:: Alternative History


Remembering Roger Williams

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

Every now and again something happens to remind me that the life of a freelance performer is not quite the same as those who do a regular job. You share with your fellow musicians the excitements and the uncertainties of life on the road or in the studio and you have to get to know people pretty quickly, often working in intense bursts with people who briefly become great friends but whom you may never see again.

A few months ago I was contacted by Gillian Williams, wife of the trombonist Roger Williams who died earlier this year after a long struggle with cancer. Gillian had some photos that she thought might be of me, that Roger had taken back in the eighties. Would I like them? The first rule of being a performer is never listen to your recordings and the second is never look at your photographs, so it was with some trepidation that I asked Gillian to send them. I’ve lost count of the number of photographers I’ve met over the years, but some stand out. My earliest pro photographer memories are of sitting on a canon in the Tower of London with the Gentle Power of Song while someone from Polydor tried to get us to take the session seriously. Some years later Colin Gibbs took the iconic shot of the Swingles in a mason’s yard that became the cover of Madrigals (but what impressed me most was being driven around in CBS art director Roslav Szaybo’s brand new E-type Jag). The Douglas Brothers pics for the cover of Red Byrd’s Songs of love and Death were also spectacular (Factory Records sparing no expense).  The Hilliards used to dread photo sessions, but every so often Roberto Masotti would hit the mark between espressi at his Milan place (the Officium cover is one of his) and Tonmeister Peter Laenger was, like Roger Williams, a musician who also had a very sensitive eye for a visual composition. The other cover pic that stands out is Anna Tchernakova’s shot of Anna Maria Friman and me for Gavin Bryars’ Oi me lasso – Anna looking serene as ever and me close to death with ‘flu. More recently I’ve had some windy, wet and wonderful times with Guy Carpenter and the Alternative History project (there was a wonderfully orange reproduction of his water shot in the programme booklet for the Poznan Nostalgia Festival last week).

Seeing Roger Williams’ photos brought back a sheaf of memories from so long ago it seems like another life. As a musician Roger knew what it was like to be photographed, to have to summon up enthusiasm for something so vital and yet so tangential to what we do. We were all struggling young(ish) musicians then and it probably cost him more in film than I was able to pay him. The results still look convincing after thirty years. I probably first met him around 1983 as there’s a set of shots from the one gig I did with Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, Rogers Covey-Crump, Margaret Philpot looking very young.

Sometime after that there’s a set of formal portraits to send to promoters and agents (in which I look uncannily like my son Ned who’s now several years older than I was then) , and from 1988 a series of publicity shots for Henry Brown’s ‘And the Word was made Flesh’. This was an elaborate theatre piece that subsequently got me into no end of trouble. The pictures are from a dress rehearsal and Henry hadn’t finished constructing the set so Roger had to capture the spirit of the work with none of us quite knowing what the show would actually look like.

The plot was based on the pataphysical concepts of Albert Jarry, and took place in and around a giant vagina…

…and involved a complicated sound and light set-up as well as monkey masks and rather fine waistcoats.

One of the props was a ‘Physick stick’ –  part pistol and part loo-plunger. The score specified one shot, standing on one leg behind the audience before I clambered onto the stage while everyone was still in shock. The business end of the physick stick – a German bird-scaring pistol – hadn’t arrived in time for the photo session so we had to improvise:

After the first performance I was advised that theatres would require me to have a gun license so I took the contraption to the Essex Police fire arms department, who clearly thought I was bonkers (it’s not me guv, it’s the composer!) but conceded that I’d better have the right paper work. By the time it came through I’d done what turned out to be the last performance and I forgot all about it until a knock on the door a few years later. ‘About your gun, sir…’. ‘What gun?’ ‘The one with the expired licence…’ I retrieved it from the attic. The somewhat bemused WPC obviously hadn’t seen a physick stick before but after some rather surreal discussion she granted me an amnesty on the condition I gave her a carrier bag to take it back to the nick without anyone seeing it. I later kept the props (including a large plastic penis and two infra-red sensitive monkey costumes) in my office at York, and left them there for my successor to enjoy.

‘And the Word’ was the most elaborate and most fun theatre I piece I ever commissioned. It was also the most exhausting, needing hours to set up and take down (it had 8 channel tape wielded by the legendary John Whiting), and I just couldn’t keep it up. The photo session was also the last time I remember seeing Roger. He went on to become one of the most successful bass trombonists, and I got very busy with the Hilliard Ensemble and the newly-founded Red Byrd. I remember him as a warm and charismatic fellow musician with a huge amount of patience. There’s a wonderful online tribute to him by the trumpeter Paul Archibald. I think I only worked once with Paul, and that was on the first performance of part of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag at Riverside Studios under Richard Bernas. It was my first experience of Stockhausen and led indirectly to my being one of the few performers paid a huge sum not to appear at Covent Garden when I understudied the role at very short notice a few years later. My audition piece to Stockhausen and Michael Bogdanov was the monkey dance from ‘And the word was made flesh’.

with huge thanks to Gillian Williams

Nothing like the sun in Leeds & Prague

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

 

I haven’t sung Gavin Bryars’ great Shakespeare cycle since the Australia trip a couple of years ago (though we did Sonnet 128  with Alternative History in Querenca last week).  This  time I’ll be joined by Sarah Dacey (famous soprano from Juice – who many moons ago was the first student to brave doing an MA with me at York). The Leeds performance is at the Howard Assembly Rooms at 7.45 on Wednesday 25th, and then we go to Prague for a performance on the 27th at the Archa Theatre.

Alternative History

We had a great time in Portugal last week and I’m looking forward to our next gig in Poznan at the Nostalgia Festival on November 18th. Jake, Ariel and I will then record some Josquin back in the UK the following week. Our dedicated page on this site is now up and running and you can find more details of the project here.

Cecilia Frode’s Från det blå skåpet 

I’m back in Sweden for the last week November for the intriguing Cecilia Frode project with Serikon and Mare Balticum. I now know something of what Cecilia’s script is about and it’s fascinating to watch the audience’s reactions to Från det blå skåpet. And yes, I do wear tails but so do the women, and I get to wear blue shoes.  Duo Lingo tells me I’m only 13% fluent in Swedish. Better than the 1% I got down to earlier this year though.

I’m taking most of December off. This is what the current diary looks like:

October 25 Gavin Bryars Nothing like the sun Howard Assembly Rooms Leeds

October 28 Gavin Bryars Nothing like the sun Archa Theatre Prague

November 18 Alternative History Nostalgia Festival Poland

November 24 Josquin recording with Ariel Abramovich & Jacob Heringman

Novermber 29 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Teatern i Falkhallen Falkenberg

November 30 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Växjö Theatre

December 1 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Kalmar Teater

 

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Not very close encounters

Some months ago I had a bizarre phone call. Are you the UK’s world expert on John Dowland? Er…well…I spluttered, modesty and all that… It was someone from the production company making the Philip K Dick series currently showing on Channel 4. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before I found out anything more, and then I was sent a script for Crazy Diamond, which went out last night. My task was to teach one actor (Steve Buscemi) to teach another actor (Sidse Babbet Knudsen) a bit of Flow my Tears, to enable them to operate some sort of electronic key and burgle a building.  A few weeks later I turned up at the rehearsal studio but the two stars needed very little coaching from me. I always try to get singers to sing like actors and here were actors actually doing it (there are plenty of YouTube clips of both of them in action). They were so good I told them they didn’t need me at the actual filming, which was a bit silly, on reflection. Oh, and they said they were going to use the track from my Dowland album over the credits. They didn’t.  Steve and Sidse were lovely by the way – and he’s still got my tuning fork.

The Dowland Project will be doing gigs in Germany next autumn.

Alternative History

Amores Pasados was taken by British Airways for their transatlantic flights, and Secret History is continuing  the tradition: it’s been selected by Oman Airways. This weekend we’re in Portugal at the  XIX Encontro de Música Antiga de Loulé Francisco Rosado. It’ll be the first time we’ve appeared under our new name. It’s a special Shakespeare-orientated programme but we’ll also be doing a couple of Josquin pieces. Next month we’re in Poznan and there are lots of gigs next year, so far in Spain, Poland and Ireland, and even (possibly) in the UK.

Alive or Dead: my life in composers

I’ve been asked to do a composers’ seminar at the Music Department. It’s the first time I’ve been back apart from concerts or seeing old friends. I thought I’d talk about composers I’d worked with since I left. But then I thought why only seven years – I’ll do all sixty since I was a choirboy. That’ll teach them. It’s at 4.00 on Tuesday in Sally Baldwin D008, Music Department, University of York. Open to all – it would be great to see some old friends there.

 

 

 

ALTERNATIVE HISTORY

Friday, September 1st, 2017

Alternative History has a number  of things in common with the Dowland Project, the most obvious of which is that we didn’t settle on a name until after the first release (2nd, in the case of AH).  The name business is a really tedious question to wrestle with (we just want to get on with the music) but it’s obviously important for concert promoters and agents. My own only slightly egotistical take on this is that we’re all already known to most of our likely audience, and a new name would mean starting from scratch. We managed to release Amores Pasados under our own individual names, but this led to endless confusion about the name of the album vs the name of the ensemble, a problem which got even worse when Secret History came along. I very much wanted this to have everyone’s name on the front – like everything we do it’s a totally collaborative effort. But having tried several drafts, ECM just couldn’t fit us all on. The result, ironically, is just my name in massive letters. I love the ECM design criteria and I absolutely understand the aesthetic, but it doesn’t always work in favour of the musicians and can have unintended consequences. The Guardian online review has our  great Guy Carpenter puddle pic (above) but talks of Potter going solo, which is to completely misunderstand the nature of our work (mind you, one of the German papers talks of ‘the Potter phenomenon’, which no one’s ever called me before). Anyway, the important thing is that the album is out there, and we’ll be featuring a Josquin & Victoria programme alongside Amores Pasados. In the duo programmes with Jake and Ariel we’ll also be doing some Josquin alongside Banks and Sting, and Jake and Ariel will be including duets from the album in their duo programmes. We also have a brilliant Alternative History pdf which we’ll be sending to promoters. I’ll  put up an update with press comments etc later this month, and when I have a bit of time (unlikely this month) I’ll do a dedicated Alternative History page. There’s a bit of video and an extract from the Victoria Benedictus on the ECM Facebook site here.

 

 

There hasn’t  yet been a Gramophone review of Secret History but the September issue has a retrospective of all the Les Noces CDs, of which the 1990 Hyperion recording I did with James Wood comes out top of the pile. We’re in some very distinguished company, so it’s quite an achievement. It was a wonderful Anglo-Russian collaboration,  myself and Jane Ginsborg with the formidable Elena Medvedovskaya and Alexander Nazarov (who were very tactful about our pronunciation). I think it’s the only time I’ve recorded in Russian (the Hilliards didn’t record the early Part pieces, though Alternative History has plans…).

This is the diary for September:

8            Conductus   Romaldkirk

15           Serikon         Uppsala (Luther conference)

18           Benslow        Book of Lost Lute Songs (with Jacob Heringman)

18-21     Benslow voice & lute course with Jacob Heringman

27           Serikon/Cecilia Frode      Kristianstad

28           Serikon/Cecilia Frode      Halmstad

29           Serikon/Cecilia Frode      Ystad

30           Serikon/Cecilia Frode      Malmo

To come: Alternative History in Portugal and Poland, Gavin Bryars Nothing Like the Sun in Prague and more Serikon/Cecilia Frode shows in southern Sweden

 

Alternative History

Thursday, 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

Gavin Bryars and Winestead

Friday, 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.