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Anon at the BBC

August 2nd, 2017

If you’ve been listening to Radio 3’s Composer of the Week – The Birth of Polyphony – you may be interested to know who was doing the singing (Donald Macleod being rather reluctant to identify who’s who). In the second programme I sang for the best part of an hour without once being credited. The opening piece, Leonin’s Goria Redemptori meo (around six minutes) was me and Rogers Covey-Crump, in case you were wondering, and it’s from a live concert recording at one of our Hilliard Cambridge Summer Schools.  The programme featured Perotin’s two big four voice pieces Viderunt and Sederunt at the other end of the programme, and in between a huge hunk of Leonin sung by Richard Wistreich and me (from what we think of as our Hyperion Lenin phase). The third programme began with the anonymous Fas et Nefas conductus, sang anonymously by yours truly with Rogers Covey-Crump and Christopher O’Gorman (also available on Hyperion). Well, I guess it’s good for us egomaniacs.

I’ll be listening in to the interval chat during Sunday’s prom. At least we all get a credit in the blurb:

8.10pm INTERVAL: Throwing a Wobbly
Louise Fryer uncovers the ups and downs of vocal vibrato. How and why do singers use it? With guests sopranos Janis Kelly and Peyee Chen, tenor John Potter, scientist Helena Daffern and early music researcher Richard Bethell. 

While I’m on the subject of the BBC…the Dowland Project gets an honorary mention in Andrea Valentino’s piece for BBC Global News. Along with Sting of course, and Ed Sheeran (the Dowland de nos jours). Thanks to Jake Heringman for sending the link.

FEMAP

 

A huge thankyou to Josep Maria Dutrèn and the FEMAP team. Ariel and I had a fabulous time in Catalunya – and special thanks to those who followed us all the way up the mountain.

 

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Alternative History

July 13th, 2017

Winestead

The final performances of Gavin Bryars’  Winestead in the New Music Biennial took place at London’s Festival Hall. It’s been great to spend so much time with one piece (and it’s a beautiful piece) and I hope there will be many more to come. The film, which like all films involving classical singing has too many shots of the inside of my throat, is available on YouTube. It was done in one take (very cleverly) on the afternoon of the first performance in Winestead church.

 Dowland to Sting in Catalunya

I’m soon off to Catalunya with Ariel Abramovich for three recitals in the Festival de Música Antiga dels Pirineus (FEMAP). where hopefully the weather will be a bit better than at our recent photo shoot.

The programme will be a mixture of Dowland and Campion with some Tony Banks, Sting and one of Jacob Heringman’s beautiful new Peter Pope intabulations. The first is in the Monestir de Sant Llorenç in Guardiola de Berguedà on July 28 at 22.00. The next day we go to Ordino in Andorra, where we’ll perform at the Museu d’Areny-Plandolit (20.00 start) and then on to the Refugi de l’Estany Gento in La Torre de Capdella on the 30th. As far as I can see this is a hut in the mountains, so it should be an intimate occasion. It starts at 6.00, presumably to allow time to climb back down the mountain for dinner.

Vibrato in the Proms

A few weeks ago I took part in a round table discussion about vibrato for Radio 3 with Peyee Chen, Helena Daffern, Janice Kelly and Richard Bethell.  Interestingly York-orientated – three of us were/are connected with the Music Department (and Richard Bethell gave a paper at the NEMA conference). We rabbited on for ages and the final 21 minute cut will be broadcast during the prom interval on August 6th. Not sure what Moussorgsky fans will make of it (my chosen example was June Tabor’s Finisterre).

Alternative History

 

 

ECM will release the new CD on August 25 worldwide.  I always pre-order a copy of my own albums on Amazon so that I can check it’s actually for real, but at £25+ I think that would be a bit silly (and they can’t spell Josquin…). You can get it from Amazon.de for 18.99 euros or from the US site for roughly the same in dollars. This is actually the first album I recorded with Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, and it’s the first purely ‘early music’ album I’ve done for ECM since Hilliard Ensemble days (we went on to record Amores Pasados which was then released first). It’s by no means conventional early music though, with motets and a mass in new versions for two voices and two vihuelas (with two teams of vihuelists: Ariel and Jacob for Victoria, and  Ariel with Lee Santana for Josquin). It’s called Secret History because although cannibalising ‘acapella’ polyphony and performing it in this way was typical of the 17th century, the  modern early music movement has generally focused on the first pristine incarnation of the music rather than what musicians subsequently did with it (the real history which is too often ignored).  We’ve been inspired by later sources – in this case the English 17th century Paston ms which has both Josquin and Victoria side by side (though not pieces we do on the album). A little late in the day the four of us have decided to name our whole project Alternative History. The Dowland Project didn’t have a name until its second release, so we’re going a bit further with only half the name on our second one.  A while back I did an interview with Jazz Views which puts it all in  context (though it pre-dates the name). Our first concerts under the new name will be in Poland and Portugal later this year, and we’ll tweet about them nearer the time.  We’ll also be using the name for any permutation of the four of us when we’re doing programmes informed by these ideas. Jake and Ariel have recently released Cifras Imaginarias (on Arcana), an album of 2-vihuela intabulations which works in a similar way, and the three of us are working on a Morales project for next year.

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September is busy, and will include a Conductus concert with Rogers Covey-Crump and Christopher O’Gorman, a gig with Serikon at the Luther conference in Uppsala, a recital with Jacob Heringman at our course in Benslow, and the first Mare Balticum events with Cecilia Frode in Sweden. I’ll update the diary properly in a bit.

photos Guy Carpenter

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Gavin Bryars and Winestead

June 23rd, 2017

Yesterday’s event at Winestead was an extraordinary occasion. We did two performances of Gavin Bryars’ eponymous piece, having spent most of the day filming it as part of the Hull City of Culture project. The rector of St Germain’s church between 1614 and 1624 was Andrew Marvell, and it was there that he christened his son Andrew, who grew up to be the metaphysical poet. Gavin Bryars set lines from several Marvell poems which reflect the mysterious landscape of Holderness, and we performed them to an audience that included descendants of the poet himself. The evening was hosted by Nick Hillyard, himself a descendant of Nicholas Hilliard. The church is still lit only by candlelight, and once we had said goodbye to the elaborate film machinery, Marvell’s verses soared over Gavin’s music into the air that first welcomed them four centuries ago.

The film is being shown  at 7, Whitefriargate, Hull on Friday 30th June 5pm-8pm, Saturday 1st July 10am-7pm and Sunday 2nd July 12noon-7pm (admission free). We’ll be performing the piece again at the Albemarle Music Centre in Hull on June 30th (8.00 start, and also free) and it will be recorded and broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Biennial slot the following evening. We then do it again at London’s Festival Hall on July 8th (3.00 start nb – also free admission with ticket).

 

Dowland to Sting in Catalunya

 

Ariel Abramovich and I are doing three recitals for FEMAP (Festival de Música Antiga dels Pirineus) in July. The programme will be a mixture of Dowland and Campion with some Tony Banks, Sting and one of Jacob Heringman’s beautiful new Peter Pope intabulations. The first is in the Monestir de Sant Llorenç in Guardiola de Berguedà on July 28 at 22.00.

 

Image result for Monestir de Sant Llorenç de Guardiola de Berguedà

 

The next day we go to Ordino in Andorra, where we’ll perform at the Museu d’Areny-Plandolit (20.00 start).

 

 

Finally we’re at the Refugi de l’Estany Gento in La Torre de Capdella on the 30th. As far as I can see this is a hut in the mountains, so it should be an intimate occasion. It starts at 6.00, presumably to allow time to climb back down the mountain for dinner.

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I’m taking August off before a very busy September hits. I’ll post updates about the release of Secret History (due end of August), and also of plans for the future of my project with Anna, Jake and Ariel. We’ve finally (a bit late)… settled on a name: Alternative History. It won’t appear on Secret History (well, half of it will…) but we’ll use it in future when any permutation of the four of us does music that reflects our take on Amores-Pasados-type-early-music-related-performance. More anon.

 

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John Paul Jones premiere at the Swaledale Festival

May 18th, 2017

Amores Pasados at Grinton Church

We don’t often do gigs the UK, so when we do they’re really special. We were delighted to be in Grinton for the Swaledale Festival – pretty well home territory for Jacob Heringman and me, and Anna Maria Friman and Ariel Abramovich have often joined us in Yorkshire to rehearse so they’re almost local too. We’ve kicked off every secular programme with  John Paul Jones’ Amores Pasados  and we couldn’t resist doing it again this time, but we also premiered John Paul’s setting of Blake’s Cradle Song, which he wrote for us, having heard our York gig last year.

It was one our most memorable gigs ever, not only adding another fantastic JPJ piece to our repertoire, but being joined onstage by the man himself on mandolin and festival director Malcolm Creese on bass.

 

Musik i Syd

Before that Anna Maria Friman and I joined Daniel Stighäll and the Swedish ensemble Mare Balticum in Kristianstad, rehearsing a project for Musik i Syd with actress Cecilia Frode which will come to fruition with a tour in southern Sweden from the autumn onwards. I’ll post a list of dates nearer the time (there’s more info in Swedish here).

June 14-17 Nieder-Olm Festival for Young Voices

I’m returning to Nieder-Olm for another ensemble singing summer school with my old friend Werner Schüßler. There will be several young ensembles, who will take part in concerts in Kettenheim (16th) and Nieder-Olm (17th).

Werner’s new book is almost ready. This is a comprehensive and inspirational instruction manual for singers of all sorts. I’ve been metaphorically looking over his shoulder while Germany’s most famous Geordie has been working on this, the product of a lifetime’s engagement with singers of all descriptions.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble

June 22 Winestead, June 30 Hull, July 8 Royal Festival Hall, London

This will be a new commission from Opera North in connection with the City of Culture and the New Music Biennal (the ‘possibly one singer’ referred to is yours truly). Winestead church is believed to be where the poet Andrew Marvel was christened, and Gavin Bryars’ new work will have a Marvel text. The RFH concert is at 3.00 in the afternoon and tickets are free but you have to apply for them. You need a PhD in Googling to be able to do this…

 

Ongoing tenor musings

 

 

A couple of years ago I gave a paper at the Schwert Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte, Gegenwart conference and the book of the conference has just landed on my desk. It was a great conference and the book is full of interesting stuff – especially if you speak German. Mine’s the only chapter in English and it discusses the nature of the voice since recording began.

Red Byrd rides again

The progressive music site The Quietus has an interesting piece about Factory Classical, with a section on Red Byrd’s Songs of Love & Death album.  I prefer this pic to the rather boring one on  their site. There aren’t many of me in white trousers with red braces…

 

Well, it was the 1980s…

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Autumn release for Secret History

March 12th, 2017

The saga continues, and our Josquin & Victoria album will not now be released until the autumn. Think Christmas presents…

If you only know the songs by Sting, John Paul Jones and Tony Banks that the four of us recorded on the Amores Pasados album you might wonder how we got to Josquin and Victoria.  In fact, Josquin and Victoria was where it all began. Ariel Abramovich and I had been contemplating an album of Josquin, versions of his motets pared down for the two of us in keeping with our belief that the pristine ‘early music’ acappella performance of Franco-Flemish polyphony has misrepresented the way the music was mostly performed. This then evolved into a much more sensible plan to use two vihuelas and two voices, so we asked Anna Maria Friman and Lee Santana to join us. In the meantime it dawned on us that there was a Victoria anniversary coming up which we could approach in the same spirit. Lee couldn’t make the Victoria sessions so we asked Jacob Heringman (also a great intabulator whose approach was identical to ours). In one of those serendipitous ECM meetings Hille Perl happened to be there too, so she joined us for a couple of pieces.

The recording wasn’t easy – we were learning on the hoof how best to re-invent a performing style that was both unique to us and yet absolutely true to the spirit of the pre-baroque – and it was the first time each of the combinations had worked together. It was also the only time I’ve proposed a purely ‘early music’ project to ECM (early music being a concept that the label doesn’t really do). The Dowland Project uses early music as a resource – we live entirely in the musical present and have very little to do with the early music movement. Secret History, on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to challenge the conventions and assumptions of the ‘early music’ approach to historical performance.  The music lives in the present of course, but in just the same way as it lived in the present of 400 years ago.

The next chapter was the realisation that the combination of two voices and two lutes or vihuelas was not only the perfect way to perform almost any music from the 15th and 16th centuries, but that we could apply the same principles in a bit of reverse historical engineering to 20th century English song. From there it was a short step to asking Sting and Tony Banks to write something for us, and to revive the suite that John Paul Jones wrote for Red Byrd. In contrast to the occasional awkwardness of Secret History, the Amores Pasados recording sessions were pure joy, and even though the first album was ready to go it was decided to hold it back until after Amores Pasados. The rest, as they say, is History, and it’s Josquin and Victoria that we’ll be focusing on for the next season, alongside new developments in the Amores Pasados repertoire in preparation for a future recording.

There’s another reason this recording resonates for me. Amores Pasados was recorded at Rainbow in Oslo and our current plans assume studio recordings in future, so this may turn out to have been my last at St Gerold. This jewel-like monastery in the Austrian Alps was the spiritual birthplace of so many ECM projects. It was where the Hilliard Ensemble developed its formidable creative partnership with Manfred Eicher, where we did the first experiments with Jan Garbarek that resulted in the Officium and Mnemosyne albums, all under the kindly eye of its only monk (and wine buff), Pater Nathaniel.  Three of the Dowland Project albums were made there, the first coinciding with the attack on the twin towers which we watched uncomprehendingly on the monastery’s stuttering black and white television. More recently I produced Trio Mediaeval recordings there (or rather, I sat beside Peter Laenger). The legendary Pater Nathaniel had retired but the monastery garden was still producing its own organic food and the wine still flowed. I’ll never forget it.

 

St Gerold in the snow

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Roaming with Fauvel

January 31st, 2017

When the French poet Gervais de Bus wrote his epic satire featuring a corrupt egomaniac  sociopathic horse he probably wasn’t thinking that the wheel of Fortune (which also features in the plot) would come round again almost exactly 700 years later. My first engagement of the year took in both manifestations in rapid succession, with a performance of Presidentes in Thronis with Serikon in Sweden after which I was back in time for the anti-Trump demo in York (and we went straight on to La La Land to complete one of the most surreal 24 hour periods I can remember).  Musicians out there: if you want to protest, Fauvel is the perfect programming opportunity (it even has leaders adrift without a moral compass who can’t wait to curry favour with the beast).

I’ll be returning to Sweden with Serikon several times later in the year, and hopefully Fauvel will rear his ugly head at least one more.

 

It’s going to be another busy year. There will be a brief reunion with my old Hilliard Ensemble mates as we join Singer Pur for their twenty-fifth anniversary celebration at the Prinzregententheater in Munich on March 9. This collaboration was born at the Tampere Vocal Festival in the late nineties, after Singer Pur had won one of the major prizes. Klaus Wenk and I sat down to breakfast one morning and chewed over the idea of our two ensembles getting together at some point in the future. The project got off the ground with a commission from Joanne Metcalf, who’d been a winner in the Hilliards’ 1994 composition competition (and who wrote Doom-Begotten Music for me in 2003) and the two groups went on to do many concerts and a CD together after I left. Joanne will there for the concert, as will Gavin Bryars who is also a longstanding friend of the ensemble.

March 21 Ariel Abramovich and I will give a recital for the Wunderkammer in Trieste (there’s a Facebook page about it if you’re signed up). I haven’t been there since 1965 when hitch hiking through Europe after school. I went swimming with a Carabiniere who insisted on diving for oysters. I don’t think I even knew what an oyster was and having tried one I certainly wasn’t going to eat any more, so each time he brought one up I threw it back as soon as he submerged (possibly to bring up the same one over and over again). I’ll be trying a bit harder this time. Ariel and I will be doing our Dowland to Sting programme, which we’re also doing in July for a series of recitals in Catalunya in the FEMAP festival.

In May I’ll be returning to Sweden to rehearse the Musik i Syd project with Serikon and Ensemble Mare Balticum and then going on to Helsinki for some more PhD examining at the Sibelius Academy (and possibly some ensemble coaching if I can fit it in). Then the Amores Pasados season starts with a concert in the Swaledale Festival on June 4th. It’s possible that ECM will have released Secret History by then, and we’re still holding dates to record some of our new repertoire (including more fantastic pieces from John Paul Jones and Tony Banks).  In the middle of June I’ll be coaching in Germany, and at the end of the month Gavin Bryars’ new piece for the Hull City of Culture will have its first performance in Winestead church, followed by outings in Hull itself and the Royal Festival Hall. This project will renew Gavin’s association with Opera North, which began with the co-production with the RSC of  Nothing Like the Sun for the Shakespeare anniversary of 2006. One of the sonnets from Nothing Like the Sun is now in the Amores Pasados programme in Jacob Heringman’s arrangement for Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, himself and me, and this will be on our new ECM recording. I’ll be working with Gavin again in the autumn with performances of Nothing Like the Sun  in Leeds and Prague, and there will be a new commission with his band for the 40th anniversary of the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork next year.

 

More details on all of the above in  due course.

 

 

 

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Encounters with Veljo Tormis

January 23rd, 2017

Image result

Veljo Tormis 1930-2017

The York connection…

I first met Veljo Tormis in the mid 1980s, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union.  It was, I think, the Hilliard Ensemble’s first visit to Finland, and I was only dimly aware of the extraordinary, symbiotic relationship between Finland and Estonia. Two black-clad figures came up to us after the concert and thrust LPs into our hands. ‘I am Tormis’, said one – the only English he knew back then. His companion was the conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, and the records were of the recently formed Kammerkoor Ellerhein, later to be re-invented as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Both men were on a semi-legal visit to Helsinki from Tallinn. I went home and put the LPs on a shelf.

I was getting used to being given stuff after concerts, and I didn’t think about them until several months later when I pulled them out and had a listen. I was immediately hooked. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I could certainly recognise a good tune when I heard one, and here were scores of wonderful melodies, sung in that vibrant non-western way that was the hallmark of the old Estonian Chamber Choir. Time passed; I made many visits to Finland and Estonia. I finally met the great man again when the Hilliard Ensemble commissioned Tormis to write ‘Kullervo’s Message’ (he didn’t much care for our interpretation of it…too English!)…but we recorded it for ECM, and stole one of his Estonian Lullabies for Jan Gabarek to improvise over.

Then in 2006 I taught a project at York called Estonian Icons: the Music of Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis. It was an exuberant experience: Tormis himself visited the Department and we serenaded him in the staff kitchen; one of the students went on to win  the BBC writer of the year with an article on the composer.  The Department serendipitously came in for some rare extra cash and we bought the entire Tormis catalogue for the university library.

Veljo Tormis (4th from left) in the Music Department kitchen

It was one of my last and most exciting undergraduate projects at York and I’m so glad to have done it. We performed most of the Forgotten Peoples cycle in one memorable concert with The 24. It was a timely reminder that in the far corners of northern Europe there is extraordinary music that is fun to sing and moving to listen to, and that Veljo Tormis was a crucial part of the nexus between folk and art music (along with Bartok, Kodaly,  Vaughan Williams and other composers who have kept alive oral musics that would otherwise have been lost). It’s a cliché to say that a country’s musical soul resides in a particular composer, but if it’s true of anyone it’s true of Tormis. He dedicated his life to the recovery and dissemination of the music of the Baltic peoples. Estonia, that most musical of nations, will never forget him, and nor will we musicians the world over who were privileged to know him and to know his music.

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Coaching

January 11th, 2017

 

It was in my early years with the Hilliard Ensemble that I learned about coaching. The group ran its own summer school and had been asked to coach in mainland Europe, particularly in Finland and Germany. Our annual visits to Kangasniemi at the invitation of the Sibelius Academy – intense coaching sessions followed by traditional wood-smoke saunas and swimming in the lake – were the ultimate in combining business with pleasure. None of us had coached before, and it took a while for us to figure out how to do it. We were going through a huge change of approach to our own music making, moving away from the conventional leader/led string quartet model to a cooperative venture that would eventually revolutionise our ideas about how the music worked. We didn’t really know how we did it. It was an instinctive process – something we rarely talked about – and as we got more and more into it we rehearsed less and less, increasingly aware that no amount of rehearsal would reveal more than a fraction of the musical possibilities, some of which we would only discover in performance.  We enjoyed testing each others’ listening to the limit whenever we could, and on the Hilliard Live recordings in particular you can almost feel the risk-taking as we pushed the music into one-off new shapes (and that’s exactly how Officium worked). We were incredibly fortunate to work with a number of groups who would go on to become hugely successful – Singer Pur and Amarcord from Germany, Köyhät Ritarit and Lumen Valo from Finland and the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval were just the tip of an enlightened ensemble iceberg.  When I came to edit the Cambridge Companion to Singing some years later the ensemble singing chapter wrote itself – I’d had several years to contemplate how we actually did it.

It was very simple. Once you realise that every note you sing is communicating information to the others, and that you are similarly receiving information from them, all you have to do is listen. The person with the moving part effectively has control at any given moment, and in almost any piece of renaissance music the lead will pass from part to part. You negotiate in real time. It’s easy until someone tells you it‘s difficult, and it enables you to perform the music differently each time. You don’t expect a definitive performance and you don’t count the beats  – the text provides the rhythm. It’s endlessly creative, and was a far cry from the dull discipline we’d been brought up with – aim for a rehearsal close to perfection and reproduce it in performance; mark the score to make sure you got it exactly right, do as the director tells you.  I haven’t marked anything in a score for years – if something works I’ll remember it, if it doesn’t I’ll try something else next time. In the bad old days we used to mark exactly how long the final chords were. Why on earth would you want them to be the same every time?  The art of successful coaching is really to persuade your students that it really is that simple, and that they already possess the tools to make it work. So much more rewarding all round than simply telling them what to do.

Red Byrd, the Sound and the Fury and the Dowland project worked in much the same way; for me it’s the only way to work (it’s been a very long time since I worked with anyone who wanted to tell me what to do…).  I still coach some amazing groups (most recently Nobiles and Sjaella from Germany)and I’d certainly never dream of telling them what to do. Even the young musicians who did my ensemble singing MA at York (invented by the singers who would later become Juice) were given complete freedom to explore their collective creative personae once they‘d grasped the secret of how musical communication works.  In time the less courageous tend to revert to something more conventional and predictable, but I can always recognise those who really got it: you can never tell what they’re going to do next.

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Reading and Writing

December 8th, 2016

 

It’s been a while since I gave up the seasonal tenor repertoire, which means that while the cup of my younger colleagues runneth over with Bach and Handel I generally get December off.  January’s usually a pretty fallow month too so I have no excuse for not getting down to some writing. This process begins with as many displacement activities as possible (of which this is one). This year I’ve cleared the garden, laid a landing floor and even painted skirting boards before getting down to a kind of writing audit. It’s been a very busy performing year so my authorly optimism of a year ago turned out to be rather misplaced. I’m still struggling with a title, and with what sort of tone to adopt. I don’t want to alienate any more readers than absolutely necessary, but I can’t avoid some uncomfortable truths about the singing profession. I fully intend to get down it very soon…

I’ve been encouraged by the dozen or so publications which Google Alerts tell me have quoted Vocal Authority over the last year.  It’s bit weird given that it’s way past its sell by date and slightly disappointing that none of my more recent stuff has had such an impact – but I hope the sequel will be worth waiting for. The VA references are mostly in journal articles on topics ranging from folk music, musical theatre, jazz and ensemble singing to feminism and cultural theory, most published in the USA but with several from the UK and significant pieces in German and Finnish. I wouldn’t normally have the temerity to compare myself with Roland Barthes but one thing we have in common is that both Vocal Authority and ‘The Grain of the Voice’ are primarily critiques of classical singing, yet both have found relevance in other sorts of music and are mostly ignored by the readership the authors had in mind.

In the same sort of vein I’ve also been referred to in two new books: Tracey Thorn’s Naked at the Albert Hall (Virago 2015) and Timothy Wise’ Yodeling and Meaning in American Music (Mississippi University Press, 2016). Penny my wife is a big Tracey Thorn fan and I know many EBTG albums pretty much from memory so that was a real (and totally unexpected)) treat. Tim Wise takes me to task for not mentioning yodelling in either Vocal Authority or the Cambridge Companion to Singing, but Neil Sorrell and I get a Brownie point for a yodel mention in our History of Singing. I quite often  get complaints about what I’ve left out. The tenor book, inevitably perhaps, doesn’t cover everyone’s favourite tenor, and some of the more exotic singings of the world have tended to slip below the radar. But it still amazes me that anyone reads my stuff at all, just as I’m always surprised and delighted when I come across someone who’s bought my albums, and I don’t begrudge the complaints.

I can recommend both Naked at the Albert Hall and Yodeling and Meaning if you’re looking for last minute Christmas presents. I’m flattered to be quoted in both of them – not least because in their different ways they’re both great reads and a long way from the dry well of academia.

Merry Christmas all!

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Singing lute songs

November 3rd, 2016

 

I spent much of October singing lute songs in one form or another (with one or both of my fantastic collaborators Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman). As often happens I was asked at various points along the way to give lessons and classes. This is a difficult one – I like to encourage young singers and I don’t like to undermine the teaching of my fellow performers – but there’s very little about lute songs that an intelligent singer can’t work out for him or herself. It’s mostly a question of persuading them that they already have the means to do it, and giving them permission to suspend most of what they’ve been taught.

Obviously I can’t really charge a fee to tell someone they don’t need teaching so what I often do is invite them for a coffee and a chat. It’s free, and if they learn as much as they would in several lessons (as they sometimes do) it’s worth quite a lot. The first thing I point out is that Dowland, Campion and their contemporaries didn’t have singing lessons. They just applied their rhetorical instincts to the poetry and, probably with only minimal enhancement of their speaking voices, turned the poetry into song.  Our speaking voices are unique (which is why voice printing works) – they are the audible and aural representation of our personalities. No one would have mistaken Dowland for Campion, even if they were singing each other’s songs. Today’s trained singer is likely to be a generic tenor, soprano or whatever, and the price you pay for sounding like a proper tenor is some loss of your own individual vocal persona.  There are musical implications here too: modern breathing technique is what enables the legato line that we’re all taught to aspire to. No breathing technique: no line; no line: no tone colour. Horror of horrors…

What you’re left with when you take away the taught enhancements is a direct line to the poetry itself, a direct line from the creative bits of your brain to your voice. And there’s a bonus: you find yourself entering into a completely new relationship with the lute. It becomes your equally audible partner, not your inaudible accompanist. You breathe where the poet breathed, you adapt the music to the text and not the other way round. The lute can sing too, and the two of you merge into that extraordinary synthesis of words and music that is the 17th century lute song.  And you don’t really need a singing teacher to tell you that – it’s probably what you’d do if left to your own devices.

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