Sting and Edin Karamazov: ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’

by Derek Lim

This interview appeared originally in Time Out Singapore.

Sting is playing his second Singapore concert of the year – accompanied this time not by The Police, but by a lutenist, Edin Karamazov. The Bosnian musician tells Derek Lim how their esoteric collaboration came about

Karamazov and Sting combine forces in a re-recording of music by a 16th-century composer

Next time you go to a circus, peel your eyes away from the tightrope acts and lion tamers and look at the band that’s playing the music for your entertainment – you could be listening to a rising star. At least, that’s how Sting discovered Edin Karamazov, who became his instrumental partner on their recent project Songs from the Labyrinth, a re-recording of music by 16th-century composer John Dowland. On 8 December the duo performs extracts from the album at the Esplanade Concert Hall, in conjunction with Karamazov’s new album, The Lute Is a Song.

I caught up with the Bosnian musician with a decidedly alternative route towards his music-making on a long-distance call to Italy. When the Police frontman first announced his project with Karamazov (now 43) in 2006, most fans were probably wondering whether Sting was turning his back on rock music. They were undoubtedly also asking, ‘Who’s that guy performing with him, and what’s that thing he’s playing?’ That thing would be the lute, a multistringed plucked instrument that was the precursor to the guitar in the Renaissance and Baroque periods circa the 15th century. Even within classical music circles, the lute player is typecast as a dreamy scholar lost in the world of what other classical musicians sniff at – early music. Since its rediscovery several decades back, it’s been the dry-as-dust stronghold of pedantic professors interested only in such abstract concepts as style and performance tradition.

The young Karamazov started off on the guitar, quickly progressing to full-scale solo concerts as a preteen. He pursued his dreams as a professional musician in Germany; however, hope turned quickly into disillusionment with the cut-throat competition circuit that was classical music. He felt he had to flee the scene, and in that time-honoured tradition of melodrama, he ran away and joined the circus. Which is where, 15 years ago, he met a certain rock megastar.

‘Sting was there and he really loved the performance, so he invited me to play at a birthday party in England for his wife,’ says Karamazov. ‘But I refused the offer. I told him, we are serious musicians, we don’t play birthday parties. You should find someone else.’ Wanting to develop himself beyond playing the guitar, Karamazov eventually left his circus band and learned the lute, which the English Renaissance musician John Dowland had taken to new heights in his time. He also learned how to conduct in Munich from the great Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who taught him a lot – not only about sound and timbre, but also about the importance of silence in music.

‘Then four years ago Sting and I got together again. I was thinking of doing some Dowland, and I was thinking of Sting’s voice,’ Karamazov continues. And it’s his voice, of course, that has raised so much furore among classical musicians. Raspy and coarse in his inimitable way, the pop star makes no concessions for the ‘approved’ manner of singing. That’s not at all a bad thing, in Karamazov’s book. ‘The most important thing at the time was to tell the story, which was more important than the melody, and then the singer – today it is the other way around. I think when Sting is singing, he feels the song, he smells the drama of each song.’ That’s something some of the early music specialists miss altogether, he suggests. Of Sting’s way of singing, Karamazov explains: ‘In Dowland’s time, there were no operatic voices. They used to sing the same way as the pop singers sing today, in the natural voice, not the operatic voice, which was invented a hundred years after.’

Karamazov draws some parallels between the old master and Sting – they were both English, and were both travelling musicians. That’s not to say that learning the songs came any more easily, though. ‘Sting was completely new in this repertoire,’ he says. ‘We started learning them together, and very soon, he got very familiar with the songs, and after a few months we started improvising, which was also the practice of the time. Just like today, when you play pop songs – you’re not going to play it the same way every time.’ Sting’s music – and pop in general – had never registered on Karamazov’s musical radar, and he’s now in the unusual position of having to learn it as he performs some of it on tour. ‘I’ve never liked pop songs, and I never listened to Sting’s songs. Now, when I’m learning Sting’s music, I’ve started to like some of it, but to me some of these pop songs are not pop songs any more.’

The tables have turned in Karamazov’s latest solo release. Sting will be one of four friends appearing as guest singers on The Lute Is a Song – the others are American star soprano Renée Fleming, much-admired German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl and Macedonian pop singer Kaliopi. Working so closely with Sting has brought the two together in ways he didn’t think possible. ‘He’s one of the few musicians I have grown so close to,’ Karamazov says. ‘He’s like family: we learn the music together, and we learn from each other – travelling every day and practising and eating together, and then the concerts.’ Speaking of family… ‘My wife is pregnant with our first baby, and when Sting found out – being Sting – he joked: “Who’s the father?” And he wants our child to be called Sting Karamazov! What a wonderful name that will be for my child!’

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