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Classical music: She's making plans for Stanley

Classical? Pop? Jocelyn Pook's work defies labelling. Which is why Stanley Kubrick signed her for his new film.
WHEN STANLEY KUBRICK telephoned the composer Jocelyn Pook to talk about the possibility of her working on the soundtrack to his new film, Pook was taking another call at the time. Alerted to the new caller by her call-waiting service, Pook quickly asked the stranger to hold and continued her conversation, leaving the reclusive film director hanging on the telephone for far longer than he can be used to (one likes to imagine him tapping his fingers on the exquisite veneer of an antique desk or perhaps playing with a set of model-soldiers in Napoleonic uniform). Happily, Kubrick did not hang up and they had a brief but pleasant chat.

Later that day a large black limousine arrived at Pook's Islington flat to collect the cassette she had hurriedly put together as the sample of her wares that Kubrick had asked for. The next day, the limo appeared again, and this time Pook herself was whisked off to Pinewood Studios to meet Kubrick face to face.

Ironically, what alerted the very famous Kubrick to the fairly obscure Pook in the first place was the theme to a TV commercial for mobile phones: the wonderful Orange Telecom ad featuring a sample of Kathleen Ferrier singing "Blow the Wind Southerly".

A version of the theme, "Blow the Wind - Pie Jesu", was included on Pook's debut album of last year, Deluge, when it provoked a very silly - yet for Pook, profoundly damaging - controversy over whether the music should be classified as "classical" or not. But more of that later. Let's get back to Stan.

"The reason he heard my music was that a choreographer called Yolande Snaith was working with him on a scene, and she was playing a track from my CD at the time," says Pook, who tonight performs in a concert of her works at the Islington Festival. "He picked up on it, felt it was really appropriate for what he was doing, and then rang me. When the limo took me to Pinewood, it was all very normal and we had an interesting meeting. He was very musically literate."

The film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, remains pretty much a closed book for Pook, as she has yet to see any of it. "I don't know a lot about it and I'm waiting until there's stuff to see," she says. "Up to now I've just done sketches, blind, and since the meeting there's just been phone calls. It's been very loose and I haven't really found out what he wants yet."

Pook is a self-taught composer who followed her studies in viola at the Guildhall with three years of touring with the Communards. She then co- founded the Electra Strings, the all-female ensemble who have played for everyone from Massive Attack to Meatloaf. The Kubrick experience is also just the latest in a series of film and television projects that Pook has been involved in. She co-composed the music for the brilliant film of DV8's Strange Fish, which won the Prix Italia Award in 1994, and has written scores for John Smith's Blight (in the BBC's Sound On Film series), and Colin Spector's BBC documentary Following Strangers Home.

Even the music for "Blow the Wind" was originally conceived as part of a proposal for a film by Pook, to be called Requiem for a Spiv. "For me, Kathleen Ferrier's voice represented a special kind of Englishness and a kind of nostalgia, something I associated with my mother's youth and that whole radio world," she says.

A version of the piece was first released on a compilation CD by Unknown Public, an experimental audio-periodical available only by mail-order. "The writer of the Orange ad, Larry Barker - son of Ronnie - was a subscriber and he contacted me. Normally you get ads from an agent so this was a real break from out of the blue, like the Kubrick thing. It was a really beautiful advert and lots of people wanted to get hold of the music, but it took a long time to get the album out."

On release in February 1997, the album became the subject of absurd controversy, when a self-appointed Star Chamber of record industry representatives deemed it unfit for either the classical or crossover charts, effectively consigning it to commercial oblivion. Despite which, two of the panel later included the track on classical compilation albums for their own labels.

"At the time I didn't realise what it meant. I just thought it was a drag and like, who cares," Pook says. "But the only way the company would promote the album is through the chart system, and they also rack it in shops according to category, so the classification is all-important. As it is, you can't find it anywhere. It's only been released in Iceland and Hong Kong. I don't even know who's going to put out my next album because Virgin are worried the same thing might happen again."

Pook continues to write and to perform, both with the Electra Strings and in the group 3 or 4 Composers, who last year presented the stunning music-theatre piece Still Ringing. Her rich and evocative music, often accompanied by the marvellous voice of Melanie Pappenheim (with whom she appears in Islington tonight) is also staged with a filmic visual flair that makes most "straight" music-theatre look sadly deficient.

While Pook may not have been deemed suitable for the masonic lodge of the "classical" tradition, she shows an eye for the details of presentation that even Stanley Kubrick might commend (if only he could get through).

`Voices on The Verge' by Jocelyn Pook, with the Electra Strings, Melanie Pappenheim and Jonathan Peter Kenny, is at Beck's Famous Spiegeltent, Highbury Fields, London N5 tonight (0171-288 6700)