Kate Bush rules, OK?

Pop musicians are far more demanding in the studio than classical ones are. Michael Berkeley explains why

As a composition student I played rock music on the side, an experience that taught me a lot about direct communication and enabled me later in life to enjoy some brief but rewarding forays into film and commercial music. So when the conductor Richard Hickox rang me one day in 1984 to ask if I could help with a rather unusual job for which he and his choir had been engaged, I was intrigued. Kate Bush, it transpired, was working on her new album, Hounds of Love, and for one track, Hello Earth, she wanted a chorus to recreate the orthodox singing/chanting that made such a contribution to the film Nosferatu. The only problem, Hickox explained, was that there was no sheet music available and that anyway it would need to be notated and completely re-written to fit the Hello Earth track. Slightly bemused, I think - this was a far cry from his more customary Gluck or Vaughan Williams - he asked if he could put Bush in touch with me.

I had always considered Kate Bush truly original both as a performer and as a songwriter with an unusually fresh sense of harmony. If her new album next month is awaited with some excitement after a long fallow period, then in 1985 it was assumed that Hounds of Love would be something of a final fling at the conclusion of a waning career. I soon realised how wrong this assumption was when Kate sent me a cassette: it was zany, ambitious and yet utterly Kate Bush, but with gaps where I was to do her bidding. Having chatted at length, she sent me a long letter with the words of the song and precise instructions on how it should unfold. Her writing hand was curiously like her voice - quirky and touchingly childish; large, separated letters and with the dots over each "i" individually circled. There was, however, nothing child-like about the seriousness and certainty of its contents.

Structure was carefully delineated, verses and choruses written out fully and marked up in colour, and she talked of the sound quality in the most graphic terms. Still not having been able to identify the music of the title sequence of Nosferatu or even the language it was sung in, she suggested that, if necessary, I write something similar but added that while the key of this chorus would need to relate, it could arrive as something foreign, harmonically a surprise, as though from another world. In other words, while it had to fit, Kate wanted it to sound "collaged". This superimposition of foreign sources is a technique pioneered by visionary composers like Ives and Stockhausen. I soon realised that Bush was pretty exacting on the precise fit of the "non-fit". Indeed, she was thrilled when I suggested we create our own new language for this chorus of the spheres.

Although she had piano and violin lessons at school, Bush is essentially self-taught). I have always been fascinated by the difference of dynamics at work between popular artists and conventionally trained classical musicians, and had a similar experience with the Edge, of U2, when we worked together on the score of a film called Captive.

In fact, gifted "pop" musicians like Bush and U2 are far more demanding of themselves in the studio than classical musicians can afford to be, and will spend days working on a tiny fragment. On the other hand, they envy the technique that allows classically trained composers to write something down that can be realised by good sight readers almost instantly. The Edge was amazed that the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen recorded my part of the score (some 30 to 40 minutes) in a couple of three-hour sessions while he laboured for weeks to get his sounds just as he wanted them.

The fact that Kate Bush needed my contribution to realise a specific moment of her original concept (as the Beatles used George Martin in a much wider context) was a marrying of two disciplines without diluting either. In terms of sculptural soundscape, this is the kind of midwifery role that Brian Eno fulfils for groups like U2.

Come the recording day, a group of male choristers, more accustomed to singing church services than backing vocals, descended on Bush's home, which was equipped with its own studio. Doubtless they were imagining that they were about to meet a wild-eyed rock babe, but Kate, quiet and unassuming - the kind of sympathetic, slightly shy girl who greets you from behind the counter at the local chemist - introduced us to her friend the bass player Del Palmer, who engineered the session. None of the singers or Richard had ever gone over and over four or five phrases so exactingly. No measure of Bach or Mozart had, in their experience, been subjected to such surgical scrutiny, and I began to worry that their voices might begin to tire. But Bush knew and got what she wanted and Hello Earth is, I think, a remarkable track on the album that finally broke the American market and established her as an iconic and hugely influential figure. I can't wait to hear what she has been up to now.

· Kate Bush's album Aerial is out on November 7 on EMI.


Michael Berkeley

The GuardianTramp

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