Karl Jenkins interview (2008) - part two

Karl Jenkins

Part two of our interview with composing superstar.

Last updated: 28 January 2009

Your work has been featured in several adverts. Did you find it challenging switching to a new medium?

Technically it was challenging, but only initially when learning the techniques of making it fit into 30 seconds. But once you've conjured that technical aspect of it, it's just like writing any other piece of music.

The music can be anything in advertising - it can be a symphony orchestra, a jazz group, a rock group or even ethnic music. There's a broad canvas which in itself makes it interesting and challenging.

Did you enjoy the challenge?

Yes, I enjoyed it while I was doing it. Mike Ratledge and I didn't want to go on the road again with another band, so we decided to set up a music company together and work in different areas.

We struck lucky with advertising early on and won a few prestigious awards, including the DNAD Awards for Levi's and a Boots commercial that was quite innovative.

Once you win a couple it's like everyone wants to use you for a few years until you go out of fashion. At its best, writing for adverts can be good but there are a lot of bad adverts like everything else.

In Stabat Mater you looked to Middle Eastern texts for inspiration. Would you encourage more musicians to look away from traditional boundaries?

Yes, I think so. That's why I'm not liked in so-called stuffy classical circles: that is, I don't write difficult modern classical music which immediately gives off a certain kudos. I'm glad I am what I am because I've got a pretty good audience who enjoy my music, which shows composers can communicate with people and make an emotional connection and have some spiritual input into their lives. It's great if you can do that.

I think people should look outside traditions. I've always done it since the Adiemus project, which used a lot of ethnic percussion and world music elements.

But then there after my bigger pieces. The Armed Man, a massive piece that was commissioned by the Royal Armouries, uses Hindu and Japanese texts. Also I used a lot of poetry, mass movements and some biblical excerpts.

For the Requiem which I set before the Stabat Mater I similarly used Japanese haiku poems for that. They fit outside the standard Latin requiem texts and that brought another influence into it.

I used Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi, a type of flute which immediately evokes Japan when you hear it.

With the Stabat Mater I've done similar things. I've used the standard 13th century texts that have been set by many composers, but I looked beyond with some research.

Grahame Davies, an eminent Welsh poet, helped me a lot. I've used his work before, including in the piece I wrote for the opening of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

We used a poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh which is the oldest known written story. It was written on clay tablets and dates from 3,000 BC.

The Stabat Mater is essentially a story about grief where Mary is suffering at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But I've extended that to include grief in other areas.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is about grief, the loss of a friend. I also looked at Now My Life is Only Weeping by Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, who's from the Babylonia civilisation which is now Iraq, so that has a certain resonance to today as well.

It's the traditional Stabat Mater with these extra elements and once again I've used Middle Eastern percussion like the riq, which is like a tambourine, and a drum called the darabuca which is played under the arm.

Some of the texts I used are Aramaic, which would have been the language in Christian times. Hebrew, Greek, English and the main Latin were also used.

Lastly I used the mey, a double-reed instrument indigenous to the area, which immediately evokes the Middle East and the Holy Land.

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