Paul McCartney can't read music, but, he says, that doesn't stop him writing classical scores. As his new symphony, 'Standing Stone', shows, all he needs is a little help from his friends
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"It makes you look as though you've died," I said untactfully of the sober, soot-black dust jacket around Paul McCartney's new biography: a design to reflect the Mood of the People in times of national mourning.

"They've been telling me I'm dead for years," replied McCartney. He

hadn't seen the finished book before (we met on the day of its appearance), and thought it "dignified" rather than "memorial" - until he found the page crediting the author's earlier works on Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

"Funny how people drop after this guy writes about them," he said.

"Maybe you should get more exercise," I said, and wished I hadn't.

At 55, with or without exercise, Sir Paul McCartney is clearly not planning to pass on. Like his own music, he seems to have an infinite capacity for self-renewal and extended life. A recent survey on the ins and outs of student style had "Beatles records (still)", along with chrome designer kettles and well-trodden kelims, listed under the heading "In". McCartney's youth appeal is proved by disc sales and devoted followers like the 16- year-old Pittsburgh girl who not so long ago was quoted saying: "If he blew his nose I'd ask for the tissue." And "Yesterday" remains the world's most popular song, recorded by more than 2,200 different artists (and the number rises every month).

But all the same, McCartney is en route to 60 and the heart of the establishment: knight of the realm, FRCM, Hon Mus Doc (Sussex) and holder of the Order of Merit (Chile). Along the way he has been concerned to raise the stakes of his art and graduate from rock songwriter to classical composer. First there was the Liverpool Oratorio in 1991, then a handful of smaller pieces for piano, horn and string quartet. And now he is about to get serious again with a large-scale orchestral score called Standing Stone which the London Symphony Orchestra will premiere in the Albert Hall next month. People loosely in the know about this piece have been calling it McCartney's 1st Symphony. McCartney himself isn't so grand, and calls it a "symphonic poem". But whatever the designation, it's an ambitious score that lasts 75 minutes, includes a full chorus, and is the most convincing move so far in all McCartney's efforts to establish meaningful relations with the world of music beyond rock and pop.

THE PROCESS started 30 years ago when journalists first warmed to the task of placing the Beatles in the roll-call of history and were obsessed with asking them their views on Beethoven. The replies were usually flippant ("'I love him, especially his poems" - Ringo), or barbed ("Beethoven is a con ... He was just knocking out a bit of work" - John). But in McCartney's case, behind the flash talk, there was genuine if wide-eyed curiosity. And though John Lennon ultimately claimed the status of the Beatles' resident sophisticate, it was actually McCartney who took the lead in steering the group out of the simple, pronoun-driven directness of "She Loves You", "Thank You, Girl" and "From Me to You" towards the more substantial explorations of the later songs. While Lennon married into stockbroker-belt suburban domesticity, McCartney remained a London batchelor at large in the iconoclastic subcultures that fed the swinging Sixties. He met Allen Ginsberg, talked to Luciano Berio, invented ad hoc instruments with Cornelius Cardew, and discovered two great gurus of the 1960s musical avant-garde, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose image ended up on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Talking to McCartney now, it's clear that his interest in these things was limited and short-lived. "It was me looking around to see what existed, to explore what they never told me about at school. To tell you the truth, I enjoyed talking to Berio more than I liked listening to his music." In other words, it was the approach, the ideas that fired the young McCartney's mind. Not the results. He admits that he has only rarely gone to "serious" concerts since, and can cite no more than a handful of standard scores. To call him a classically aware musician would be an overstatement.

But that early and untutored interest in process had some consequences. What he picked up in a rough and ready way from Cage and co, he then took, like objets trouvees, into the EMI studios at Abbey Road and used in his own songs. The 24-bar upward glissando in "A Day in the Life" and the random radio noise in "I Am the Walrus" were obvious examples. So, nearly, was the accompaniment to "Yesterday", which at one point was going to be supplied by the electrical wizardry of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop rather than the salon-style nostalgia of a string quartet.

"In fact," says McCartney, "there was a lot of messing around with electronics we did then that no one knows about - including a big, 15-minute piece we did for a show at the Roundhouse that was totally avant-garde. We called it "Carnival of Light", and it was never issued on disc because everyone thought it was too far out. It even got the elbow from The Beatles Anthology. But I've got the tapes here and I think they're great. Maybe I should do something with them. Maybe their time has come."

McCartney's latterday interest in "serious" writing hasn't taken him anywhere near a renewal of contact with what he likes to call "the avant- garde". Instead, he's writing for the full-scale symphony orchestra: a creature of the 19th century that many cutting-edge composers would dismiss as a dinosaur, even if they had the chance to write for one. Most don't. And it's a mark of McCartney's uncommonly privileged position that he can not only rustle up a front-rank orchestra to premiere his work, but hire it in advance to try things out.

But then, his infatuation with the conventional side of "serious" music- making dates back to the Sixties too. He still talks proudly about that string quartet in "Yesterday" and the baroque trumpet part in "Penny Lane" -"no one else was doing anything like it" - and the encounters he had then with classical musicians clearly left their mark. He may not know much about what happens at the Barbican or South Bank, but he prizes virtuosity and has a boyish admiration for the great and good who play there.

It's the raw enthusiasm of an innocent: endearing, but not geared to critical approval. The Liverpool Oratorio six years ago got such poor reviews that Neil Kinnock wrote him a pacifying, politically-correct letter dismissing the response as snobbery from people who would rather have heard the text in Italian. The truth is that the Oratorio was a piece of heart-on-sleeve, simplistic story-telling with a score McCartney now admits to have been "sweet and charming ... but you can't deny it's been successful. It's been done all over the world. Last year I went to the 100th performance. And yes, I did like it, even though I can see that it was something where I was finding my way."

Whether he has found his way in the new piece remains to be seen. It's tougher than the Oratorio, certainly less sweet. But it's still innocent. Written in four movements, it follows a new-ageish programme of the creation of the world, the birth of society, and ends with what McCartney calls a "scarf-waving" hymn of optimism for the future of mankind, guided by love. There's an accompanying epic poem whose words are not actually set, although it supplies the titles for each movement. There are also accompanying paintings - McCartney's own - which are reproduced in the CD package. It's what Wagner might have called Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art. And from the opening bars, which describe the beginnings of the world with all the instruments in absolute basic mode (open strings, unfingered wind sound), the idea of the piece is distinctly Wagnerian.

Even McCartney's poems read like Wagner, with bounding, heavily alliterative couplets like: "Shivering elegance slivered in splinters,/ dissolved in dark as sun spat out."

No one with a knowledge of Wagner would have dared do this. But McCartney's great virtue is that, knowing nothing about Wagner, he can do whatever he wants, uninhibited by precedent.

"I'm the last person to analyse what I do. It's naive, primitive, OK, because I'm not educated musically. But that's the way I like it. I just sit down and see what happens. And when I started Standing Stone four years ago, I didn't know what it was going to be. All I knew was that I'd been asked to write something for the centenary of EMI. It had to finish on a high because centenaries are celebrations. And there was an idea that it might be a symphony.

"So I started to talk to people about what a symphony is. I looked it up in a dictionary: that just said 'Large-Scale Orchestral Thing', which didn't tell me much. So I listened to some symphonies, Beethoven's 5th and things. And as I started assembling my ideas I thought, I'm going to need a story to hold all this together. So invented this creation myth; and because I'd been hanging around with Allen Ginsberg - a friend from the Sixties who'd shown up again in my life - I'd got into writing poetry. So I wrote the story as a poem.

"In the end, I didn't use it in the music. The chorus sing other words. But the poem was a safeguard: it gave me a structure and helped me to know where I was as I was writing."

Knowing where he was turned out to be a critical requirement for McCartney as the piece grew and its nature changed. At one point, there was to be a role for solo violin - played by Itzhak Perlman - until McCartney came to the reasonable conclusion that this would turn the score into a concerto and, consequently, Perlman's show. "I didn't want to have the violin there all the time. But you can't have someone like Itzhak sitting out for a whole movement can you? It's all or nothing. So I decided nothing."

Apart from Perlman, there were endless other shifts off-course: so many that you can't help reading an element of self-reference into the title of the second movement - Lost at Sea.

But the biggest problem McCartney faced in writing an hour-and-a-quarter of orchestral music is that he doesn't actually write at all. Which is to say, he can't notate. He never could - the Beatles manuscripts were only ever words on scraps of paper - and he's never learnt since: largely through fear that it would undermine what he has always done by instinct. His views on the theory and grammar of music are those of Greek sailors on Scylla and Charybdis. To be avoided.

But the do-it-and-see-what-happens mentality that works for four friends in a rock band comes unstuck with 100 players in an orchestra. And for that reason, McCartney's journey to the classics has necessarily involved composer-collaborators. For the Liverpool Oratorio he worked with Carl Davies, whose showbiz background meant that he and McCartney spoke much the same language, although it didn't ultimately do much for the credibility of the piece.

"I remember doing an interview on Kaleidoscope and that lady with the deep, ever-so-BBC voice [Natalie Wheen] said, 'Why Carl Davies?' And I said 'Because he's good, that's why. What's more, the idea of doing the piece came from him.' But it was only then I realised there was a question about Carl. I thought, well they're all good aren't they, these composers. I didn't there there was that much difference between one and another."

He knows now. And for Standing Stone he drafted in a whole team of composers - known in McCartney circles as "the Politburo" - whose classical credentials are significantly stronger. John Harle (also known as Britain's leading saxophonist) advised on structure. Richard Rodney Bennett helped out with the ending. And for the day-to-day business of translating McCartney's raw ideas into coherent, meaningful notation there was David Matthews.

The arrangement sounds like the sort of collective creativity that happened in mid-19th-century Russia, where composers helped each other out on large projects and the more technically adept (like Rimsky- Korsakov) cleaned up what at the time seemed like the mess of the less cultivated (like Mussorgsky). McCartney isn't so sure about that. But he's been sure about his expectations of the Politburo.

"The precedent I set for our relationship was the way George Martin worked with the Beatles: he was the tailor but we designed the suit. Standing Stone hasn't been written by committee. I said to all the guys involved, 'You've got to let this piece be mine and get it down faithfully as I want it. Then maybe some bits we'll talk through, and maybe I'll say I haven't pulled it off here or it's not big enough there; but it still has to be mine.'

It could have been a recipe for grating egos, but McCartney chose his team with care. And David Matthews was the perfect base ingredient, in that there are few composers who combine so distinguished a musical mind with such a modest, self-effacing temperament. Matthews has worked on collaborative projects before, including the famous completion of Mahler's 10th Symphony, masterminded by Deryck Cooke. He understands the element of holding back.

"The important thing with Mahler 10," says Matthews, "was to try and make it Mahler and not us. And it's been the same with Paul. I've wanted to make him responsible for every decision, rather than go off and do things and then tell him afterwards. It's been a painstaking process. Paul feeds his ideas straight from a piano keyboard into a computer system which then prints them out. But the resulting manuscript doesn't always mean very much and sometimes it's a complete jumble. My job was to find the meaning, sort out the rhythms, phrasing, dynamics and turn general 'brass' or 'strings' markings into specific instrumentation - but to leave it as Paul's voice. Not 'improve' it in any compositional way.

"I wouldn't say I've done anything to this score that you could call composition. I've participated in a process. And that's how Paul likes it. For him, composing has always been a participatory business, ever since the Beatles. Not something you do by yourself behind closed doors."

McCartney's Politburo, then, has given him a fairly easy ride. He hasn't found conductors so amenable, and there has been a notable turnover as the project has progressed. The original idea was to have Standing Stone premiered by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Then Rattle pulled out.

"He got cold feet," says McCartney, "and I can understand why. With an established career like his, you might not want to take the risk of someone like me. So we moved onto Kent Nagano. Then he got cold feet, twice, and I had to ask him to stand down."

The conductor now is the considerably less starry Lawrence Foster; and McCartney admits that all the changes have been difficult. "But I need perfect conditions - so does everyone, I guess - and you just have to keep on trying till you get it right."

McCartney's need to get things right in what is not and probably will never be his natural habitat prompts one last question. Is he out to prove something to himself, or to the world?

"Oh, it's for me. Nobody else. In fact, I tend to be embarrassed about showing people what I do apart from songs. The painting I've been doing for 15 years, but I've never exhibited. And the poetry - I've only just slipped that out of the closet. It's like, bloody hell: all-singing, all-dancing McCartney, what's he going to do next?

"No, I'm not out to show the world what I can do. I think I've shown the world enough already."

'Standing Stone' will be performed at the Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), on 14 Oct, and at Carnegie Hall, New York (00 1 212 582 3350), on 19 Nov. The recording is out now (EMI, all formats). 'Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now', by Barry Miles (Secker, pounds 17.99), is reviewed on page 38.