Macca takes a stepping stone to yesterday

All of Paul McCartney's instinctive musicianship is being channelled into a symphonic poem, a work that is proving to be the biggest challenge of his career. He talks exclusively to Edward Seckerson about the journey towards the magnum opus
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`Allen Ginsberg thought Standing Stone was a great title," says Paul McCartney, as if to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that it really is. He knows how to drop a ringing endorsement when he needs to. It's almost as if, after all the history, all the achievements, all the accolades, all the recognition, Paul McCartney - sorry, Sir Paul McCartney - still has to remind himself (and us) that, yes, he really is up there with the big boys, the history-makers like Ginsberg. The trouble with being a legend in your own lifetime is that you can play up the just-a-Liverpool-lad- made-good charm all you like, but no one can ever forget who you are, whether you remind them or not. And living up to who you are is always tougher than being who you are.

OK, so you've written most of the best popular songs in the second half of this century, but it's unlikely that you'll ever better "Eleanor Rigby", which you wrote when you were 21. So what do you do? You keep diving in. You dare. You've got this incredible anthology of daring to build upon. Life begins at 40, and again at 50. You take up painting, writing poetry, sailing, horseback riding. You write an oratorio - Liverpool Oratorio. You relish the incongruity. You get slapped by the "serious" music press. But you've just got going and not knowing where you're going is half the fun. So you elect to continue "the awfully big adventure", only this time Carl Davis won't be holding your hand. You and your computer will work it out, with a little help from your friends (funny how there's a Beatles song title for every occasion). And while you're about it, you'll make another solo album (Flaming Pie) just for the fun of it. And some critics will say that it's old hat and others that it's sweet and true (which it is). But it's yours, and no one can write your music but you. So you keep writing, because all that really matters is that you don't wake up one day to find that the past is past and you really are history.

There is a lot of history riding on Standing Stone, McCartney's latest, and most ambitious - as in magnum - opus. One hundred years of EMI, for starters. It was they who commissioned him, four years ago. "I'll accept. 1997 will never come," he remembers thinking at the time. Wrong. He had begun to realise just how wrong when we last met, two years ago. By then he had moved beyond the contemplation stage, beyond what he calls "the white canvas" stage. Enthusiastic painter that he now is, he cites Willem de Kooning's ritual of writing his friends' names on the canvas to get over that dreaded moment where you make the first mark. Instead of names, McCartney wrote a poem. An epic poem. A Celtic poem. His own ancestry is Liverpool/Irish, so the fascination runs deep. In Scotland, he'd come to know one or two standing stones "personally". Touching them triggered something inside him. Something mysterious. Not knowing what they were and where they'd come from - that was inspiring. And you thought "Mull of Kintyre" was passing fancy.

So it began with a poem. Four stanzas. Four movements? A symphony? A symphonic poem? McCartney took advice. Symphonic poem was freer, more in keeping with his narrative. He started gathering some ingredients - tunes, motifs, ideas. From keyboard to cassette tape recorder - that was stage one. The London Symphony Orchestra were already on board. He had it on good authority that they were "a rocking band". There would be a chorus, but used instrumentally (a primitive vocalise a la Daphnis and Chloe). There would be light. Remember "Carnival of Light", a "sound collage" experiment dating back to his Beatles days? Well...

"Liverpool Oratorio came off the back of my normal music and stretched it a bit. This time, I wanted to go further, to acknowledge in my own way, as best I could, the end of the 20th century ... There's a passage in the narrative, a sea voyage, which takes the form of a kind of Celtic jazz - except that it all goes horribly wrong and the everyman figure at the centre of the piece" - might that be McCartney himself? - "finds himself lost at sea. So here it is: my first atonal music. One of my colleagues suggested that I might be putting in for my doctorate with this one!"

Of course, there is a hidden melody in all of this ("Somedays" from Flaming Pie, actually). Ever since Sergeant Pepper, where McCartney and Lennon sought to mesh the experimental with the melodic ("A Day in the Life" might be seen now as a premonition of sorts), he has been aching to go further. He has come to love the broader instrumental palette, the string quartet that becomes a symphony orchestra, the symphony orchestra that becomes whatever you want it to be. The knives will be out, of course. There will always be those who resent these "intrusions" from the pop world. What's he doing on our side of the border, they'll be saying. But McCartney is unbowed. He reckons he has earned the right to his sojourn. Who knows, he might just stay.

McCartney has never lost his innocence. His music is born of innocence, instinct, a primitive, untutored wisdom. His melodies don't get written, they just are. In the air, like they've always been there. So, to borrow an image from one of his songs, it's a wise fool - all-seeing, all-hearing, a "man of a thousand voices" - who inhabits the hill down in deepest Sussex where his studio is situated. The old windmill doesn't turn any more, but there is a timelessness about its presence. Inside the stone cottage that adjoins it is McCartney's musical nerve-centre, the engine-room of his many enterprises. Right now they're putting together the first mix of Standing Stone - the recording. As I arrive, producer John Fraser confirms that McCartney's ears did not deceive him, and that one note of a key violin solo in the first movement had somehow got displaced by a semitone between the computer print-out and the finished score. McCartney knew it as soon as he heard it (he doesn't read music, but his ear is frighteningly keen). The question is, can he live with it? His note was quirkier.

When he started working on computer, he found himself enjoying - even compounding - the "accidents" of the process. Sometimes the computer would add notes he was trying to erase and out would come these deep, dense, crunchy chords - which he later discovered were known as "tone clusters" in the trade. He grew ever fonder of them, these "little bunches of grapes" on the print-outs. He loved the noise they made and found himself deliberately subverting the process to achieve them. The sense of freedom was amazing. "From where I come from, if you're in C and someone plays C sharp, heads turn. It's a wrong note. Actually, it was a bit like painting, where you hit upon a colour you don't mean to hit upon and it's exciting and unexpected." Anyway, from out of these early experiments came a string quartet piece which he promptly handed over to the Brodskys to record. He called it Inebriation just "to hedge his bets". "So, in a sense, fucking up was a great starting place for me."

Gradually, an A-Z of Standing Stone began taking shape in the computer. Getting it out of the computer accurately - matching up the cassette tapes and print-outs - required assistance. This is where the necessity for a back-up team became apparent. Enter composers David Matthews and Richard Rodney Bennett and saxophonist/composer John Harle. Harle was to be McCartney's "structural engineer", advising him on deployment of his material, on where and how he might expand it, make best use of it. He started to get excited by the process of development. He started listening to Beethoven symphonies. It was as if the melodist and the busker in him had finally found each other.

So here is how the piece began. In the beginning was a fireball hurtling through space towards its place in the universe. "So we've this void, and this ball of fire, and we know nothing - we don't even know what fire is. I needed to find a sound for that. Something primitive. I needed to rob the players of all their expensive tuition. So, for the first three minutes or so, we hear only open notes. No fingering. So we've got these open strings in divided cellos and basses kind of rubbing up against each other, creating this really earthy rhythmic friction."

And the composer is excitedly vocalising the moment, just as he first heard it in his head. "And then comes the rain - pizzicato - and the fire is out. Everything stops, and we've this `chemical soup'. Life begins here. A moment of catharsis. So the players can finger now - a big sweet chord. A lake of sound."

Back in the recording studio's control room, we hear it, this primal stomp turning to fine rain, turning to arpeggiated melody - a natural opening for the solo trumpet. An insidious waltz then emerges in the solo fiddle (that wrong note again - McCartney reckons he'll leave it, but it's still niggling him), an extended solo growing freer and wilder. Big modulation (a swathe of harp), and the wordless chorus - human kind - arrives upon the scene.

The mix sounds well, but is, as yet, a "template". Final takes haven't been chosen, nor is "the whole picture" yet clear. The producer, John Fraser, thinks he might take a run in his car with a cassette, just "to get a perspective on it".

McCartney's allegorical poem takes us from nothing - from pond-life, cell-life - to present day. The standing stone of the title is a symbol of our enduring humanity, a monument to EMI, and a celebration of both. The final movement, prefaced in the score with words from the poem ("Strings pluck, horns blow, drums beat"), dances to the music of our time. Woodwind mechanicals are marked rustico, slowing to sognando (dreamily). McCartney hasn't forgotten how I once gently mocked him for using fancy Italian terminology in his scores. "Look, I do it to be practical," he says. "It's the universal language in music. It may be a bit cooler to say `slow down a bit', but try explaining that to a Japanese orchestra and chorus. If they see rallentando, they know exactly what to do." Deuce.

Playback of the final five minutes of Standing Stone. The hit single. A solo flute surveys the moors, and you'd know the source of its song anywhere. It's a love song, and it's McCartney through and through. And it builds and builds to this grand-to-be-alive climax and, in the middle of the control room, McCartney is punching the air like he's up there on that hill with the cameras rolling. Richard Rodney Bennett has done a great job turning the composer's short score into something truly filmagoric: "I let Richard go with this," he says proudly, hinting at other occasions when he'd found it necessary to rein him in.

McCartney was determined that, unlike Liverpool Oratorio (where collaborator Carl Davis's presence was perhaps too strongly felt), Standing Stone would be much more of a hands-on experience for him. At one point when he felt he was losing control, he called up the three key members of his support team (or "the politburo", as they became known during the Abbey Road sessions) and declared autonomy - as in "Guys, I'm taking over". He and Rodney Bennett had their moments. McCartney was happy to concede that this or that passage was "a bit of Scotch tape" (usually because it was), that the end of the third movement was too thin, minimalistic, "see-through" ("Philip Glass would have liked that bit," he adds, spinning off into a lively digression - and his inquiring mind makes for a lot of those - on Glass and Buddhism).

But then came the fax from New York in which Rodney Bennett referred to one particular passage as "feeble". McCartney felt a little too much like the pupil on that occasion. So when the teacher submitted his first draft of the final pages, it was the composer's turn to pull rank. "I told Richard that there were a few too many Ds in the C major, that it was a bit too LA, a bit too Carpenters. `Ooh, you are cruel,' he said. But he took my point. I wanted to go for big, fat, open C-major chords. It was more me, more English."

And indeed it is a grand Anglican moment where the chorus - a cappella - suddenly acquire the power of speech and the love song finds words. McCartney is thrilled with this moment - he makes no secret of that. For a time, he considered building it into a real scarf-waving conclusion. But the quiet, "humble" option won out. The final line of text reads "I'll stay with you" and 200 voices have the last word - in unison.

During the recording sessions at Abbey Road, McCartney rarely listened from the control room. He spent most of his time on the studio floor, among the musicians, where the action was, where he'd always felt most at home. At home in Sussex, the studio floor has many stories to tell. In one corner is the harpsichord used on the Beatles' "Because". In another is the stand-up bass used on Elvis Presley's earliest and greatest hits, including "Heartbreak Hotel", the recording that first made the difference for schoolboy Paul. And in another is an old Mellotron (an early synthesiser) salvaged from Abbey Road. McCartney starts playing those wheezy barrel- organ chords from the start of "Strawberry Fields Forever". And suddenly there's this incredible feeling in the pit of your stomach that history has just repeated itself.

`Standing Stone' will be released on CD by EMI in September. It will receive its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 October.

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