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A Different Drummer: Stewart Copeland at SMU

Stewart Copeland, center, teaches a class on composing film soundtracks at SMU

Since his days as the drummer in the rock band, The Police, Stewart Copeland has taken his composing career into styles beyond rock music. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s that music that brought him to SMU for several days last week.

KERA radio story:

Expanded online story:

[Jon Lee: “That was so good. But we want to start with 53. 53, ready, here we go, 53!” Music starts up and continues under ]

The Meadows Percussion Ensemble is rehearsing Stewart Copeland’s composition, Dance Ants — one of his pieces called “Microcosmos,” after Bela Bartok’s famous piano pieces designed to be both educational as beginner etudes and accomplished works. The performance in Caruth Auditorium was just one part of Copeland’s visit last week to  SMU. He also taught classes on music composition and film scoring. Jon Lee is director of the Meadows Percussion Ensemble.

Lee: “I remember Stewart Copeland, you know. I was a big fan. But now he’s becoming known as a composer of significance. So it’s a real treat to have him on campus.”

It was a return visit for Copeland. Last year, the Dallas Symphony and the five-member, percussion ensemble, D’Drum, premiered Copeland’s work, Gamelan D’Drum. [Gamelan music starts under.] But that February, a week of frigid weather shut down much of North Texas. Only one of the three scheduled performances of Gamelan D’Drum took place.

[Gamelan finishes. Audience roars.]

It was well received. But Copeland says, the entire experience still felt a little — unfinished.

Copeland: “We didn’t get to burn down the city after our big show. And so I’m back to celebrate. And while I’m at it, I might as well talk to some students.”

Percussion director Lee says soon after the world premiere, members of D’Drum, who also teach at SMU, worked to bring Copeland back

Jon Lee, left, leads the Meadows Percussion Ensemble in Copeland’s Dance Ants

Lee: “It really came as a result of the friendship between the D’Drum members, especially John Bryant and Stewart Copeland. And just one thing led to the next thing.”

In the mid-1980s, even before the Police broke up, Copeland had started a second career with acclaimed soundtracks for such films as Rumble Fish and Wall Street. He’s moved on to orchestral works, ballets, even operas, including two chamber operas based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. Recently, what’s paid the bills are music scores for such TV shows as Desperate Housewives and Dead Like Me.

But Copeland says the rewards of soundtracks go beyond a paycheck.

Copeland: “They train you in a way that being an artist with a capital A can’t. You have to go into places, to moods, to cultural atmospheres that you wouldn’t seek out as an artist. But you’re forced to as a film composer, as a craftsman, you’re forced to conquer these techniques.”

Copeland talked about this with the SMU students – students who weren’t even born when the Police ruled the airwaves.

Fred Leach is a film and history senior at SMU.

Leach  “Uh, I knew he was in a rock band. But I haven’t really seen too many of his films.”

No matter. Copeland proved to be a lively instructor in the class on film scoring. Using a scene from a student film, he showed Leach and the other students the emotional ‘beats,’ the onscreen moments music could highlight. He showed how music could even repair a bad scene by making the action and the emotions clearer.

Leach: “It kinda actually made me want to be a composer. But obviously, I’m a little late in the game for that. But it was definitely interesting to see what composers do.”

[music, ending of Tonga Toys. Copeland: ”Cool. Cool. I’m liking it.”]