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'Most of the Greatest Music is Shot Through With Doom or Potential Catastrophe' – Charles Hazlewood on 'Death Songbook,' His Darkly Beautiful Collaboration With Brett Anderson

'People who are into rock 'n' roll tend to think, well, classical music's not for me because it's too clever. But who's to say that rock music isn't just as clever? It's just clever in different ways. It's just as sophisticated, but in different ways.'

charles hazlewood death songbook
Source: Kirsten McTernan

'Death Songbook' is a reinterpretation of 12 classic songs with Paraorchestra.

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Charles Hazlewood has had a long and diverse career. As one of Britain’s leading conductors he has waved the baton for orchestras all over the world, and has also presented TV and radio programs on both classical and rock music, including the BBC series How Pop Songs Work. In 2011 he co-founded Paraorchestra, the world's first fully integrated ensemble of professional musicians with and without disabilities, playing the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics with Coldplay, as well as Glastonbury in 2016, 2017 and 2019, with guests including Gruff Rhys, Nadine Shah, Mr. Fingers and Lianne La Havas.

On Friday April 19, his most recent project, Death Songbook, a collaboration with Suede’s Brett Anderson – and also featuring Shah as well as Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford, Adrian Utley of Portishead, and Gwenno – will be released. Made up of 12 orchestral re-imaginings of songs by artists including Echo & The Bunnymen, Mercury Rev, Japan, Black, Depeche Mode, Skeeter Davis, Jacques Brel and Suede, it is a stunning piece of work. Far from being a simple classical reworking of the songs, the album instead breathes a new, shivering beauty into the compositions. It can be preordered here.

Q caught up with Hazlewood on the eve of Death Songbook’s release to hear how it came about, why he considers the music of the Ramones and Beethoven to be equally valid works of art… and also catch his somewhat surprisingly forthright views on certain other orchestral reinterpretations…

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Hi Charles. Congratulations on Death Songbook: it’s a completely beautiful album – and quite bold to take quite spiky rock songs by artists like Echo & The Bunnymen or Depeche Mode and reimagine them in such a lush way.

Thank you! Well Brett and I are a similar age, and that music in the 80s was a big part of our respective childhoods, so, with some trepidation, but also with quite a lot of excitement, we thought that's where we were going to plunder most of the material from.

And I think good cover versions tell you something new about a track. It’s like revisiting an old friend, but somehow the friend is transformed in some way. And a good cover will highlight that actually, great art is unbreakable.

The theme of the album – as evident from the title – is death. There's a great quote I read where you say most great art is intrinsically melancholic.

Oh yes, I think that is an eternal truth, that so-called “happy” art just doesn't have the resonance that art fueled by melancholy does. And the weird thing about it is that melancholic music just sort of meets you, whether you're ecstatically happy or whether you're really down, or somewhere in between. There's always catharsis in it. So it's a rich vein to say, let's look at songs about the death of love, about loss, about anxiety, about heartbreak. Because these things are all ironically comforting, right?

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Did you ever worry that doing a whole album about death might seem a bit of a downer?

Oh no, not at all, actually! I mean, look at a song like Black’s “Wonderful Life.” On the face of it, that's absolutely about a lust for life, isn't it? It’s about saying, aren't we lucky to be alive? But actually, of course, it's also bitterly ironic. It’s a mixture of ups and downs and I think the whole album reflects that. So “The Killing Moon” is about surrendering yourself to death, but, boy, there's an ecstasy, there's an uplift in that music which is unstoppable. So I'd say that actually, there's a life force in this death album.

And you and Brett had the idea during the pandemic, when everyone was kind of pretty much thinking about death all the time anyway?

I suppose we were all confronting our own vulnerability at that time. And feeling strange and sort of disjointed from each other. Certainly, for musicians, it felt like part of us was dead back then, because if you live to share your music with other people, being told you can't do that is like cutting off a limb. And Brett and I had bumped into each other a few times in the early part of the pandemic, both a bit punch drunk by the circumstances, and we started talking about how we'd like to work together.

And also, relatively recent to that time I'd been to this amazing event called the Festival of Death and Dying, near Glastonbury. And that festival was all about really confronting the last great taboo, which is death, this thing that we don't want to talk about, we don't want to think about, and yet it's the one thing that every one of us will have to go through, and witness others going through it.

So then we started talking about how we love melancholic songs, how most of the greatest music for us is the music which is shot through with doom or potential catastrophe… and so the idea was born. In the end it was a bit of a no brainer that we should do it together.

charles hazlewood brett anderson death songbook
Source: Kirsten McTernan

'Most of the greatest music for us is the music which is shot through with doom or potential catastrophe.'

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And did you think from the start that this was something for the Paraorchestra to do?

Absolutely. I've had a long career mainly conducting orchestras all over the world, and that's all been great. But when the pandemic started. I had a bit of a Damascene moment where I realized I’d been airport hopping for 30 plus years. I suddenly thought: I don't want to do that anymore.

And I realized that I now have this rich jewel which is Paraorchestra, which is the only orchestra that is up for every challenge, that is excited by every paradigm shift. You know, orchestras are wonderful things, but they are also stuck in a model which they can't or won't break out of – it’s just too comfortable to sit on the same stage and play the same Brahms symphonies. So I thought, I don't want to do that, I don't want to be part of that industry anymore. And that’s how Paraorchestra came about.

So it's not just that all the musicians have disabilities, is that right?

No, not at all. Forming an orchestra entirely of musicians who have disabilities would simply be creating another ghetto. It would be about putting disabled people as apart from other people, and I don't think there's anything healthy about that. I wanted an orchestra which is a balance of modern life. I mean, only 50 years ago, orchestras hardly had any women in, and that's laughable. Today 20 percent of the U.K. population identifies as disabled. That's a very large minority, so Paraorchestra was always destined to be a fully evolved mix of disabled and non-disabled people, and that's where it is now.

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And you're also getting away from the traditional idea of what an orchestra does musically?

Absolutely. Ever since electricity was invented, a whole new plethora of sonic possibilities has emerged. So why would the orchestra stop evolving? Why would you not want a rank of analog synthesizers in your orchestra? Why would you not want digital technology in your orchestra – not to take over from the traditional instruments but to work alongside them? There's a fantastic sweet spot between where an old acoustic instrument ends and an analog synthesizer begins, an amazing grey area which is the meeting point of those two worlds – and Paraorchestra absolutely revels in it. For me the word “orchestra” simply means a collective of musicians and a collective of instruments. It doesn't have a defined limit or prescription. That would be boring.

Perhaps one of the comparisons that might be made from an album that takes modern songs and gives them the full orchestral treatment might be with things like the Ibiza Orchestra and the Hacienda Classical shows… which I've never been wildly enthusiastic about, to be honest. Were you wary of those comparisons?

Tell me why you’re unenthusiastic about those things, I'm intrigued.

Well I see that music as not only a strictly electronic format, but also a working class phenomenon, made by people improvising with what equipment they could get hold of, and listened to by kids mostly off their faces as an escape from the drudgery of their normal lives. And so it feels rather like they're turning a street thing into something that – because it has violins and cellos and whatnot – is sanitized for the middle classes. It’s just really patronizing.

Interesting. And actually I totally endorse and entirely share your point of view. When you hear what you might call an “electronic world” reimagined through an orchestra, all you're really hearing is an exercise in imitation. Why do that? I mean for some people it might feel quite satisfying on some level to have an 80-piece orchestra playing a piece of music that was done by four analog synths and a drum machine back in the day, but it's not enough, is it? Why would acoustic instruments just be brought on to imitate what electronic ones are doing? It's pointless, just a complete failure of imagination. To be honest I don't know why people do it. It’s just, as you say, kind of making a vanilla latte out of an experience originally created out in a grubby field in the middle of the night, high on pills… it's just f--king lame. So I'm with you.

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charles hazlewood brett anderson nadine shah
Source: Kirsten McTernan

'The orchestra's for everyone, it's a birthright for all, not a luxury for some.'

That said, one of your missions seems to be the kind of democratization of music, if that's the right word, where a Suede song or a Kraftwerk tune or a Beethoven symphony are all equally valid as great works of musical art.

Yeah, that is my mantra. It's always been my mantra. As a conductor I love the variety of my life, that I can do a psychedelic improvisation gig one night and I can play a Mozart symphony the next night, and those two diametrically opposed experiences will feed each other in ways which are mutually beneficial. In my formative teenage years I was obsessed with Richard Strauss, with Mozart, with Schoenberg – but I was also obsessed with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Depeche Mode.

The orchestra is the largest form of music-making that exists on earth, and music is our most universal language. So why aren't orchestras playing at festivals and in shopping malls and airport terminals? And the idea that you need to have a certain education and a certain kind of class to engage with an orchestra is also nuts. It's become a bit rarefied and the preserve of some and not others, and that again is stupid. The orchestra's for everyone, it's a birthright for all, not a luxury for some.

And people who are into rock and roll, they tend to think, well, classical music's not for me because it's too clever. But who's to say that rock music isn't just as f---ing clever? It's just clever in different ways. It's just as sophisticated, but in different ways. Take a Ramones song: you might say it’s just a basic three-chord thing… but as soon as you say that you’re failing to use your imagination. Some of the greatest Italian food is great because there are only three ingredients: but they happen to be exactly the right ingredients cooked in exactly the right way.

So my message is just, relax. If you let it, all music can speak to you, regardless of category… and you don't need a degree to appreciate it.

Like Elvis said: “if you feel it, you can't help but move to it."

There you go. Elvis! He knew what he was talking about!


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