On Intercepting a Love Letter; or, Semper Dowland, Semper Dollens, Semper Sting

Reading others’ love letters is, for me, an uncomfortable experience. The passion and commitment may be heartfelt, the intended recipient likewise full of ardor, and yet…well, get a room! I’d rather not be part of this, willing or unwilling, I don’t want to be noting—however unwillingly—clumsy wording or tired clichés when it’s really about Love. I simply don’t belong there. Where’s the exit?

One of the surreal novels of the inspired paranoiac Philip K. Dick—it may have been The Divine Invasion—began with a riff on Dick’s obsession with Linda Ronstadt, but it had her singing Dowland to the accompaniment of “syntho-lutes” (as I recall) beamed from a satellite. I wonder if that idea wasn’t the acorn from which Sting’s recent Dowland tribute Songs From the Labyrinth grew. From the clips and careful yet utterly befuddled publicity blurb on this CD’s Tower Records page (“while the exercise may not be to everyone’s taste, it is further testament to the stylistic range and ambition of this 20th-century pop icon”), one gathers that this is a real passion project for Sting—a love letter to Dowland. Not only does Sting give us a selection of Dowland’s lute songs, he also intersperses readings from his correspondence and instrumental interludes, bringing to mind the excellent Martin Best recordings of the 1970s and 1980s. To judge by the clips, the instrumental work is beautiful (Edin Karamazov is lutenist on this project, and Sting plays some too), and the odd bit of reverb or some other effect doesn’t bother me a bit; it’s an effective bit of distancing, suggesting the archaic, the timeless, what-have-you. I love Dowland’s music, and such tasteful uses of technology suit pop-culture Elizabethaniana just fine.

The problem for me is Sting’s singing. I don’t have a problem with the timbre, and I like the fact that from what I heard he’s both in tune and disinclined to hide behind vibrato, as so many singers do. But the vowels present a fatal problem. For example, in the clip of “Flow, My Tears” the words no more come out “nwo mwore” (and night “nuhhight”) because Sting doesn’t have the trained singer’s discipline to get to the necessary vowel instantly. American singers, soloists and choir singers alike, are routinely (and rightly) beaten up about this; our lazy tripthongs and quadripthongs make hash of texts—particularly Latin and Italian texts—and all kinds of pitch and timbral complications can result. I don’t know if the issue is Sting’s native Geordie vowels or just his native pop-music idiom, because he sounds completely credible singing his own music (including music with a folk/archaic cast, like “Fields of Gold”). Unfortunately, what it means is that I applaud the effort, because I also love Dowland—the bland, measured approval I hate—but I really can’t stand the singing.

A fair question is whether I am expecting Sting to be someone he isn’t; whether I want him to sound like my favorite Dowland singer. Should not a singer, one might rejoin, particularly a singer like Sting with a well-known style and musical personality, make Dowland’s songs sound like his, and not try to approximate someone else’s artifical idea? I’m open to that, but I don’t think that’s what we have. Sting, to my ear, is giving the songs such a careful, kid-glove kind of treatment that his natural enunciation has gone into slow motion, with the aforementioned disturbing effect. Maybe it’s me; a five-star Early Music Person I live with had no problem with the vowels. The CD topped the UK Classical Charts, we’re told (no surprise there). Maybe I’m on my own here.

One last question: is it not possible that such a heartfelt tribute—a real love letter—would have been greeted with warm approval and appreciation by the melancholic Mr Dowland? Certainly. Moreover, for all I know Elizabethan enunciation may have included this kind of languorous treatment of the vowels of any particular word. I may be the one who is completely off base on this, my judgment conditioned by artificially cultivated taste.

In which case: banish care, and in darkness let me dwell.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to On Intercepting a Love Letter; or, Semper Dowland, Semper Dollens, Semper Sting

  1. I agree, Sting’s singing is sub-optimal; as is his lute playing. I am going to hear him perform on Monday here in Berlin, and I am wondering if it’s going to be any better than on the CD. What might happen is that he will sing much more in pop idiom when he is doing these songs live.
    By the way: does anyone know the Forge’s Players’s version of Dowland’s songs? Its worth a try (and also on real rhapsody). Totally strange and weird.

  2. eba says:

    Sting has something else going for him which I assume Dowland didn’t: high powered agents with a knack for synergy. Sting was seen playing his lute just last Monday as the musical guest on the fake show-within-a-show ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,’ Sorkin’s new wordy dramedy. I guess if you can conquer all media that easily, you don’t need to be good. Still, I wonder if Sting’s songs be debated in the 24th Century version of Dial M for Musicology? The Police, maybe…

  3. I made a couple of other – perhaps tangential – observations over here at The Crunch

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