Stewart Copeland Breaks the Silence with Ben-Hur Score

When your early achievements are etched so deeply into people’s memories, everything you do after will inevitably be put in the context of the things that put you on the map.

Stewart Copeland is reminded of this constantly. Any mention of him now is usually framed by his nine-year stretch as co-founder and drummer for The Police.

Take that history away – the legendary performances on stage and in the studio, the accolades from drumming publications, the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and Copeland still stands on decades of artistry in film, opera, ballet, television, and even video games as a composer and arranger.

His shark-like need to be constantly moving and his obsession with how music can elicit emotion give you the sense that he was destined to find a stage and be heard one way or another, even if he had never been a part of one of greatest rock trios in history.

On Monday, March 6, Copeland will find one of his biggest stages yet. He will be performing the score he composed for the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ with the Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Austria.

While he’s composed scores for many modern films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983) and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), breathing new life into a 92-year-old silent film on stage behind the drums with a live orchestra presented unique challenges and opportunities.

We caught up with Stewart before the big performance via phone to talk about eyebrows guiding the music, the haunting gurgle of waterphones, and his plug-and-play philosophy when it comes to gear.

What was it about Ben-Hur that inspired you to compose a score for the film?

I had already written a lot of music for Ben-Hur, the live arena production. They staged the whole pirate battle, chariot battle, the whole thing – and did it on the arena floor. We opened at the O2 arena in London and played around Europe from there. So I had all that music.

When the show had run its course, I still figured I wanted to do a concert version of it. Then it was my manager, Derek Power, who happened upon the 1925 silent black and white film. That’s when the penny dropped.

It took a long time to get a permit from Warner Bros. to get the 90-year-old celluloid out from the vault. It was the first time it had been out of the can since the ‘60s, when they shot it to video.

It took me a couple of years to curate the old film and cut it to 90 minutes with the music I’d written. You know, I already had a Ben-Hur theme, and a jealousy theme, and a nice little tune for the Virgin Mary. Big tune for Jesus himself.

How much of that work was transferrable to the film?

A lot, because the story elements – the attitude, the emotion, the beats of the story, the characters – are the same. So that nuanced flavor of Messala, his arch enemy, is the same character from the book, from now three movies, and from the arena production. Messala is still Messala.

I had to do a lot of juggling to make it fit the actual duration of the scene. And when he looks over his shoulder, [it] happens here in the arena production, but there in the film version. So I had to do a lot of editing, but the basic themes were there.

In the arena version, were the actors speaking?

The actors [spoke] in Aramaic and Latin, with narration in the language of whatever country they were playing in. When it played in London, they couldn’t get Sean Connery, so they got me. I got to do the narration, which was cool. I got to ride out on a horse, “And so Judah came to Jerusalem…”

How was this different from composing for a modern film? How is the score’s role in the film different when there is no spoken dialogue?

The big difference right away is that the director is long gone. That is huge. It’s really a joy to collaborate with directors who are always alpha types with big ideas, or else they wouldn’t be a director. They’re generally fun to work with.

The business, the studio, other bodies – [they] can cloud the joy. But in the case of the silent film, there’s nobody to answer to. I could do with it what I will.

The business, the studio, other bodies - [they] can cloud the joy. But in the case of the silent film, there’s nobody to answer to. I could do with it what I will."

Because I ended up drinking the Kool-Aid and became a great fan of Mr. [Fred] Niblo himself, who directed the original piece, and of General Lew Wallace, who wrote the original book, I am deeply respectful of the creative vision of those two people.

But I get to figure out that vision for myself. Power. And the fact that it’s a silent film means I can blaze all the way through without having to dodge sound effects or dialogue.

What was your vision, given that you didn’t have the constraints of a living director?

I wanted to hit the scenes and charge them up, the way the guy on a Wurlitzer would’ve done back in the day. But I get to have a whole orchestra. So it’s really to drive those scenes, and to illuminate the dialogue scenes where there isn’t a huge photogenic battle going on, to make clear what the intention of those scenes are.

What does that sound like? When there is more dialogue, how does that inform the music?

The dialogue scenes feel very much like opera because of the grandiosity of the performances. A lot of eyebrow action. Since there’s no dialogue, their eyebrows have to do a lot of the work. They’re going up and down, and it has an operatic look to it. It was a matter of taking the music that I had and weaving it into the blow-by-blow of the actual scene in question.

A lot of older scores with silent films feel so overly melodramatic. Is that something you were trying to avoid?

Well, they had a lot of work to do. One problem with the other silent films that you’ve seen is that they are still their original duration of 10 hours, it feels like. Carl Davis, who did a bunch of scores for those old films, recorded a score for all 2 hours and 40 minutes for the 1960s video version of the 1925 Ben-Hur film. It’s a valiant score, but it is stretched very thin just by the duration.

So part of your work was to edit the film down to 90 minutes…

The other part of it was the curation. It’s black and white, but after [more than] 80 years, it’s more like gray and white. A lot of cracks, a lot of dirt. One frame has a beautifully presented flying insect. It’s right there on the frame, the proboscis, its little wings, its thorax, all just perfectly preserved on that one frame. When I cleaned that frame, I wish I’d kept a still of it, because it was beautiful.

There are so many blobs, scratches, and things that are distracting. Obviously, I couldn’t make it into a new movie, but I must have fixed thousands of big scratches, insects, pieces of snot, and hairs.

And bad edits. The version they have in the cans in the vault – which took 10 days to defrost – is the cleanest compilation [of many reels]. They didn’t make one and keep one. Every print was out there working across the land. Eventually, they gathered them all back, and the cleanest reels from every version made up this current version. So they vary from reel to reel as to the shape they’re in. A lot of the edits, there’s a frame missing.

In fact, all the great work that I did on the film you’ll never see, because that’s what the work was. It was all done so you wouldn’t see it.

And no one really has access to the original to compare.

No, the original is what I had from the vault. It would run at 20-ish frames per second, depending on who was cranking that day. The shape of the frames doesn’t exist anymore. Finding the machine to play it on was an adventure. What I got back was an off-center image that I had to fix. There was a lot of work – getting the grays, the blacks, the whites all calibrated so the image really pops without losing anything.

You did this all single-handedly?

Yes. Two years of loving attention, while working on the score.

How did you go about choosing the specific percussion and kit for the score?

The original composition was for the orchestra in Bratislava. I had already done a bunch of studio work, overdubs of all kinds of percussion. The main slant on that was that it be period, so modern-sounding snare drums were anachronistic.

Trash cans used in Copeland's Ben-Hur Score

Trash cans used in Copeland's Ben-Hur Score

I came up with the idea of galvanized steel trash cans, which work really well. They’re really hostile and really exciting. It sounds like the Romans clanking their swords on their shields or something. That’s a great sound. We’ve got a couple of those in the orchestra. Percussionists love getting that big, shiny, galvanized tin can up there. A lot of the percussion involves other clanks and clunks sounds.

The concert involves actual drum sounds, which is where I come in. But there are three very busy percussionists on this, apart from myself.

Do you see yourself at the center of the score for Ben-Hur? How does the full kit fit in?

It’s not supposed to be [at the center], but I get on the drums. So shoot me. I can’t help it.

Crotales on Copeland's percussion rig

Crotales on Copeland's percussion rig

For a lot of it, I play a percussion rig, which is two or three octaves of crotales [small tuned metal discs] plus other cymbals and metallic objects, plus a big gong drum and four octobans. For about half of the movie, I’m there playing that rig, which is right behind the drum set. So I go back and forth between the two rigs.

Another instrument I’ve had in my collection for years but never knew how to use was something called a waterphone. I guess you could call it a basin with water in it, from which protrude iron bars. You play those iron bars with a violin bow. That’s where all the cool sounds from Alien came from.

You actually can carry a tune on it, sort of. As long as the strings are carrying the tune, you can kind of be in tune with them. It’s kind of like a hand-cranked theremin.

Copeland Playing the Waterphone

Copeland playing the waterphone

What function does the water serve?

The water, as it sloshes around in the basin, creates undulations in the sound [imitates undulating sounds].

Almost like a vibrato effect…

But a very irregular, gurgling vibrato. I use it for the lepers [in the film].

What kit are you using with the orchestra?

My usual Tama kit. In fact, it’s the usual Tama configuration, but it’s a different kit every time. My philosophy is plug-and-play. The opposite of that guitarist who comes over with his 50 pedals and does his Fred Astaire and has to hassle before he even plays a note.

Nah. I like plug-and-play. Jeff Beck comes in, says “Where’s the amp?” and turns around, plugs in and plays without even looking at the knobs. Plug...and play.

That philosophy applied to drums is not quite as easy as that. When I show up in Vienna, there will be my configuration of drums but not the same exact set that I played in Luxembourg or in Basel or in Chicago. It’s a different kit every time.

I do have an orchestral kit. In the Los Angeles region, I’ll use that kit. But when it comes to shipping drums around, I’ll just use what they have locally.

I kind of have a philosophy of playing store-bought gear, without having to rely on special exotic fixtures or anything.

But you do have quite a gear collection, right?

I’ve got way too many instruments. I’ve got the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy. Trombones, trumpets, bassoons, saxophones, xylophones, mellophones, timpanis...you name it. I need a bass trombone. I’m looking at one right now [on Reverb].

Copeland's studio and gear collection

A lot of people at the office have that issue. Once you start collecting…

Yeah. Gotta have that $120 trombone. Vintage. Not even sure if it plays, but I gotta have it.

Is your Ben-Hur score something that will be recorded in a studio and released with the film, or will it only be performed live?

Pretty much just performed live. The issue with making a DVD or other product is that – let’s call a spade a spade – it is a bastardization of Mr. Niblo’s 2 hour and 40 minute film. It is a 90-minute version. To play a concert, that’s fine. But to create a product, which could be seen to supplant his work, would be ethically going over the line, perhaps.

I could probably think of some way of justifying it, such as doing a DVD set with his full-length version plus my 90-minute version. But it’s still a little strange. It’s a very expensive proposition for a very obscure product. Just playing shows with it suits me fine.

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