Exiled to the mainstream

Image of Peter Aspden

In the middle of the 1990s, while the puerile battles of the Britpop bands were dominating headlines, a very different piece of music was worming its way into the public’s consciousness. It was less than a minute long and featured in a television advertisement for Delta Air Lines. Despite that less than promising provenance, it was almost radical in form. A choir sang meaningless syllables over a dense backbeat of percussion as aeroplanes floated in the heavenly skies. The piece was instantly memorable, and viewers demanded more. Its composer, Karl Jenkins, duly obliged, and the Adiemus phenomenon was born.

Jenkins today holds a remarkable distinction. His record company quotes from a survey that describes him as the most-performed living composer in the world. Adiemus spawned five albums and his mass The Armed Man has been performed nearly 1,000 times in 20 countries since its millennium premiere. “That’s twice a week, isn’t it?” he asks me over coffee in a central London office. We take an age to do some primary school calculations. He is right. “I am critic-proof,” he says cheerily. “Whatever anyone says, it makes no difference.”

The critics have indeed had lots to say. Jenkins is widely derided in serious musical circles for the overly tuneful and accessible nature of his work. Some of the dirtiest words in the English cultural lexicon – “fusion”, “crossover”, “Classic FM” – are regularly applied to his pieces. If he cares, he isn’t showing it.

His new album, released later this month, is The Peacemakers, and it seems almost designed to attract further scorn. It is a choral work, featuring texts from, as Jenkins himself confesses, “the usual suspects”: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. What those choices lack in originality is compensated for by Jenkins’s unswerving idealism. He composed The Armed Man, he says, looking forward to a century of peace. The Peacemakers is a nudge to remind us to take the imperative more seriously.

Jenkins, a burly but soft-spoken Welshman with a splendid handlebar moustache, says his music is both tuneful and explicitly spiritual, which he realises, in the context of 21st-century composition, places him out on a limb. Like a whole raft of composers of his generation – he is 68 – he became disillusioned with the strictures of the “dissonant, ugly” classical music that was in fashion at the time of his musical education at the University of Wales and the Royal Academy of Music.

His commitment to a good tune is profound. “It is connected with nature. Pythagoras wrote about it. Tonality is a hugely important tool. I don’t think you can create emotional music without tonality.” The young composer turned towards jazz, and then jazz-rock, as a member of the highly influential Soft Machine. I was among those mesmerised by the band’s effortless cool and noodling improvisations.

. . .

But the group was riven by internal disputes and Jenkins moved to London, where a series of chance meetings led to a commission to write music for a Boots commercial in 1984. From interminable improvisations to 30-second soundbites – that must have been a culture shock? It was, he says, but reminds me that advertising was in one of its most creative periods, featuring directors such as Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Hugh Hudson. The concision required by his new paymasters was attractive to him, at least initially.

Ironically, it was making the Delta commercial that broadened his musical outlook far more than all those years studying harmonics and counterpoint. “They wanted something ethnic. So I did a lot of research, learning all about these pockets of musical culture which I hadn’t come across.” The result was a form of world music that swept the world.

Jenkins says he is perfectly content to plough his own furrow, existing outside the realm of what is labelled “classical” music. But, I ask, how did that exile happen? “I really don’t know,” he replies, unconcerned. “I write accessible tunes, and people don’t like it. If you can’t write memorable tunes in pop or musical theatre, then you fail. But classical music got more and more difficult until there was nowhere left to go.”

He says he is humbled by the responses to his choral music, many of them from those who have suffered bereavement, who find solace in his meditative works. “I have no ego. I know that compared to the masters, I am insignificant. I have always been a musical tourist. But I have made a lot of people sing who would not otherwise have sung. That’s my little contribution.”

‘The Peacemakers’ is released on March 26 and receives its UK premiere at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on May 19


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