Stewart Copeland might be best known as the drummer for the Police, but his career with the trio was effectively finished by 1986. Before the Roxanne hitmakers even broke up, Copeland established a successful second career as a composer, writing music for scores, soundtracks, chamber ensembles, orchestras and even opera.
This year, he's combined his interest in the improvisational nature of rock with the more rigid world of classical composition, touring a performance called Off the Score with virtuoso Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker and a chamber ensemble. On Wednesday night, the quintet will perform the mix of classical music and songs from across Copeland's career at Koerner Hall in Toronto, as the opening concert of the 21C Music Festival. The performance will include the world premiere of Coincidence or Convergence?, a piece commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music. The Globe spoke to Copeland from Los Angeles.
How did you meet Jon Kimura Parker?
I love playing with classical musicians – they start younger than rock musicians and work harder, and are generally of a higher calibre of musicianship. But they're all locked up in Tchaikovsky, and gosh darn it, aren't there some incredibly gifted players that I could give my stuff to play, or take some Stravinsky and mess around with it? Are there any adventurers in the classical world? Well, so it happens, there's an artist called Jon Kimura Parker.
While they parachute him in to play Rachmaninoff with the giant orchestras of the world, he's thinking, Man, this Stravinsky, if I could take a left there, that'd be really cool – but that's not what he's there for. He, too, has been scratching around for some way to play with this great material. We have the same agent, they introduced the two of us, who have a parallel yearning. We come together, and we do Stravinsky, and we do mess around with it, and he can fly off the page and depart from what Igor originally intended, because we've got some intentions of our own.
I'm curious how you got into exploring improvisation in classical music.
I play with a lot of classical musicians in the pieces I formally write to play with orchestra. I have learned what great players they have in that world and I want to get me some. And there's another thing, which is to have these players who really understand these works and want to improvise on them – they really know where it comes from and have great ideas of where to take it. Yoon Kwon, for instance, on violin [in our quintet], is a first violinist at the MET, and she gets to play the great works all the time. But she also seeks adventure, and she has chops that are just beyond any of the cats I could ever hire here in L.A.
Does your experience in the rock world influence this?
I grew up in the rock world, which is all about ears and an instinctive knowledge of when your eight bars are up. We just know where the double bar lines are; we don't have to count, whereas readers have to navigate across the page. I learned to navigate across the page as a film composer and I discovered the great utility of written music. It just gets you straight to the music that you've got and you can focus on how it's played, and what it sounds like. You don't have to teach anybody anything; it's right there. But, by the way, as a player, I'm a fully non-reader. I'm an ear player; I don't follow score.
How does your creative process change writing drums for a rock-oriented band like the Police or Oysterhead versus composing a piece like Coincidence or Convergence?
So different. Composing music for readers is all about homework. You have to get it right in the quiet in front of your score. You put it on the page, flop it out on the stands and count them in. With bands, you don't have any score – you think on your feet. It's not about homework. It's about being ready to follow the trend or lead the trend. It's much more spontaneous.
How did the commission from Toronto's Royal Conservatory come about?
From my end, it was an incoming call. I guess they were interested in this ensemble. I've written it with the idea of them being an educational institution in mind. Pretty much for the first time, I've carefully transcribed my drum part, which I never do. But in this case I did – I went through and earballed a whole recording of the piece, of me banging away on the drums. It's pretty much the first time I've ever had to try and figure out what that asshole was doing.
What can listeners expect from the piece?
Convergence. I discovered as a kid that whatever music was going on in my head, whether it's 6/8, 3/4, or whatever – by walking in 2/4, with 6/8 music in your head, guess what? You land back on the beat every so often. Since then I've always had a thing about rhythms that depart from a common place, and go off in seemingly different directions, but they always circle back and end up hitting the beat.
Sometimes, when you're on one of those tangents, it may seem like the behaviour of the other tangent is random, and then you converge in what may seem like a coincidence – but, in fact, it's convergence. And, by the way, that lofty concept actually is expressed in the music. There are a lot of tangential rhythms that eventually converge, but create a lot of tension before they do.
Will listeners get any taste of your rock drumming?
It's all the same style drumming that I play. I don't play punk-rock type rhythms – the music that I play is a lot more complex than that. I won't say better or more sophisticated, just more complex. It's the same drumming I've always done. Probably more of it, because I'm not dodging a singer – which sounds flip, but it's really the truth. My instrument is an accompanying instrument, and I come from a world where drums accompany a song. This band is not that world, so there's all kinds of room to do all kinds of cool stuff.
The second-annual 21C Music Festival, a celebration of contemporary classical music, runs at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto until May 24.
This interview has been edited and condensed.