequencer that he developed himself many years ago, to a guide synth track that I'd laid down to a click‑track. The rhythms on the first album were conceived very much in a pop way, because the tempo was the same throughout each track, and Mike programmed the rhythm so that each part went through from the beginning to the end. There was some live played percussion as well, but the end result was quite a quantised, pop‑like percussion sound. My son, Jody Barratt‑Jenkins, plays percussion in the National Youth Orchestra, and he did all the percussion on Cantata Mundi. We had more preparation time for this album, and thought things through more deeply, and we decided to play all the percussion rather than program it. We also worked hard on creating a rhythm track with ebb and flows in the tempo.

"We have a room at home where there's an Apple Mac and some keyboards: a Roland D50 and Yamaha DX7, plus a Roland JV1080 sound module, and a U‑Matic video recorder for my advertising and film work. It's great because, despite using the Acorn, I'm computer‑illiterate, and I work together with my son whenever I need computer input. Jody and I did the basic rhythm tracks here. I played very basic chord structures on a keyboard to a click, and this was recorded on Alesis ADAT digital 8‑track. Jody overdubbed some rhythm tracks, and then he started slowing down and speeding up the click in certain sections, using MOTU's Performer, linked with SMPTE to the ADATs. After this, he overdubbed percussion again to the new click‑track. We ended up with two ADAT tapes, which we took to the studio to transfer the contents to multitrack. Songs Of Sanctuary was done at Angel Studios on 24‑track analogue; Cantata Mundi was done at CTS in Wembley on Sony 3348 digital multitrack. The percussion tracks could take up anything between eight and 16 tracks, so to prevent us running out of tracks we sometimes worked with ADAT slaves for the percussion and vocals on Songs Of Sanctuary.

For all their technical forward‑thinking, synthesizers date music more than anything.

"After putting the percussion, guide keyboard and click on the multitrack we recorded all Miriam's vocals. Because the amount of vocals overdubs could go up to 30, we usually bounced them down to maybe two stereo pairs and a few individual parts. If there were six unison vocal overdubs we'd bounce them to one track, for example. After the vocal overdubs, we did the orchestral sessions, replacing the guide keyboards — except the first four bars of Songs Of Sanctuary, which are woodwinds played on a Roland D50. But that's the only bit of synthesizer on both albums."

The idea of overdubbing one voice 30 times will raise the eyebrows of anyone who's tried massive one‑voice overdubs, and found that double‑tracking the same voice time and time again leads to a certain saturation point, above which the vocals don't sound bigger any more, but just start to sound dense and muddy. One curious technique to circumvent this problem was applied by top producer Rupert Hine, who had singers sing in different accents and thus simulate different singers. Karl Jenkins had other solutions, one of which was to occasionally give Miriam Stockley a break and use another white South‑African singer, Mary Carewe.

"It can be difficult to sing that tribal sound for a sustained length of time," he explains. "We also brought Mary in to give Miriam's vocals a little bit of extra thickness and weight, and to add a slightly different timbre to the voice. But 90% of the vocals were done by Miriam. Another technique we used was to vary the speed of the tape slightly when recording her. We'd play the tape a little bit faster during recording, so she'd sing to music that had gone up in pitch, a semi‑tone at the most, and on normal speed playback she'd still be in tune with the music, but her voice would sound thicker. Conversely, if we recorded her with the tape playing slower her voice would be thinner on playback. We did that occasionally, just to create a greater fullness in the sound."

Modern Times

"Recording studios have made a major difference to the way music has changed during this century," Karl Jenkins says, but he's not so sure that they've influenced his own music. It isn't until he's told me all the technical intricacies of how the Adiemus records were recorded that he admits that they might have had an effect after all — with a little persuasion.

"Yes, well, I suppose you're right!" he laughs. "I suppose I meant more that I don't see myself as a technical person. I don't use synths and I don't use computer technology in that sense. What I'm making is a pretty traditional type of music that's scored and played by an orchestra, even though I do use studio techniques, such as overdubbing, and the way the sound of the albums is layered and textured. So I suppose that we used a rock approach to recording and production. But that wasn't something that we thought about when we did it. We just made it sound as good as we possibly could."

It's odd that he thinks of himself as a non‑technical person: although as an instrumentalist he was classically trained, he learnt his orchestration techniques mainly from the technology‑strewn medium of TV advertising, and in the '70s and early '80s he was working at the cutting edge of music technology when he played keyboards, sax and oboe with Soft Machine.

"Mike was playing a Lowrey organ through a fuzz box," he remembers. "We also had an EMS Synthi A synth, as well as a Minimoog for effects and bass lines. I was playing a Fender Rhodes and a string synth, and, towards the end, a Roland Juno 106. For a while we were really very actively experimenting with synthesizers, but soon we just stuck with what we had and didn't constantly chase new sounds or new synths any more. I began to realise that, for all their technical forward‑thinking, synthesizers date music more than anything. I mean, acoustic music can be timeless, but the moment someone plays a D50 or a DX7 you can straightaway hear what era it's from."

Karl Jenkins has been quoted as saying that, though little music of consequence is written today, at least pop music has done something new with creating new sonic textures.

"That's pretty correct," he confirms. "What I meant is that, with the development of synths, sounds are available to us that are kind of new‑ish. But pop music still uses the same chords and predictable rhythms. My music also uses the same basic chords, but it's not limited to three chords as most pop music is. It's also fairly chromatic, and shifts around in keys quite a bit. I suppose you could say that my music is also new‑ish, because nothing else sounds like it. It's a combination of different existing influences."

At which point we're back where we started, arguing about when music is great or original; whether the various influences of Adiemus have really been transcended and a genuinely new style evolved, or not. Karl Jenkins, however, clearly can't be bothered with concerns like these.

"I don't care what the critics say. It means more to me to do a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, or to do a session with the London Philharmonic and have the orchestra applaud me at the end of that session. If you have self‑doubts, that's the only compliment you need. They're working musicians who play every day and have seen and heard much, and for them to enjoy what I do means that I've accomplished something."

John Fredericks

John Fredericks is an audio engineer who also designs and builds specialist audio equipment, and runs his own company, Technical Earth Ltd. Karl Jenkins asked him to assist with the live sound for Adiemus' world‑premiere concert at the Royal Albert Hall last December, on the basis of his experience with the show Lord Of The Dance.

"I co‑ordinated the multitrack playback for the Royal Albert Hall," Fredericks explains. "I've designed and built a multitrack switcher, primarily intended for live use. The playback material for that concert was on an analogue 24‑track multitrack master, and we had another 24‑track as backup. We had the two multitracks feeding the A and B sides of my switcher, and the output went through Dolby SR and then to the line system and front of house. Obviously, the show must go on, whatever happens, so should the master 24‑track have stopped, then my switcher box would have switched to the back‑up in under 10ms, and there would have been no interruption.

"I made my first switcher box for the Lord Of The Dance show, and it's still working every night. It's a 3U rack that works using timecode or a pilot track, but this can be manually overridden, so you can switch between playback sources when you have a piece that's longer than a reel. I saw an obvious gap in the market, and was a bit amazed that something like this hadn't been made yet. At the moment, Karl and I are transferring and submixing all the 24‑track data to two Akai DR16 hard disk recorders for a show in Helsinki — Karl's considering touring with Adiemus later this year, and it's not feasible to be lugging two 24‑tracks around on tour. So we'll have two DR16 machines, each with its own hard drive, located and started via MIDI by my switcher, then running independently. If for any reason one of them stops, the switcher will immediately swap over to the other machine."