'Solo' Composer John Powell Takes on Toxic Masculinity, WWI Arrogance & Grief on Stirring Classical Album 'Hubris'

John Powell
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John Powell arrives at the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story in Los Angeles on May 10, 2018.

You probably know John Powell's work way better than you realize. The British composer has spent the past three decades providing moving, surprising, exhilarating music for dozens of movies, from animated classics like ShrekChicken Run, Robots, the Ice Age series and the Oscar-nominated How to Train Your Dragon to the Bourne movies, X-Men: The Last Stand, Pan and, this summer, Solo: A Star Wars Story

But after teaming with John Williams to re-imagine the musical soundscape of one of science fiction's most beloved characters, Powell is ready to, yes, go solo, with his debut classical album, the eight-track Hubris, out today on 5 Cat Studios (June 15). A whirlwind of emotions and styles, the oratorio was inspired by an obscure historical figure whose military decision kicked off WWI, as well as thoughts on institutionalized sexism and misogyny, and Powell's own grief over the death of his wife.

"It's something I've been meaning to write for years and years, and I was coming down off lots of work in Hollywood and I thought I needed to write something for myself," says Powell, currently finishing up work on the score for the upcoming threequel to How to Train Your Dragon. "It formed once I had a good story, which is something I found out now that I've been in Hollywood so long: I needed a story."

While the lyrics are expressed in an abstract way, Powell, a pacifist, tells Billboard that the title is fitting for many reasons -- including his decision to write an homage to the 100th anniversary of a fateful decision by the head of the German army, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, to persuade Kaiser Wilhelm II to reject peace negotiations in favor of plunging into war. 

The long-in-the-works project was pushed over the finish line after the rapturous response to the 2016 debut of his 10-part oratorio about Moltke, "A Prussian Requiem," which premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Powell, however, was unable to attend because he was at home his wife of 30 years, photographer Melinda Lerner, who was seriously ill; Lerner died the day after the debut following a long illness.

Billboard spoke to Powell about Helmuth, the decade-long process of writing the album, and how its allusions to toxic patriarchy, childish behavior from intemperate heads of state, and the need for more female leadership ended up being eerily prescient in light of the rise of the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump.

Is it safe to say that you're the first person to tap the story of Gen. Helmuth for an opera?

Yes. It's this real scene about a man who has worked on a plan for 10 years and whose uncle was a very famous general... who always thought he could live up to this family tradition of being one of Prussia's great military leaders. He took this moment when all these telegrams were coming in from the French and English, saying, "Maybe we could back out of this. Maybe we could just fight Russia or France, we don't need to fight everybody at the same time." But he basically stamped his feet and said, "We will be destroyed and we have to move forward."

It was really the three-year-old in him who wanted his way. What I found interesting about it is the child in any of us, the worst of our childish selves, could change history in that way. There was a moment when everyone realized it was madness, and the reason it went forward is this person intent on making his place in history. The danger in any global conflict is that humans are involved, and humans can be very irrational.

Once I had that story I had Michael Petry, who I've been working with for 30 years, to write the libretto for me. It was very difficult because I had no film, but I had good sense of the story I wanted to tell. Maybe one day it will be an opera, but for now it's an oratorio [a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voice with a narrative theme produced without costumes or scenery].

Forgive me if I'm projecting, but you talk about someone stamping their feet and being their three year-old self, and I know you've been working on this for years, but this impish leader story you're telling from a century ago sounds not out of place in our current history.

[Laughs.] Exactly. It's fascination at the moment watching Trump and Kim Jung Un, two famously childish leaders... are they really going to sort out the Korean issue? [Editor's note: this interview took place a month before the Trump/Un summit.] If you think about it, it's pretty fucking obvious, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons because they feel surrounded and you can sell that. If you were trying to keep power you can sell that by keep frightening everybody. And Trump holds office in the same way Republicans do, by frightening everybody. It's all the same stuff, nothing changes and that's why I found it interesting. Human nature is fundamentally the same for all of us and for all of time. 

It opens with "The Prize is Still Mine," which sounds like a kind of classical mash up with R&B and gospel [featuring the Los Angeles Gospel Singers], with these triumphant horns that sound like a fanfare and a very unexpectedly funky groove. Can you talk about the lyrics -- which take on misogyny and power dynamics, and, again, seem oddly prescient given the reckoning Hollywood and Washington have been going through lately?

I'd been working on a piece with Michael -- a retrospective of his artwork at the museum of modern art in Palm Springs -- and we created this new piece from which I extracted this part with these gospel women [singers], and I thought it could make an interesting piece with orchestra. I liked the idea of [telling] the story of women's place in history and, respectfully, as a white male bespectacled middle age guy I have no real understating of it, but I do love gospel music. 

Gospel music speaks to me in the same way as symphonic music, so to me this idea of railing against oppression -- which were in the words Michael had written -- I wanted to make a triumphant statement of that. That things will change. Because I think we live in such a fantastic time of change for this, where half of the population's lives will be changing. I like the idea of doing this really triumphant piece on getting from the darkness to the triumph. It was sort of a warm-up piece, which is why it's much more joyous than the rest of the music on the album.

When was the original gospel piece written, because again, it feels like you were on to something in the emotion and intention of it well before it became a thing we talked about? Frankly, you're starting to freak me out a bit given what we've seen with #MeToo lately.

It was written five years ago. I could never have known that things would change, but I could have hoped. The story of oppression is a constant in human history. You pick any moment and you can say, "Well, we can see it's shit at the moment but it will get better." If I'd written the piece in the 1960s, I wouldn't have seen the civil rights movement flourish, but you could hope. I think that's all I was ever trying to do.

With Michael's libretto my idea was to just write music that seems to follow a dream of how it could be. The words triggered me into this idea... at one point I thought, "Should I make it a full gospel choir?" And then I thought, "No, fuck it, I'm going to leave men out of this, I don't need them." One of the groups I always loved when I was a teenager was Sweet Honey in the Rock, so they had a huge influence.

Tell me about the final piece, the "Requiem Addendum," which is in Latin and is a continuation of the "Prussian Requiem," but sounds much more personal.

Sadly, what happened is the first performance of the "Prussian Requiem" was everything you'd want for your world premiere of this piece, but I couldn't be there. My wife had been getting very, very ill, and the performance finished in London mid-afternoon our time [in Los Angeles] -- and she died two hours later. I couldn't be there. I'm glad I was where I was. But [there's] this thing where you write a requiem, and who is it for? Suddenly I realized, "Wait, was I writing a requiem for my wife?" Because I didn't think she was going to die, she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and she just didn't make it. It suddenly dawned on me, "What have I done?"

We all have this magical thinking -- you assume everything revolves around you. And I wrote a requiem, so it must have been for my wife... [as if] I knew she was going to die. But I had no idea she was going to die. So then I asked, "How do I put this in context?" I'd written some words about my last moments with her and I got them translated into Latin because it was just too hard to set. I realized I had to write a requiem to the requiem. So the "Requiem Addendum" is a requiem to writing to my wife... the idea of writing a requiem. So the album is really just five years of my going from the joy of trying to celebrate women, to the process of trying to understand the madness of men, and the "Addendum," which is about living with women, and how we are different.

If you listen to it, it's two pieces simultaneously. The voices of the women are one piece, and the voices of the men are the other, and they happen to flow in and out of each other. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don't, and slowly by the end you hear the women stop, and you're left with men. It’s a metaphor, but also something I felt I had inside me I needed to say -- and it allowed me close the whole loop of that period of my life. Those works, which were optimism, the pain of the experience and the reflection upon it, are the three works on the album.

Listen to Hubris below.