Poperatunity: Hijacking of the highbrow

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The Independent Online

Several years ago, Steve Savale, aka Chandrasonic, of Asian Dub Foundation was reading a book about Colonel Gaddafi when it struck him that the title of the second chapter, "Gaddafi the Superstar", would make a great, if unusual, title for a musical. He filed the idea away and didn't do anything about it until approached by Alex Poots, the director of contemporary arts at English National Opera.

Poots had worked with Savale's before, when he commissioned a live soundtrack for Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine. "He suggested I turn my Gaddafi idea into an opera," Savale says. "I had no idea of the difference between a musical and an opera, but he convinced me that opera's capacity to tell a story of mythic proportions was the right format."

ADF are not the only band leapfrogging the popularist borders of pop music into the strange and traditionally more rarefied land of theatre, opera and dance. Pop artists have always had an easy relationship with film - thanks in part to the commercial benefits of the soundtrack - and have never been shy to create the rock opera, often with hilarious, excessive results. And collaborations with seasoned practitioners from another live art form are becoming an increasingly common departure.

Radiohead and the Icelandic band Sigur Ros both composed scores for Merce Cunningham's dance project Split Sides. David Eugene Edwards, front man of the Appalachian rock band 16 Horsepower, composed and performed the score to Wim Vandekeybus's 2004 dance project Blush. The Cure are rumoured to be contributing music to a ballet by Peter Schaufuss. Meanwhile, Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds sidekick Warren Ellis are following in the footsteps of Tom Waits, with a score and songs for the Icelandic theatre company Vesturport's production of Woyzeck, and ADF's opera, with lyrics by the playwright and screen-writer Shan Khan, is produced by ENO.

The increasingly close relationship between DJs and their visual equivalent, VJs, is one manifestation of pop music's late-20th-century drive for ever more spectacular sensorial experiences. Yet this has surely reached its zenith in the aural and visual extravaganza of the world tour, pioneered by U2 in the 1980s but now de rigueur for internationally successful pop stars. The emerging feeling is that the old barriers between the art forms need to come down if independent-minded pop is to move forward.

One of the prime motivations for Savale in writing the Gaddafi opera was the belief that pop music in its current form is grinding to a creative halt. "Thanks to the massive explosion of hip-hop, acid house, techno and jungle in the 1980s, coupled with the advent of programming, the musical landscape back then seemed endless," he says. "Now we've come to a point where that [technology] is banal. There's very little left we can do in the live arena with the conventional two-dimensional left- and right-hand speakers. The sound of the live band has become regressive - it's constantly harking back to older forms of music. The only way to innovate is to combine different formats."

Compare today's anonymous pop landscape with that of the new-wave scene in the 1980s, where almost every band had their own clear manifesto. Today, rather than restrict their image to a company-controlled look or sound, one way for bands to assert their creative independence and artistic credibility is to involve themselves in projects beyond the reach of the corporate record company.

"People are finding more respect for other genres, says Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboard-player and guitarist with Sigur Ros. "It's partly because the development of pop has slowed down. There's now more to be gained in cultivating mood and atmosphere rather than commercial song structures."

If it's true that pop can gain from looking abroad, then it's also true that opera and classical are ripe for invasion. There has always existed an unofficial hierarchy between rock and other art forms, with rock and pop the lowbrow, disposable language of the people, and theatre, dance and opera its genteel, Establishment cousins. Yet Sveinsson, who with Sigur Ros invented instruments to use in their 20-minute score for Split Sides, believes that classical music has reached a point where it has become legitimate to fuse it with other forms. "Classical music can go no farther," he says. "It's broken all the rules, but it can no longer claim to be superior."

Savale sees opera in particular as a sitting duck for this sort of cultural hijack. "The form is neutral, but the content is conservative," he says. "It's been monopolised for too long by a certain class, who have sucked the energy out of it. Our opera sounds nothing like a conventional opera - Gaddafi was a punk maverick, he's anarchic and wild, and we've reflected that with a soundtrack that sounds very Third World and militaristic."

Pop music has always lent itself to being appropriated as the private soundtrack to people's lives. It's thus not such an enormous leap to consider harnessing that capacity on stage. Warren Ellis, who as well as playing violin for the Bad Seeds has an instrumental band, The Dirty Three, has always capitalised on the power of music to convey a narrative, however abstract. "Music doesn't have to be made for something in order to fit it," he says. "If someone working within another work of art feels that music brings something to that work of art, then that's what it does. It's a liberating process. In a band you are constantly constrained by what you think is and is not appropriate. But to write a score for another art form, you have to be very open and let go."

The chance to write a full-length score has allowed Savale to indulge his theatrical instincts. ADF have never shied away from basing songs around political polemics, but this project - which fuses rap, North African music, techno and punk - has taken things to another level. "A lot of people are mistaken about the link between music and politics," he says. "It doesn't just have to mean music that is directly political. It can mean exploring the more elemental aspect of politics through sound and visuals. David Bowie understood this and used the live concert accordingly. With this, we are using music not just to score a live action sequence, but to represent and explore a character's internal state of mind."

'Ba Ba Ti Ki Do Do', Sigur Ros's soundtrack for 'Split Sides', is out on EMI. ENO will stage 'Gaddafi' later this year