Karl Jenkins: Fanfare for the common man

He's our biggest-selling 'classical' composer, but Karl Jenkins is hardly a household name. Sam Ingleby meets the former member of Soft Machine whose music defies classification
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The Independent Culture

Karl Jenkins is the most popular classical composer you've never heard of. Sales of his brand of choral music are well into the millions worldwide; indeed, he recently became the UK's biggest-selling living classical composer. His work The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, commissioned by the Master of the Armouries and the Tower of London to mark the new millennium, was recently voted by the listeners of Classic FM as the eighth-best piece of classical music ever. Jenkins' entry was sandwiched between two Elgar compositions, and just a few places below Rachmaninov and Mozart. But it's unlikely that you could put a face to the name.

Karl Jenkins is the most popular classical composer you've never heard of. Sales of his brand of choral music are well into the millions worldwide; indeed, he recently became the UK's biggest-selling living classical composer. His work The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, commissioned by the Master of the Armouries and the Tower of London to mark the new millennium, was recently voted by the listeners of Classic FM as the eighth-best piece of classical music ever. Jenkins' entry was sandwiched between two Elgar compositions, and just a few places below Rachmaninov and Mozart. But it's unlikely that you could put a face to the name.

Sitting in Jenkins recording studio in Soho - a development called "Moustache", after the rather excellent grey and drooping example he sports - I ask what he makes of his position in such exalted company. "I don't take it seriously really," he replies. "I don't think of myself as within a million miles of the composers I'm surrounded by, but I find myself in the august position of No 8 on the list!" He shakes his head disbelievingly. "I'm gratified and humbled, but I don't think I'm the eighth-best composer by any stretch of the imagination. It's just that people have particularly responded to the Benedictus Mass from The Armed Man, and it has proved quite popular."

"Quite popular" he may be - the Benedictus Mass has been performed on more than 40 occasions by different orchestras this year alone - but Jenkins is still something of an outsider in the contemporary classical music scene, which goes some way to explaining his low public profile. To start with, he does not think that his music can be described satisfactorily as classical.

"I've resisted classification all my life, and I've never had a problem listening to and appreciating music of different styles. My music tries to synthesise different styles." His Adiemus project, which spans seven albums, is an example of this synthesis. "The idea was to write a choral piece of music based on Western classical principles and using an orchestra, but where the vocal sound was more like ethnic or world music, rather than something from a European choral tradition. I wanted to use the percussion as a pulse, to drive the music along and to use what I call "invented language", the use of phonetic sound."

Not classical, then, but a hybrid, eclectic approach to classical music, in which he attempts to bring seemingly disparate elements and traditions into a new and coherent whole. "If I had to describe it, I would say that it sounds like nothing else, which is very satisfying," Jenkins says. "Much of classical music is still very isolated and narrow."

The unique nature of his music is a source of pride but also of difficulty for Jenkins, who believes that his attempts at generic interplay and fusion do not receive the critical reception they deserve. "The main problem people have with me is that they can't put me in a box. Classical people think I'm pop, and pop people think I'm classical. No one knows exactly where to put me. In some ways, it's good as that's what I was trying to do, but because of that it can't be classified, and I suffer from that."

His route to a "classical" career has also been unusual, circuitous and informed by long digressions into different musical genres. Born in Penclawdd, South Wales, in 1944, he studied piano and oboe as a child, becoming principal oboe in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. He then went on to read music at the University of Wales and at the Royal Academy of Music. While in London, he moved towards jazz and spent time around the Ronnie Scott scene during British jazz's golden age, mid-Sixties to Seventies, and he was struck by the melodic possibilities it offered. "Modern classical music at that time was very dissonant and discordant, and I preferred to work in a more tonal framework, where harmony was more accessible. So I loved jazz."

Then he joined the progressive Seventies band Soft Machine, named after the William Burroughs novel and led by Robert Wyatt. When the band unravelled, Jenkins started composing for advertisements and television. "When I was doing adverts, stylistically I was doing everything: classical pieces, rock'n'roll, jazz. There was a period when I was doing soundalikes: advertising agencies would buy the use of a song, and then get someone like me to copy the original arrangement. The most famous one we did was the Levi's advert of the guy taking his jeans off in the laundrette. Everyone thought it was Marvin Gaye but it wasn't: it was a Barbadian fellow called Tony Jackson. He did the Sam Cooke "Wonderful World" one, too. It was cheaper than buying the recording rights. Eventually, because it was basically forgery, people started suing. Bette Midler sued, and Frank Sinatra did, too."

Run-ins with Ol' Blue Eyes apart, his work in advertising has led to him being dismissed as a "jingle writer" and his music as "classical lite" by disapproving critics. Jenkins is bullish in the face of such jibes: "I haven't got a lot of time for music criticism in this country," he says. "I don't mean this in an arrogant way, but the critics can't cross the boundaries I've crossed. Unless they can sit down and discuss Miles Davis, alongside Gustav Mahler, their musical education isn't well-rounded enough. If they can't cross that bridge, their opinion isn't worth anything to me. My music should be judged as something new, and not within the parameters of something else, something expected, which is often what happens."

As he asserts, Jenkins is a difficult figure to classify or compartmentalise: he has an encyclopedic knowledge of different types of music and litters his conversation with references to early German Romantic music, freeform jazz and developments in pop. He conceives of music in a holistic way, and of jazz, classical and pop as different facets of the larger whole. When talking about music that he enjoys, he says: "I can listen to Mahler, Miles Davis and Steely Dan consecutively, and get an equal buzz out of each of them. All those three things are supreme and they 'feel'." He feels that his approach to music-making is "inevitable": "Society is more multicultural and, of course, this will be reflected in art, and people will start to borrow from different movements. I'm surprised that no one has done it before from a classical base."

And does his popularity, the platinum records and the new commissions, surprise him? "It's revealing that being populist and popular in pop culture is not a crime: that's the aim of it. And yet at the highest levels, it is considered art and is written about seriously. Whereas in classical music, being populist is something to be looked down upon."

The restrictions placed on classical music dismay Jenkins. "The idea that classical music should be esoteric is new. In Bach's and Mozart's day, classical music was eagerly anticipated. Now, for instance, people look forward to reading the Booker winner, but no one wants to listen to a new piece by a revered composer. Classical music has divorced itself from that." Which is why Karl Jenkins is happy being too popular to be classical.

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