(From Wire, a UK music magazine, November 1995)
Best known as a member of Killing Joke, Jaz Coleman's new music
mines a rich seam of neo-romantic classicism, Pacific Rim influences and
Anglo-Egyptian fusions. Plus he's just recorded an album featuring
orchestral versions of songs by Pink Floyd - which he despises.
"What I write classically is romantic, it's neo-romanticism," explains Jaz Coleman. "I define that as the creation of dissonance or discordancy, so that the contrast between that and what you hope is the purest of melodies, is excruciating. That's the form that I feel passionate about with classical music."
Jaz Coleman is indeed a man of contrasts and contradictions. Best known for his role in Killing Joke, the group he has fronted for the past 16 years, he has been hailed by no less an authority than conductor Klaus Tennstedt as "the new Mahler." By his own admission, he and his music inspire almost unanimously extreme reactions. "I polarise opinion," he proclaims, as if safeguarding himself against any potential antipathy.
For the last four or five years, Coleman has been officially resident in New Zealand, but is on a brief visit to London to complete the recording of his second classical symphony and to promote Symphonic Pink Floyd, which features orchestral arrangements of well-known tracks from the Floyd oeuvre, arranged by Coleman, produced by fellow Killing Joke member Youth and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Although the project is part of a trilogy - the other works comprise symphonic versions of tracks by The Rolling Stones and The Who - according to Coleman it is not a labour of love. On the contrary, he is dismissive of the group's influence on him - despite having grown up at a time when most of his peers would have been in the throes of lank-haired, teenage Floyd obsession. "Musically, instrumentally, it just didn't seem very interesting, a lot of that music, and I won't be doing any more of that," he says.
Despite the feeling that the new record was inspired more by commerce than art, the result, as such things go, is surprisingly creative. Perhaps as a consequence of being unhampered by admiration for the originals, Coleman has managed to give familiar tracks such as "Money", "Breathe" and "Brain Damage" a magical, epic quality - as if JRR Tolkien had written a Russian ballet score - while at the same time incorporating elements as diverse as gypsy violin solos, Arabic percussion and counterpoint. Of course, the idea of mixing East and West in a romantic context is by no means unique to Coleman, but rather than being part of the contemporary classical trend that has veered away from serial music toward a more traditional tonal approach, Coleman's musical inspiration is more closely related to his cultural roots.
Born into a liberal, intellectual Anglo-Indian family, he grew up in the supremely conservative English suburbia of Cheltenham, where he was raised on a steady diet of Russian classics - Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov et al. By the age of 14 he had gained his violin Grade VIII as well as discovering the choral and religious musical traditions from singing in the cathedral choir. At 17, however, after a fellow (female) student on a classical music study weekend introduced him to Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, Coleman threw in the classical towel to explore a strange mix of post-punk theatre, melodrama and mysticism with Killing Joke.
Coleman cites the punk ethos as having affected him more than any music college, but in 1981 he began studying orchestration and scoring again before beginning his first classical project, Symphony No. 1 - The Idavoll Cycle, which he continued to work on over the next ten years.
It was, however, a need to come to terms with his own cultural identity and an attempt to confront its duality which was to provide the next landmark in his solo career, and in 1989 he moved to Cairo to study the Arabic music tradition. "I'm a strange mixture of genes from East and West, a child of the colonial system, and I've only resolved that uncomfortable feeling of being of mixed race in the process of going to Egypt and becoming part of the music scene in Cairo, which I have been for some years now."
The move led to Songs From The Victorious City, his 1990 collaboration with ex-Art Of Noise composer Anne Dudley, in which Eastern and Western traditions fused to stirringly hypnotic effect. Coleman's mystical odyssey then took him to New Zealand, the 'discovery' of which was to form not only the culmination of a long-standing quest, alongside other Killing Joke members, for 'the island at the end of the earth', but the inspiration for his first string quartet, Pacifica.
"I wanted to show a darker side of the Pacific than the holiday brochures, and just try to capture it musically," he explains. "This image of the Pacific where we think of girls in grass hula skirts, coconuts and palm trees - well, yes, there is that, but there are also some really awful sides to it: apart from testing on Mururoa, there are places which have been mined for the phosphate and are just a shell of an island, a land strip that's been totally raped."
This dichotomy is particularly poignant in the quartet's "Mururoa" movement: part one conveys the pastoral beauty and fragility of the landscape, while part two clashes rudely into the idyll via a combination of dissonance, sweeping cymbals, Arabic tabla and counterpoint used to devastating effect.
On being asked about the Baroque influence of the counterpoint tradition, Coleman says, "But I was brought up in Cheltenham, my dear ... There are certain things which you just cannot escape!" When pressed on the particular influence of Bach, be spits: "I'd like to have given him a good kicking. I don't mind his Toccata And Fugue, that's a fantastic organ piece, but generally speaking, what he did for Western music was desecration!"
Apart from the Pacifica quartet and Symphony No. 1, Coleman has a stack of further projects awaiting completion, including a Requiem for two choirs, a second symphony called Black Onyx, as well as a further orchestral work commissioned by the Republic of China for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. "I want to be prolific," he insists, "I want to achieve the masterpiece before I'm through."
Listening to the rhythmic, driving fervour of Killing Joke, it's hard to equate Coleman's strained, adrenalin-fueled vocals with the stirring melodic tradition evoked in his classical work, and he sees a clear divide between what he expresses in each. "Firstly, I'm only interested in bands on one level, and that is extreme exhilaration. Secondly, it's catharsis, a way of exorcising myself. Things I don't really want to talk about, I sing about with Killing Joke. I've done nine albums with Killing Joke and throughout I've done not one love song, but with my classical music I express my more personal romance, or the romance of the land, the romance of the dream, a utopian dream.
"I get very involved with the subject matter of my work. The relationship between the artist and the subject matter with the romantic is abnormally close. You are the subject matter. It's your personal experiences: so to write music I forget about music. I fall in love, I drink, I travel, I go to places I'm curious about, I fulfill my dreams and then I drink two glasses of wine, sit at the piano and see what comes out. Then I divide by three: woodwind, brass and strings, and the rest comes naturally to me now."
Symphonic Pink Floyd is released this month on Point (through Polygram). Pacifica will be released early next year.