The trick is to be versatile: Craig Armstrong

The Herald (1995-09-07)

CRAIG ARMSTRONG does one of the best things any musician can: he composes music which confounds easy categorisation. He understands why this has resulted in a measure of confusion about who he is. ‘‘I’ve never w orked wholly in one field or another, in commercial music or so-called classical,’‘ Armstrong says over an early-evening beer close to home in Glasgow’s gritty downtown burgh of Partick. ‘‘I once heard a classical composer say that commercial music is irrelevant. In contrast, I take the Steve Reich/Philip Glass line . . .

I love pop music, and the most interesting commercial stuff has a definite influence on what I compose. Being actively enjoyed by more than 20 people . . . that’s why I became a musician. Hearing it on the telly; hearing it in a bar. To make music that you don’t need two heads to enjoy. On good days as a composer, you feel open to things.’‘ Armstrong’s determined open-mindedness has led him to compose much wondrous and label-free music in a widely-varied assortment of locales. He has crafted massive orchestrations for his big mates in Massive Attack, as well as having co-written Weather Storm on their most recent album, Protection. Armstrong’s long-standing association with Massive Attack major domo Nellee Hooper has led him to provide orchestral
arrangements on a number of Nellee’s productions, most notably for Madonna’s Take A Bow.

Additionally, Armstrong’s distinguished string arrangement can currently be heard on Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, U2’s contribution to the Batman movie soundtrack. The U2 link was recently further cemented by Armstrong’s involvement in the Bono-composed title song for the forthcoming James Bond movie, Golden Eye, sung by Tina Turner.

Golden Eye’s orchestration had to be hurriedly undertaken within two hectic days. ‘‘At the time, it was perfectly natural to find myself sitting on a sofa with Bono, the Edge, and Tina Turner. It’s only later that you think: ‘Wow, Tina Turner asked me if wanted a cup of tea.’ It’s great that, as an impoverished Glasgow arranger, I can use my normal orchestrator’s craft to keep my kids in nappies as well as reach some unusual musical places.’‘

On Tuesday night Armstrong will be present in two very different settings. Physically, he’ll be on a stage in Modena, Italy, conducting the somewhat unlikely combo of Pavarotti, Brian Eno, and U2. They’re appearing in the War Child charity’s concert for Bosnia, performing Bono’s near-certain chart-topper, Miss Sarajevo, a single which comes with Armstrong-ian strings attached.

Meanwhile, on the same night back in Glasgow the performing partnership of Gordon Dougall, of Strathclyde Orchestral Productions, Jane MacFarlane, and Simon Burberry will be officially unveiling Armstrong’s score for the Tron’s latest stage production, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, Michael Boyd’s adaptation of Janice Galloway’s novel. Having previously contributed to such Boyd works as The Broken Heart, Good, and Macbeth, Armstrong hails the Tron as ‘‘an invaluable wee centre of exploration’‘. Music for the stage, though. If it’s doing its job properly, shouldn’t it be imperceptible, free of authorial trademarks?

‘‘No! It’s not background music. What most helps a production is music with a life of its own, that has its own narrative. It’s not romantic backdrop stuff, not angry-sounding music for ‘this character is now angry’ moments. That’s the worst way to use music.’‘ A large number of different institutions could be using Armstrong’s music over the next year or so. Mayfest have asked him to create something for 1996, with Armstrong planning to deploy the rhythmic wizardry of Massive Attack’s Mushroom alongside the ambient-dance nous of exiled Glaswegian production boffin Howard Bernstein. Typically, Armstrong pledges that this collaboration will sport ‘‘a freer approach, not ‘I, Composer, am going to write this work’.’‘

He’s also got his own recordings to do for Massive Attack’s new Wild Bunch label, while Massive Attack themselves will hopefully be enlisting Armstrong’s services for their new album, due to start being recorded in November.

On top of that, Armstrong may soon be Dublin-bound for further work with U2. Future Sound of London liked Armstrong’s version of their Eggshell, too. And there’s a song-cycle with Peter Arnott; possible Hollywood soundtrack work; TV soundtracks for Carlton and maybe BBC Scotland; a Scottish Arts Council-funded study of Indian music. Armstrong has come a long way from studying composition and piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Or maybe not so far. ‘‘I’ve a couple of pivotal childhood moments. I remember being transfixed during a holiday in the Lake District with my parents, hearing the Beatles’ Long And Winding Road on the radio. I lived for the moment it would be on again.

‘‘And I recall the joy of monkeying about with a pal’s Grundig tape recorder. There’s a magic about recording, about studios. The things that can happen in a take are beyond ‘Can that bloke play OK?’ What goes on on tape is indescribable, inexplicable.’‘

It was in a studio around six years ago that Armstrong, reaching the end of sundry sojourns in sundry under-achieving Glasgow bands, met Soul II Soul’s erstwhile motivator Nellee Hooper, deputed to be producer. ‘‘Nellee’s strength is that he trusts you to do what you want, rarely looking over your shoulder to say: ‘Why don’t you do this there?’ But there’s no barrier to you suggesting things to him. He gives his team real freedom.

‘‘He’s intuitive, improvisatory. He does records that just flow. You’re never in the studio with him, looking at the clock and thinking: ‘When’s this going to be over?’ With Nellee, it’s all ‘Whoosh!’ Travelling at 2000mph and there’s the finished mix. He’s the world’s top producer, no doubt about it.’‘

Any other thumbs-ups to dispense? To Armstrong’s favourite composers: Reich, Ligeti, Kancheli, and Wonder (Stevie of that ilk, for Music Of My Mind). To Gil Evans; ‘‘I marvel that I’m arranging in a similar way he did in the fifties for Miles Davis. You would have thought the role would have died out by now.’‘

And it’s thumbular approbation for the dub-wise sound-manipulations of the Mad Professor. For Sister Sledge’s Thinking Of You, which Craig knows is both a masterpiece and a religious experience. For the unclassifiable grooves of Massive Attack, who create ‘‘a world music . . . not world music in the hippie sense, but in being free to use exactly what you like from wherever in the world it springs.’‘

This all-embracing spirit is one which extends rather hearteningly into Armstrong’s everyday sphere of domestic existence, which is peopled by three small human compositions co-crafted with his partner Laura Mazzolini, a former member of Glasgow’s long-lost, much-lamented His Latest Flame.

Their trio of children, aged two, four, and six, much enjoy spontaneous musical improvisations. ‘‘Aye, nothing’s out of bounds when the three of them get together for a jam on gong, cello, and piano.’‘ Heart-felt music which accepts no limitations: a very good thing indeed. I remember being transfixed during a holiday with my parents, hearing the Beatles’ Long And Winding Road on the radio. I lived for the moment it would be on again

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