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Tampereen Sävel!

June 9th, 2019

Last week I was invited back to Tampere to join the celebrations for the 30th contest for vocal ensembles.   I stopped chairing the ensemble jury four years ago and I still get Tampere withdrawal symptoms in the first week of June. I first joined the jury 28 years ago and chaired it for 22 years, so it was wonderful to be back. I’ve written many blog posts about the Tampere experience – there is nowhere else on earth where singers can experience such joy and warmth, and for audiences and participants alike it’s the one event in the acappella calendar that no one wants to miss.  This year was very special for me, as for the first time I could enjoy the performances without having to judge anyone. It was such a relief! We always made the point that it’s not actually a ‘competition’ – that the competitive element is only the excuse to bring everyone together to celebrate the music we love – but you can’t help being conscious of the fact that of the twelve groups you hear on the first day only a small number will be winners. I was asked to say a few words at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the contest’s 30 years and I should have realised that there would have been a translator on hand. The sensible thing to do would have been to write something down and deliver it in short chunks, but as usual I tried to busk it, got carried away and became increasingly lost in ever longer sentences, which the translator (the formidable Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, one of the country’s most distinguished choral composers) had to distil into Finnish. I eventually gave up before I got to the bits I really wanted to say. I have all my notebooks from every jury session. Many of them are undecipherable or incoherent-seeming as they’re full of crossings-out, bemused comments or even comments on my fellow jurors’ thoughts. No one else will ever see them, of course, but they are a reminder of just how difficult it is to compare ensembles from the different genres and cultural traditions that the contest encourages. It’s actually an impossible task. I also have the CDs of the final concerts that were made for several years, and these sometimes confirm that we got it right, and sometimes make me wonder if we may not have done. The standard in some years was ridiculously high. In 1999, for example, the final concert included Rajaton, Amarcord and Trio Mediaeval, all of whom are among the most successful vocal ensembles on the planet.

With every contest we would revisit the rules, and this evolution was comprehensively documented in the commentary that accompanied the photographs in the exhibition (drawn from the Kalle Kaihari archives and beautifully translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). It was this kind of attention to detail that kept the contest in the moment and not dependent on a traditional set of conventions. We always looked for originality, and we almost always found it. This year was one of extreme contrasts for me as a listener. The groups came from Europe, Turkey, South America and Uganda; the overall winner was flamboyant Danish group Sønk , with the German Ensemble Nobiles (sometime coached by yours truly) winning the acoustic category. There were some stunning performances as always. The evening concert was  billed as a special 30th anniversary concert with Club for Five and the Tampere Philharmonic, though I wasn’t the only one totally bewildered by what turned out to be a rather middle of the road programme of film music. Later though, we heard Tuuletar in Telakka, the bar/restaurant that acts as a kind of festival club. This group of four women singers had only been together a year when they came to Tampere in 2013. My notes mention their beautiful voices, dynamic stage presence, total commitment and original arrangements. I place them third, but as the jury discussions ebbed and flowed they end up without a prize. That’s juries for you.

Yet here they were, pioneering an entirely new genre – folk hop – blistering vocals and dynamic choreography, with no attempt to ‘entertain’ the audience in a conventional way. We were just witnesses to an intense emotional outpouring. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood the visceral heart of it. It was the highlight of the festival for me, and exactly what the festival has been about for all these years.

I hope they’ll ask me back  for the 40th anniversary, and I fully expect the festival still to be the place to hear the world’s best ensembles. Where will ensemble singing be then? I still have my wish list – no onstage note giving to break the spell, a post-beatbox percussion that is generically vocal and doesn’t try to imitate a percussion section? Maybe make a start by not miming the instrument you’re imitating (sooo infantile these days…)? Maybe groups could not start by thanking everyone (we know you’re grateful…), and please please don’t say ‘enjoy…’? I live in hope. Oh, and no film music…

Thankyou to everyone for three decades of great music making and wonderful hospitality – to my fellow ex-jury members, to the magnificent and long-suffering jury secretaries, to executive director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, to Eija Koivusalo and her team, and to whoever first got me into all this (was it you, Heikki?). And very best wishes for the next thirty years!

June/July concerts

May 14th, 2019

Just back from another trip to the Trollhättan Festival in Sweden. A drone strike at Frankfurt airport where I had to change planes on the way out caused complete chaos and I ended up running the length of the airport and just made it before they shut the door. Post-Brexit and without freedom of movement I wouldn’t have made it (and doing the gig at all may even have been just too much hassle). I’m sure anyone reading this in the UK will vote Remain on the 23rd…

Tampere Vocal Festival

At the beginning of June I’ve been invited to the 30th Tampere Vocal Festival, where I’ll be saying a few words at the opening of the ensemble contest exhibition. I chaired the jury for more than 20 of those years and it’ll be great to revisit the Manchester of Finland (now famous for skateboarding as well as singing and its Scottish heritage).

Concerts in the UK

Even though Jacob Heringman and I live less than fifty miles from each other we most often meet somewhere on the European mainland at an Alternative History gig (often Spain) to which he has travelled by train and for which I have blown the carbon on a plane. This month we’re being a bit more carbon neutral, beginning with the screening of Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film for which we provided the music (and subsequently re-used for our own Brexit video). We then have four concerts in the UK: two with the Herschel Trio, one with Pellingman’s Saraband and a lutesong recital of our very own.

The first of these is on June 15th at the  Alwinton Summer Festival when we’ll be joined by Susanna Pell for a mix of old and new music including the winners of the Alwinton Composers’ Competition which we’ll workshop earlier in the afternoon.  Then on the 22nd we’re in Stanhope with the Herschel Trio:

and then on the 23rd we have a concert in York at St Olave’s church:

 

The programmes for these two concerts will feature a unique copy of the Queen Elisabeth Virginal. This exquisite instrument formed part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, and its decoration includes both the Royal Coat of Arms, and an image of a Crowned Falcon standing on a tree stump, hence our title.

A couple of weeks later, on July 6th we’ll be appearing in York again, this time in the Late Music series. This will be an all-20th/21st century programme and we’ll be repeating the winning piece from Alwinton as well as Jake’s transcriptions and arrangements of early twentieth songs by Warlock, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and others, together with some of the songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting.

…and Portugal

On July 21st I’ll be at the Marvao Festival  for a rare foray into Mozart. I’ll be singing the Missa Solemnis K 337 with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Juliana Banse conducted by Christoph Poppen (with whom I recorded Hilliard Morimur album many years ago).  The next day David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing an extended version of the programme we did in Sheffield cathedral last year, based on Dufay’s L’Homme Arme Mass (at the  Igreja de Santa Maria / Museu Municipal, starting at 4.00.

After that I have a break until the Dobrs Festival in the Czech Republic in August. It’ll be a unique one-off with Milos Valent and Ariel Abramovich. More details in a while.

 

Details of these and other ECM-related concerts can be found on my page on the ECM site.

 

Singing into space

April 5th, 2019

A Tweet from Mark Summers about a blog post of mine on the subject of  acoustic space turned out to be rather timely. Although in the post I seem to be reconciled to amplified sound I sometimes still find it very problematic. Last night I did Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun (with the incomparable  Claron McFadden and phenomenal Gavin Friday), and as has become the norm the performance was amplified. I had the same reservations about this as I’ve sometimes had when Alternative History has to do amplified performances in concert halls, and although I think the performance probably worked it was a struggle to get there, all day while trying to get the sound right and in the performance itself (which invariably feels different from the sound check). This is not to detract from the work of the sound guys, who are awesomely competent and very patient on these occasions, but it’s about the nature of vocal sound and technique, what you do with it and who ultimately controls it. As I’ve written many times before, part of the joy of almost all the singing I’ve done has been interacting with the acoustic (it was in the Hilliard Ensemble’s DNA). I’ve often said the building is your amplifier, but it’s more like a palette that enables you to mix your vocal colour. This sound painting makes each performance as unique as the building it happens in, and I’ve been fortunate to perform in some amazing spaces from huge cathedrals to factories and lava tubes.  The first thing that happens when you use a mic is that you’re no longer negotiating with the acoustic, but with a virtual sound world created by the guy (I’ve only ever encountered one female sound person) on the desk. So instantly a huge part of your reason for being a singer vanishes – all that nuance, the micro-adjustments that you make depending on what comes back at you, not the heart of your performance so much as its guts.  The second thing that happens is that you adjust your technique to the fact that you’re suddenly very loud, so one of the main pillars of your conventional technique, the need to project the sound into a space while shaping a phrase, becomes redundant. Of course, you are still negotiating an acoustic space, but it’s mediated by someone who’s trying to minimise the effect of the building you’re in and create an entirely different one (reverb units are calibrated according to the type of building you want, so your own attempts to influence the acoustic are doomed to failure). You no longer balance your sound with your fellow musicians, you get a feed from a stage monitor and someone else determines this crucial musical relationship (another of the great joys of performing) for you.   You’re somehow partially de-humanised from the very first note, before you even get to the actual music (and Nothing Like the Sun has some of the most beautiful Bryars moments in his entire output so you can see why it bothers me). It’s no wonder some of us tie ourselves up in knots when faced with a sound system. Do you relax your technique, stand back and hope for the best? Leave it to the guys on the desk, we’re always told, so your performance leaves your mouth and you have no idea what’s going to happen to it.  Of course, none of this applies to proper microphone singing, which is an art in itself (and I’ve done plenty of that too) and in Nothing Like the Sun listeners have the opportunity to experience microphone singing from Gavin Friday – an absolutely electric wielder of the mic – and two classically trained singers who are simply being amplified. I wonder what a Martian would make of it.

My other complaint about amplification is an aesthetic one: a live performance should be unique, ie different from any other performance. Sound systems create a kind of ideal soundscape in which everything is optimised as far as possible, so they tend to sound all very similar (and they’re almost all very loud). Very few musicians I know are expecting to give an ideal performance, just one of an infinite number of possible ones unique to the occasion. And as an audience member I don’t go to a concert hoping that it will sound just like a louder version of a ‘perfect’ CD recording – I want something special to that occasion, that building, those performers. It’s rather ironic that we can spend all day trying to get the concert sound as good as it is on your hi-fi, while in the studio we try to get everything down in one or two takes and make it as live as  possible.

Brexit Music for REMA

March 29th, 2019

photo: Guy Carpenter

Last night Jacob Heringman and I had the privilege of performing to REMA, the European Early Music Association who were having their annual conference in York in solidarity with their Brexit-Benighted English colleagues. Although it didn’t perhaps have the poignancy that it might have had if it had really been Brexit Eve, it was nevertheless a moving occasion and we chose a programme that reflected our mutual sense of loss. When we decided on the pieces several weeks ago we didn’t know what the Brexit state of play would be, and it turned out that we were none the wiser last night either. We ruled out offering the assembled delegates an indicative vote on what sort of programme they might want (after all, they might have voted for none of them and told us to come back on Monday) but we did replace Dowland’s Now O Now I needs Must Part with Campion’s Leave Prolonging Thy Distress.  Sadly, we couldn’t show our video of In Darkness Let me Dwell, but I was able to describe our walk along the Brexit cliff edge to the post-Brexit ruin in which we burned our music to keep warm. And we were able to include Compere’s Omnium Bonorum Plena where the composer prays for twelve of his fellow citizens of nowhere, and Cipriano’s madrigal about the joys of coming back, finishing with what has become our Brexit anthem, Finisterre. We were even able to acknowledge the Irish backstop with the Vaughan-Williams/Sheamus O’Sullivan Twilight People as an encore.  A huge thankyou to the legendary Delma Tomlin for hosting the event and inviting us to be a part of it, and also to ECM who provided us with a very stylish discography, the outer pages of which are above and below.

In darkness – the making of…

March 1st, 2019

To commemorate our REMA performance on Brexit Eve (March 28) Jacob Heringman and I persuaded Guy Carpenter to create a video to go with our recent recording of Dowland’s In Darkness Let me Dwell (originally recorded for Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film).  The inspiration for the shoot was a session the three of us did last year at a ruined cottage high up in the Dales, and the plan this time was for us to walk along an appropriately Brexit-like cliff edge and arrive at the ruin where we would again burn our scores to keep warm in the post-Brexit landscape. The window of opportunity consisted of  a just a few hours of the one day we were all free, which miraculously turned out to be the hottest winter day ever with the most amazing light.

We walked for what seemed like hours through the heather, with spectacular views on all sides

as the sun got lower and more dazzling with each step

until Guy launched his drone.

We had to work quickly as the clock (Brexit-like…) ticked away, so  we set off on our cliff-edge trek into the sunset,

eventually arriving at our destination, where we lit the fire

and managed to get it all in the can before the sun sank out of sight

 

You can see the result on YouTube here

Projects for 2019

December 7th, 2018

In darkness…

My last event of 2018 was recording John Dowland’s In darkness let me Dwell with Jacob Heringman for Mark Burghagen’s film of the final soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II launched in February  on the anniversary of the King’s death in 1400.  Dowland’s most melancholic piece  seemed not only appropriate for the Shakespeare but also for most of the likely Brexit scenarios. This Guy Carpenter photo of Jake and me in a post-Brexit landscape (burning our scores to keep warm) is the inspiration for a video that we’re making to coincide with our private valedictory performance to European early music promoters on Brexit Eve, which will use In Darkness as the sound track.

Alternative History

On February 15 the Alternative History ensemble got back together for gigs in Madrid (Amores Pasados) and Barcelona (an all-Josquin programme). It was a great start to what promises to be another busy Alternative History year  and the press loved both events:

Rompiendo barreras con “Amores pasados: de Dowland a Sting”, de Alternative History

Desprez en la intimidad

http://revistamusical.cat/critica/ars-perfecta/

The various fractals of the Alternative History project will also be busy, and I’ll be doing recitals with both Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Jake and I have more UK gigs,including  John Casken’s Alwinton Summer Music, which will feature a composition competition for a new lute song. We’ll then repeat the winning entry in York’s Late Music series. John Casken wrote Sharp Thorne – one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s signature pieces – and it will be great to catch up with him again. Jake and I will also be doing concerts in York (including a special Brexit themed event on Brexit Eve for the REMA conference at the NCEM) and we’ll repeat our Dufay mass with countertenor David James in Portugal.

Bryars and Beyond

I’ll be doing Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun in Hull in April and returning to Trollhättan for the TrollhättansTidig Musik-dagar with Serikon in May, and there will be new collaborations in the summer. More soon…

Trio Mediaeval

Plans for the new project with Trio Mediaeval are coming on apace. The programme is called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus, and will celebrate the extraordinary connection between Reims and Nicosia at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th. The manuscript known to musicologists (but not to many performers or audiences) as Torino J.II.9 is an extraordinary collection of ars subtilior polyphony and chant by a single unknown author who clearly knew the music of Guillaume de Machaut. We will bring the two strands together in performances of the Machaut mass and a Cypriot mass of a generation or two later.  At the moment we have concerts lined up in Norway, Germany and the UK (details to follow when we’ve worked out a coherent schedule). 

 

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 Nazis).

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.