:: News & Comment


I saw eternity…

November 14th, 2018

To mark the publication of Tim Day’s I Saw Eternity the Other Night, his long-awaited history of the King’s College Cambridge choir, I’ve re-posted below part of my reflections on the David Willcocks memorial service in September 2015.  Tim’s book (which has an inordinate number of references to yours truly as well as to far more significant figures) manages to capture something of the essence of the institution and its people, combining a wider history with intimate personal reflections which the author is so good at elucidating.  What’s really striking about the story as it unfolds is the simple humanity that underpins the boys and men just going about the business of singing in a choir, almost oblivious to the magic that emerges.  Here’s what I wrote three years ago:

It took me three goes to get into King’s Cambridge as a treble. At seven I was much too young on my first attempt, but it was presumably useful experience and it was encouraging to be asked to try again. Boris Ord was an intimidating figure, and the semi-pornographic toys on his piano fascinating but beyond our ken.  But eventually he let me in – in a year when so many old choristers had left that not to get in would have been very embarrassing. In the 1954 BBC recording of the Nine Lessons & Carols you could see that his beat bore no relation to what the choir actually sang, and by the time I arrived in 1957 he was seriously unwell.

As a probationer one of my tasks was to keep cavee for Boris’ arrival at the school for morning choir practice. He would appear at the corner of the West Road playing field (the gate’s not there any more) and shuffle along with his stick, and we’d know that we had maybe five more minutes play before he made it to the music room. His speech was slow and he was obviously very frail. Within a year or so David Willcocks appeared on the scene, and for those of us who would become professional singers many years later, the seeds of our future careers were sown. He seemed to us to come in tandem with Simon Preston. We had no idea that one was a ‘man’ and the other a student not actually that much older than the head chorister, but they were a double act that we were completely in awe of. Willie and Perton we called them. Both were strict and wouldn’t stand any nonsense, but we soon got used to this;  I’m sure I can remember a growing collective pride in what we did. We knew we were good. A couple of years in, Willcocks produced some evil-smelling purple scores that were the cyclostyled copies of his original drafts of what would become Carols for Choirs (something the BBC shamefully failed to celebrate or even acknowledge in the 60 Years of Carols from King’s programme broadcast on Boxing Day 2014). We performed new ones each Christmas; they were a joy to sing and were soon taken up by choirs throughout the land.  The Advent Carol Service had Paddy Hadley’s magical I sing of a Maiden (still my favourite Christmas piece) and then in the next three weeks we’d rehearse the Willie arrangements. Later I would have mixed feelings about boarding schools (and as a father I couldn’t send my son away) but this experience was fundamental to my later life as a musician. David Willcocks didn’t just teach discipline (though that was sometimes what it felt like at the time): he imbued in us a deep respect for the relationship between words and music, and in the carols he showed us that music was a dynamic, evolving, joyous thing that would never leave us. He also taught us to sing as an ensemble – to listen to each other, that fundamental skill that underpins so many vocal groups. Oh, and yes – he could play dance music on the piano while sitting underneath it facing backwards (which was how we thought he’d won his Military Cross, befuddling the Germans).

It wasn’t all inspiration, and he and I didn’t always hit it off. He had a habit of rehearsing a piece to the end and then announcing that we’d just try the start –  whereupon he’d make us sing the whole piece again. Once or twice I took him literally and stopped at the end of the first page. This blew up into a tremendous row just before evensong one day which ended up with me in floods of tears, which continued throughout the service. It was all the more awkward because I was the senior boy on my side, and during the Creed I would have to move from the middle of the trebles to the end of the row, next to where Willie would appear from the organ loft to conduct the anthem. By then I was feeling extremely contrite and continued to snivel away, hardly getting a note out, with Willie conducting away as though nothing had happened. It was somehow a defining moment in our relationship – I learned that there were boundaries I could not cross, and he realised I had a bit of growing up to do and was content to let me find that out for myself. In my last year I got to sing the Once in Royal solo – sort of by mistake.  There was no TV in those days so it wasn’t quite the big deal it is today, and there was certainly no mystery over who would get to sing it. There were two big treble solos in the carol service, the other being Willcocks’ arrangement of Be not Afraid from the Christmas Oratorio. The 2nd best treble got the Bach, though in the schools carol service which was a kind of rehearsal a week or so earlier the roles were usually reversed. So when I got Once in royal in the schools service I knew I wasn’t going to get the real thing. But the boy eventually chosen was overcome with the jitters and asked Willie if we could swap. Willie asked if I’d do it and I suppose it was the first time in my life that I realised there were some opportunities you just can’t say no to, however daunting they might seem. Of course I was terrified, but I somehow learned to park my fear somewhere else during the  walk from the vestry, silently making our way to the West end through the crowded antechapel, the congregation standing steaming in their raincoats smelling of wet gabardine. Then Willie hummed the note, and we were off. Would it be in tune when the organ came in? It was the first of half a lifetime of broadcasts where I’d end up a bit flat…

 

Recent videos

November 11th, 2018

Alternative History in Seville

Our York concert was live streamed, so (miraculously) Ariel Abramovich’s family in Argentina and Anna Maria Friman’s in Sweden were able to watch it in real time. It was great to see so many old friends at the university, and to welcome Tony Banks to our Blackheath gig where he heard two of his pieces for the first time. We’ll next all meet in Seville on 28th for a Murillo-themed programme of Victoria and Josquin (including the amazing Bovicelli version of Victoria’s Vadam et Circuibo).

Gavin Bryars’ Winestead

We’ll be doing Winestead again at Triskel in Cork on the 25th and at the National Concert Hall in  Dublin on the 26th. We made a video (in one take) in Andrew Marvel’s eponymous church while rehearsing for the premiere as part of the Hull City of Culture celebrations. It’s become one of my favourite pieces of Gavin’s (most of it is even in my range).

Serikon in Uppsala: The Travels of St Bridget

The Travels of St Bridget was also live streamed and the video is still available on the Kirkomusik Symposium website here (scroll down till you get to the right one). It’s an hour and twenty minutes long, but full of great stuff (for Swedish speakers Anna Maria Friman slaying the dragon is a tour de force, and you won’t find a more impressive cowhorn virtuoso than Daniel Stighall). About 55 minutes in there’s Gavin Bryars’ Lauda 47 in a new arrangement for this concert.

Alternative History at Musica Divina in Krakow

Musica Divina have produced a beautiful short video of highlights from the festival, which you can see here. Our bit starts around 1.55 but the whole thing is well worth watching.

 

October adventures

October 16th, 2018

October means two things: ten days holiday in Italy working our way across from Lucca to Venice celebrating a significant anniversary, followed by the Dowland Project’s appearance at the Grenzenlos festival in Murnau on the 21st.

The Italian trip turned into yet more of an adventure than I was anticipating when we arrived at the car hire in Pisa to discover my driving license had expired.  After some frantic lateral thinking it became a trip by train, taxi and boat, with only one change of reservation (miraculously). Huge thanks to Trenitalia, all of whose trains ran absolutely on time (and were incredibly cheap), to countless helpful taxi drivers and Vaporetti crew who manhandled the luggage we thought was going to fit in a car – and special thanks to Erica who rescued us in Castell’Arquato and drove us to Fiorenzuola station so we could get to Sabbioneta. It was all total magic until we arrived back at Manchester airport to find the Trans Pennine Express had cancelled our train and the two we eventually caught both developed faults. Italy has a bonkers right-wing government which manages to make the trains work, why can’t ours?

On the Murnau blurb I’m billed, curiously, as a countertenor. I was once billed as a male soprano at a Purcell Room concert eons ago when I had to sing some pretty crotch-tightening arias but I’ve not yet dared to sing falsetto in public (it’s frightening enough in private) and I’m certainly not going to this time (I hope this is a cause for relief rather than disappointment). The evening is called Time Travel, and begins with readings by the actors Undine Brixner and Nicolaus Paryla, before we launch into a short tour of the DP repertoire from Troubadour song to Schubert, plus a digression via Placidus von Camerloher (1718-1782) and a folk song or two.

In November the Alternative History quartet has two concerts in the UK, at the University of York on the 7th and the Greenwich Early Music Festival on the 9th. I think this is the first time we’ve done two consecutive concerts in the country that two of us live in. I guess that post-Brexit our fellow band members won’t be allowed in so make sure you catch us while you can. Then at the end of the month we return to the mainland (our natural home) with a special programme for the Murillo festival in Seville. Sadly, the gigs we were hoping would follow this have been postponed till next year, and our next concerts in Spain will be in February.

In between the AH gigs I have an experimental concert with my former Hilliard Ensemble colleague David James at St Marie’s Cathedral Sheffield on November 10th. This will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 with a performance of Guillaume Dufay’s L’Homme Arme mass in a version for the two of us and Jacob Heringman (lute).  We’ll also be re-visiting some Byrd, Tallis and Arvo Part that we used to do with the Hilliards.  We’ll be repeating the programme in Marvao in July, and if all goes well we might expand our repertoire for future concerts.

On November 25th I’ll be returning to Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, this time with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble to celebrate Triskel’s 40th anniversary. We’ll be doing Jesus Blood, Winestead and a new Lauda composed for the occasion. The next day we repeat the programme at the National Concert Hall in Dublin as part of Gavin’s 75th birthday celebrations.

Micro-managing…

September 23rd, 2018

The South Bound Blues Train c1963

In my first school band I played guitar, as I was the proud owner of a rather unwieldy but incredibly exciting left-handed Hayman. I had an amplifier (10 watts or thereabouts) built from a kit, housed in a beautiful box made by the carpenter husband of my mum’s hair dresser. We chose the singer partly because he owned a microphone. I got to sing sometimes but I never became the singer because he had the gear.  I got into microphone singing proper when the close-harmony group I sang in at university (the legendary Fab Cab that morphed into the semi-mythical ‘sixties freakbeat’ Gentle Power of Song) got to record pop songs for Polydor. So by the time I joined the Swingles I knew quite a bit about how to do it, and was totally seduced by Ward Swingle’s interest in what he called ‘microphone experiments’,  one of the main reasons he decided to re-found his group with English singers. We all learned a lot from Ward, and I still rate singing the Berio vocal pieces as among the most exciting thing I’ve done. It was so inspiring that some of us eventually left the group in order to start Electric Phoenix, an ensemble dedicated to amplified vocal music.  That was when I wrote my very first published article, a piece for The Composer – about microphonic singing, which I believed to be the future of singing, so liberating compared with what I’d been taught at the Guildhall and and elsewhere by a series of famous teachers. Then the Arts Council gave me a grant to fund what I like to think of as the first vocal synthesiser. Electric Phoenix had used individual custom-made effects boxes but I wanted something more elaborate that would also function as a mixer so I could control the whole shebang. It was very clever, but a nightmare to use. The effects –  harmoniser, ring modulator, filters and so on, were all linked by a 10×10 patchboard, so if I wanted to change anything I had to re-patch into one of a hundred holes, singing the while. It mostly worked, but hitting the wrong hole could produce either silence or the loudest fart you ever heard (both equally frightening).

At around the same time I was lucky enough to do backing vocals for all sorts of pop bands, and it coincided with the start of Electronic Vocal Theatre, my duo with the legendary polymath John Whiting (legendary also for his unique blend of coffee, the smell of which permeated everything in his studio and has forever been associated in my memory with Bose speakers).  John had an octophonic sound system – you could move the sound up and down as well as round and round (those were the days!) – and we had some very labour-intensive sets which eventually proved too much for two blokes to put up and take down either side of quite complex performances.    Then I joined the Hilliard Ensemble and forgot about all things tech for a couple of decades.

The Hilliards never used amplification, and more often than not sang in wonderfully resonant churches – very large ones when we started to work with Jan Garbarek. Negotiating with the acoustic was very much what the group up was all about (and I’m sure our ability to engage with the acoustic environment was a key ingredient in our relationship with ECM’s Manfred Eicher). The singing itself wasn’t really of any consequence – it was what came back to you from the building that enabled you to micro-manage the sound and create the performance. In retrospect all those years of singing with a mic seemed rather crude and analogue compared with the organic process of using the building itself as your amplifier.

I still feel that, and at its best I think that amplification basically reproduces the perfection of a CD rather than the uniqueness of the building. But increasingly I find myself at venues where amplification is the norm and I’m expected to provide a technical rider. It reminds me a bit of touring the USA with the Hilliards, arriving at the venue and being asked where we’d like the mics (and worse still, the piano…).  I can remember how to do it, but it seems incredibly unsubtle compared with responding to a building that’s been made for sound.  And yet…as I discovered in Cork last week, with the right sound man and the right repertoire it can work. Once you take away the need to project, much of your classical technique is redundant. It means you can sing more like your speech (something I banged on about a lot in my first book Vocal Authority). You can be far more nuanced, conversational even. Best of all, it meant we could do Finisterre without me sounding like some  cross-over cretin.  My project for early next year when I have a bit of free time, is going to be to develop a repertoire specifically to be done with a sound system.  In the meantime, if you’d like to hear Finisterre, come to Murnau next month and see what John Surman, Milos Valent and Jacob Heringman make of it.

Worms to Uppsala

September 8th, 2018

We had a wonderful time in Worms – a big thankyou to Holger Wittgen and Annette Herschelmann from Kultursommer Rheinland-Pfalz for being so hospitable and so efficient. I’ve been lucky enough to perform several times on the Via Mediaeval (the first three-voice Conductus Ensemble concert took place  in Otterberg five years ago, and it was great to return last week with the results of the research project).  We branched out from our all-conductus programme to include four huge Alleluias from the Magnus Liber. These were exhilarating to perform (and slightly frightening). I’ve done the famous Perotin 4-voice pieces many times over the years, but the 3 voice organa (possibly by Perotin but anon as Anon 4 didn’t mention them) are every bit as bizarre and exciting.  Lovely German audience, as always, and they really appreciated it:

 

 

It was a lot of notes – possibly the most notes per minute/euro that we’ve ever sung. But the music is so extraordinary and so rarely done, that we’re determined to explore the Magnus Liber repertoire further. In the context of chant maybe, so we get a bit of a rest between these humongous medieval vocal symphonies.

Uppsala

On to Uppsala next week for Serikon’s St Brigitte programme in the cathedral. This will also take in some Ars Antiqua music, but the travels of  Europe’s patron saint enable a wide variety of performance styles and periods with a uniquely Scandinavian edge.  We’ll also be doing Gavin Bryars’ Lauda 47, a new arrangement especially for this ensemble. I’ll be doing more Bryars in Cork and Dublin in the autumn, including the haunting Winestead that he wrote for the Hull City of Culture.

Dufay

David James, Jacob Heringman and I have just had our first rehearsal of Dufay’s L’homme arme mass. It works! Sheffield, we’re coming…

Secret History reviews

More reviews for Secret History, from the Lute Society of America (which also has a terrific review of Ariel & Jake’s duo album Cifras Imaginarias), and his (in Italian) from Avvenire. Not long to our next attempt to get to Cork, weather permitting…

Cambridge History

August 28th, 2018

I’ve been very fortunate to have been associated with Cambridge University Press since my first book Vocal Authority was published in 1998. It was followed by the Companion to Singing, and then a long while later by the History of Singing which I wrote jointly with Neil Sorrell. At one point there was a suggestion that the singing history would be a multi-authored  Cambridge History of Singing, but bearing in mind the impossibility of writing anything definitive about singing, we insisted that ours was only A History. In between I did contribute to two Cambridge histories the latest of which, The Cambridge History of Medieval Music, has just appeared. These huge multi-authored projects are an editorial nightmare and very rarely run to schedule. As it happens I got my chapter in pretty close to the deadline – I was still an academic so these things were important. Long after I’d left academia, and the inevitable and infuriating late submitters having finally come up with the goods, the handsome two-volume set is on the shelves. My chapter is called ‘Issues in the modern performance of medieval music’ and I got it done so long ago that it doesn’t mention the Conductus project that has in its small way revolutionised the performance of 12th century music in the present.  For the outcomes of that research project you have to get another Cambridge publication, Discovering Medieval Song (which I haven’t yet read but which I suspect also doesn’t have much to say about the performing experience which was such a major part of the research programme).

Last weekend I was in Worms with my fellow ‘Conductors’ Rogers Covey-Crump and Christopher O’Gorman for the Tage alter Musik und Literatur  and the first concert in the Via Mediaeval season.  Our performance was as close to 12th/13th century performance ideals as we could make it, and although the musicology will presumably last a bit longer, as is the way with performance the sound of it is now lost for ever. Next week I’ll be in Uppsala with Serikon’s St Bridget project. Unlike Conductus, which was a state funded research project designed to explore 12th century performance practice, the Serikon ensemble references history in a creative and pragmatic way, with musicology used as a starting point to make the music work in the present. Then next month I’ll be taking a further step away from the past with the Dowland Project’s visit to Murnau.  Our programme in the Grenzenlos festival reflects the agenda of the event: no boundaries, so we’re not constrained by musicology at all. The programme will probably open with a troubadour song, a lute improvising, acknowledging the past (though it will be Jacob Heringman’s renaissance instrument, some 500 years later than the song). Then maybe I’ll start on the song itself, or perhaps you’ll hear Milos Valent’s viola or John Surman’s saxophone.

I love exploring historical performance practice (and even once came out briefly as a musicologist) but writing about it is pretty well always going to be out of date before the ink is dry.  The more rigorous connection to the past provided by the Conductus project yielded many unique insights, but even if I had written about it in the Cambridge History I couldn’t have accounted for the evolution of the project over the last five years that culminates in its latest iteration in Worms on Sunday. The books, outdated though they mostly are, will survive in print whereas the performances they deal with disappear into the ether straight away. But that’s always been the problem with musicology: musicians do what they can with what they have,  then it’s gone and we’re off to the pub.

 

Jana Jocif Dowland Project

photo: Jana Jocif

 

New season dates

June 16th, 2018

 

 

 

Alternative History

We were at the magnificent Kościół św. Józefa in Krakow on August 11 with a new programme called Secret History: ancient and modern polyphony for voices & lutes. The title comes from our current ECM album but unlike the CD (which is of music by Josquin & Victoria) this programme included new compositions and intabulations alongside the early music. Ariel and Jake played Arvo Pärt’s Pari Intervallo in a version newly sanctioned by the composer (‘Play it faster!’), and we did the first performance of Ash and Snow composed for us by former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, as well the first performance in Poland of John Paul Jones’ Cradle Song which we first performed in the Swaledale Festival last year. Huge thanks to the incredibly hospitable Musica Divina team.

We’ll be doing a similar programme in Cork at the wonderful Triskel Arts Centre on September 21, a kind of enhanced replacement for the gig we had to cancel because of snow back in March (enhanced because European Early Music Day had to go ahead without us so we’re not limited to the Renaissance this time). We had a wonderful time on our last visit and we’re really looking forward to actually getting there this time.

The quartet  next meets in York on November 7, my first time back in the Jack Lyons since my farewell concert of music by Veljo Tormis  with The 24 back in 2010 or so. This will be River God Songs and will include material from our proposed next album, including Moeran, Warlock and Peter Pope as well as the new John Paul Jones and Peter Erskine pieces. We’re also hoping to  do Ian Telfer’s Finisterre. This is a song June Tabor first recorded with the Oysterband in 1989, and then re-recorded in 2010 for her own album Ashore. The first version is a fairly anonymous sea shanty, the second one of the most eloquent and moving songs I’ve ever heard, so it’s a sort of tribute to June T and the idea that a song can be whatever you want it to be. I’ll probably try it out in September with the Dowland Project to make sure it works in our semi-improvised way (I’m tempted to play the piano…).

Two days later we’ll repeat the York programme in the Greenwich Early Music Festival (in Blackheath), and then we reconvene in Spain for concerts in Seville (28th) and Cadiz (29th) after which we go on to the Canary Islands.

Conductus in Worms

On September 2 I’ll join Christopher O’Gorman and my former Hilliard colleague Rogers Covey-Crump in the Magnuskirche Worms for the opening concert in the Kultursommerreihe Via Mediaeval series (no idea why it’s billed as in that link – I’m obviously bigger in Worms than I thought). Five years ago we did one of our first trio concerts in the same series. We’re returning 3 CDs, acres of research and dozens of performance later, to present a completely new programme which will also include some heavyweight organa (possibly being sung for the first time in 800 years).

St Bridget in Uppsala

On September 14  I’ll be with Serikon for the Travels of St Bridget programme in Uppsala cathedral,  following on from our concerts in Sweden last year. The programme will also include new versions of at least one of Gavin Bryars’ Laude arranged by Gavin specially for this ensemble.

Gavin in Bryarland

…and I’ll be doing two concerts of Gavin’s music in Ireland in November (it’s a very busy month). These will be in Cork (25) and Dublin (26) and will include Winestead (composed for the Hull City of Culture last year) and a new commission to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Triskel Arts Centre.

Resurrecting Dufay 

On November 10  I’ll be getting together in Sheffield Cathedral with my ex-Hilliard Ensemble colleague David James to do Jacob Heringman’s transcription of Guillaume Dufay’s L’Homme Arme mass for the three of us (Jake playing the two lower parts). In between the mass movements we’ll do Byrd and Tallis Motets. The Dufay mass is one that I particularly enjoyed singing with David and the Hilliards. It must be nearly 20 years since we last did it, so fingers crossed…

Dowland Project in Germany

It’s been a while since the Dowland Project’s last gig so I’m delighted we’ve been asked to Murnau on October 21 for the Grenzenlos world music festival. The line-up will be me, John Surman, Milos Valent and Jacob Heringman and there will be improvisations galore (based loosely around the Night Sessions album), some Schubert and a tribute to local musical hero Placidus von Camerloher. There is nothing more liberating than a Dowland Project gig, and I can’t wait.

 

…and a postscript:

I don’t think I actually mentioned Aretha Franklin in A History of Singing, so it was a big surprise to see the book quoted (though not attributed) in a Guardian leader celebrating her life.  It’s quite touching when you discover someone’s actually read your stuff, and especially when they can extrapolate from it (the Guardian’s writer puts a wonderfully human gloss on the real importance of singing). In Krakow last week a couple came up after the concert and asked me to sign their well-worn copy of the Cambridge Companion – or their bible, as they called it.

Anglo-German Adventures

May 20th, 2018

 

I first visited Germany on my way to Istanbul, hitch-hiking between school and university. My friend Nick, who was bolder than I, blagged us a lift from the car deck on the ferry and we were dropped somewhere in Germany. Off the Autobahn we found ourselves apparently lost in the countryside, but were soon picked up by a lorry from a nearby brewery. The driver was politely amused by our schoolboy German (I’d just scraped an O level) and reached behind to pass us a bottle each. The three of us happily slurped away until he dropped us off at an inn for lunch. That’s the kind of welcome a teenager doesn’t forget. A few weeks later we were in what was then Yugoslavia and were picked up by German shirt smuggler (if I understood him correctly) and he took us most of the way to Turkey, stopping near the border at a mountain spring where he treated us to fresh yogurt and gherkins. I’d never had either before and can still taste them.

I’ve been enjoying German hospitality ever since, one way or another. I got to know towns I’d never heard of through concerts with the Hilliard Ensemble. The group could have survived handsomely just on the German gigs alone (and, of course, we had a famous German record company). The hypothecated church tax meant that most churches had more money than they knew what to do with, and concert promotion was a great way to spend it.  The group’s success meant that when we started our summer school series we had many applications from some amazing German singers. Singer Pur and Amarcord, for example, went on to become world famous; some students returned each year with different ensembles and are still firm friends. The person we most have to thank is Werner Schüßler, who not only introduced us to scores of wonderful German musicians but rescued the summer school and was responsible for bringing it to Schloss Engers on the Rhine.   Werner is an educator extraordinaire (as his recently published book on singing comprehensively demonstrates) and has coached hundreds of young singers over the years (and I’ve been delighted to join him on numerous occasions). He has a particular affinity with Northern England (he speaks fluent Geordie) and is a frequent visitor to this part of the world. At 3.30 on Tuesday 29th May he will be presenting two of his student ensembles in York Minster’s Chapter House. If you can get there, come and support these young singers (I’ve coached them myself too, and can guarantee you’ll have a great time). It’s a wonderful programme including music by Hildegard von Bingen, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger and Whitacre among others, which should sound stunning in the Chapter House acoustic.   If you miss them, on the 31st they can be heard in a lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s Corbridge (12.30) followed by evensong at Hexham Abbey at 6.30.

 

English Music Festival

The previous weekend (Saturday 26th at 2.15) Jacob Heringman and I will be opening the latest edition of our Book of Lost Lute Songs at Sutton Courtenay church (where George Orwell is buried).  The first half of the programme is a sort of Paston tribute, with movements from all three Byrd masses and motets (sung and played) by Tallis, Byrd, Dowland and Anon. The second half is an all-Heringman intabulationfest of music by Warlock, Butterworth, Moeran, Stephen Wilkinson, Peter Pope and Tony Banks. Quite a lot of this we’ll be doing in versions we haven’t tried before; it will be our third recital in England this year – a record for me. Jacob can also be heard with Ariel Abramovich in the Swaledale Festival on June 7th (sold out but you might get returns). The three of us will be joining Anna Maria Friman for Alternative History gigs in Poland, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the Canary Islands later in the year.

 

 

 

Passports for academics and musicians

May 1st, 2018

 

This is an update of my previous one on the topic to draw attention to Peter Scott’s Guardian piece this morning (sorry subscribers…). The fact that the Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education has to show his passport to do a visiting lecture shows just how absurd the system has become. I happen to know that he’s not the only senior academic in the IoE who refuses to go along with this enforced alienation of British citizens. The comments under the by-line are interesting too – plenty from academics and administrators who’ve fallen foul of the same rules but also an undercurrent of troll-like contributions from those who think the hostile environment should be the new (continuing) normal. In fact, one doesn’t have to show one’s passport – it’s just a convenient way for university administrators to apply government policy – and I have to say that on the occasions when I’ve been asked for it the relevant admin person has clearly enjoyed  being an enforcer and raising the question of non-payment. It’s gets doubly daft, as Prof Scott and several others point out, when you wonder who in the Home Office imagines that illegal immigrants live off the fees paid to visiting lecturers. For me, the assumption that I’m an illegal immigrant unless I can prove otherwise makes me a foreigner in my own country. A passport, whatever its colour, is a document that you use when wanting to visit a foreign country, not one that proves you live in one.

It comes down to trust. University administrators don’t trust academics on all sorts of issues, and that lack of trust is what underpins much of the admin structure. If you don’t trust your employees it’s not that difficult to become an agent of government. The government doesn’t trust anybody.

———–

 

This was my original post:

The cruel and degrading treatment that the British government inflicts on those in the desperate situation of not being able to prove their citizenship reminded me of the spat I had with Aldeburgh some years ago. My problem was trivial, and in the first instance only involved one engagement,  compared with the appalling examples of long-term residents being deported or refused medical treatment. But it did involve my passport, and it shows that the government does not just suspect immigrants of being illegal but everybody.  It was the first time I’d been asked to show my passport in my own country, and I refused to do it. To cut a long saga short, I withdrew from the concert rather than collude with the Aldeburgh Festival’s collusion with the UKBA.  Rather than tell the government where to put their shameful policy, Aldeburgh felt they had to go along with it or risk losing the right to use overseas musicians.  What kind of government does this to its leading centres of culture? What kind of centre of culture acquiesces in such a policy? I subsequently discovered that braver souls in music promotion had no qualms about resisting the UKBA.  When Aldeburgh did Grimes on the Beach I wondered if the cast all had their passports in their pockets in case someone tried to sneak in from the sea behind them.

 

So musicians: keep your passports with you. Academics too. The government also requires visiting academics – British nationals giving lectures at British universities – to show their passports. The default position, as with musicians working for major promoters, is that you’re not who you say you are, and they treat you as a foreigner in your own country. If you read through my old posts you’ll see that I had a lot of support from some very unexpected sources and there has been some heartening  resistance in the academic world.  It’s yet another example of what Stefan Collini calls the ‘erosion of integrity’ in British universities, as they become ever more closely allied to the economic interests of the state rather than the educational needs and ambitions of  its people.  Stefan Collini’s piece takes as its point of departure the 1998 Bologna statement agreed by all European countries about the nature and purpose of universities, their autonomy and freedoms.

 

We are about to leave Europe.

 

Death of the CD?

April 29th, 2018

 

I stopped keeping a tally of the number of recordings I’ve made when the total got to 150 or so. Some of them I’ve never owned or heard, some get re-issued and re-packaged, some even continue to sell; I suppose they represent  the story of a musical life – from fantastic highs that you want to remember for ever and some you’d rather forget. They’re also a history of the technology, from acetate demos of my more or less embarrassing teenage bands to my first LP (Handel, would you believe, but closely followed by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London),  lots more  vinyl, cassettes and finally CDs. Finally, because in my musical neck of the woods we’ve been around too long to get a grip on streaming and video.

Brigid Delaney’s recent piece on the death of the CD in the Guardian, provocative, simplistic and inaccurate, stimulated a fascinating discussion below the by-line from lovers and loathers of the format.  For consumers there’s no argument – if you’re younger than me you go with whatever the current technology is, if you’re of a certain age you’re probably keeping the CD industry going. It’s a curious thing about the niche world that I inhabit that the performance side tends to be age-blind (I may be flattering myself here) whereas the audiences we mostly perform to tend to be of CD-buying age. Decades ago I used to worry that the demographic we performed to would all be dead in twenty years, but it doesn’t work quite like that: there seems to be a threshold at which people start to go to concerts so the same demographic is still there. I can’t see music-lovers of my son’s generation returning to CDs though – streaming is just too comprehensive and convenient (not to mention somehow magical).

As the various formats have changed, so has the relationship between record companies and their artists. In the classical world it used to be the case that the company would pay you a fee (known as a buy-out, which meant you had no residual rights) or give you a non-repayable royalty advance (which is what being ‘signed’ means in the pop world).  The companies that I have had most to do with over the years have been Hyperion, ORF, EMI and ECM; the first two worked on a fee basis and the second two on royalty advances. The Hilliards left EMI still owing many thousands in non-repayable advances (that were spent on, among other things, extravagant post session dinners that we didn’t know we were paying for). Almost all the ECM recordings repaid their advances within a year or so. As far as I know ECM is the only company that still works in this way, giving its artists a stake in their own music, and it can do this partly because the CDs still sell – either through one of the online distributors or by artists selling them at gigs. The numbers are small compared with even a few years ago, and the company has recently embraced streaming, though everything is available on CD or vinyl, but ECM will always be identified with a physical product – the Gesamtkunstwerk, every aspect of which has the imprint of Manfred Eicher.

If you’re not lucky enough to record for a major label (or if you’re a new jazz or pop band) there are plenty of smaller labels who will consider taking you on. These are often run by audiophile entrepreneurs who produce excellent recording, but they work to a very different economic model. You pay for the recording, and may agree to buy a certain number of CDs. The company may have a distributor or you might decide to create your own label and sell at gigs. Either way, you are very unlikely to get your money back unless you do a lot of gigs. If it costs, say, £5000 to make an album you’ll need to sell 50 albums at 100 gigs to break even. Many of us would be lucky to sell half that at most gigs, so call it 200 gigs. Average 25 gigs a year? 8 years before you break even – probably longer as you won’t still be doing the same repertoire in 8 years’ time, and you might well have more recent recordings to compete with it.

Like most of my fellow performers I’ve never considered recording as an economic activity – it’s primarily a musical thing which may or may not earn something (some of mine have). As Manfred Eicher put it in his Royal Academy talk recently, you go somewhere, meet people, make music then go home. It’s always a wonderfully intense experience but it’s a one-off and you then forget all about it. That’s fine if the production and distribution are in the hands of the record company of course, but if you’re funding your own recordings you can’t avoid engaging with the whole process. I’ve never done that, and I continue to have a wonderfully creative relationship with ECM after some twenty-five years, but there is a musical elephant in the room in connection with the Alternative History project. The quartet is an ECM band, but increasingly various fractals (as Robert Fripp would put it) perform music that taps in to the project agenda but which there is no chance ECM would want to record. It’s the even niche-er end of a very niche market. Do we go down the self-funding route? Will I still be performing in 8 years’ time? Quite possibly, but almost certainly very different repertoire (my plan to sing until I drop involves doing much older music as I get much older). A YouTube channel maybe?  That might be the way forward – no profit but relatively little outlay, and the music will be there for people to enjoy. We’ll see.