:: Dowland Project


Micro-managing…

Sunday, 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.

Cambridge History

Tuesday, 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

Saturday, 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.

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

 

Anon at the BBC

Wednesday, 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.

 

Dowland as early music and new music

Friday, October 10th, 2014

 

It’s been a heady two weeks. First Ariel Abramovich and I did a programme of Dowland and Campion (mostly of pieces we hadn’t done before) at the Sounds of Old Almada Festival in Portugal (just across the Tagus from Lisbon).

 

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Then The Dowland Project got together for the Enjoy Jazz Festival at the Old Fire Station in Mannheim.

 

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Both very different, and both exactly what I love to do. The lutesong recital was in an exquisite, tiny chapel – the perfect size and acoustic for voice and lute – so we could really engage the very attentive audience directly with the musical rhetoric. Os Sons de Almada Velha is a new festival (now in its third year), very much community based, and most of the listeners had probably not heard a lute song before. They loved it. Mannheim’s Alte Feuerwache is now a night club and we used a PA to create an acoustic. The audience was a sophisticated cross-section of people who’d learned to trust the eclectic taste of Enjoy Jazz festival director Rainer Kern and are continually exposed to music they haven’t heard before – but in this case to add to the many musics they’re already familiar with.

There was actually an overlap of one piece – Dowland’s Come Again. I loved the cool flexibility we could achieve in the Portuguese church, the intimate dialogue with the lute – it can’t have been that far from the kind of performance Dowland himself might have done, so you feel a real sense of history. But as always I was knocked sideways by the outrageous soprano solos from John Surman in the Fire Station. We tend to do it a bit more rhythmically, with Milos Valent embroidering Jake Heringman‘s lute part, and it’s always a struggle to keep a straight face after one of Surman’s blitzes on the material as the audience is still reeling when I have to start the next verse. The piece survived and was greatly enjoyed by both audiences. The Enjoy Jazz audience demanded a second encore and we’d only prepared one, so I sang One Yeir Begins to the guys (having first owned up to the audience that we’d never done it before) and they joined in and we made a piece. That sort of music making just makes your heart soar. It’s an amazing band to be a part of.

 

The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

The Hilliards and Jan were at the Enjoy Jazz Festival a little before us. Some reviewers have described DP albums as being a kind of coda to the HE/Garbarek project, and it’s certainly true that the Dowland Project wouldn’t exist without the earlier collaboration. The crucial thing they have in common is using early music as a resource, a point of departure. Although the Hilliard Officium and Mnemosyne albums were highly experimental we took the process much further in live gigs; at its most radical we could go on stage with one line of music that I handed to guys as we walked on, saying this is piece number 6 (or whatever) and we’d create something in the moment. It was absolutely exhilarating, and it was the urge to continue that kind of risk-taking that was one of the factors in my decision to leave the group. When Manfred Eicher suggested what eventually became the Dowland Project I had the means to do it.

To my great surprise – and I was very touched by the invitation – the Hilliards have asked me to join them for two of their last concerts with Jan Garbarek and to bring along some new 5 voice pieces for us to do. I’ll be at the Ely Cathedral gig on November 15th and the very last one in King’s Cambridge on December 6th. The King’s concert is sold out, but there are still tickets for Ely  if you’re quick. At the time of writing we don’t know what the new pieces will be or how they will work with 5 of us. We’ll find out on the night.

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Interesting collection of books in the foyer of the Wyndham Hotel Mannheim. I was reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and on the table were books on Bacon and veg…

 

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Tony Banks lute song in Almada

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Here are the details of the gig Ariel Abramovich and I will be doing in Almada this Saturday:

 

Almada flyer

It’s a programme of Dowland and Campion, apart from the final piece which will be the first performance of Tony Banks’ setting of Campion’s Follow thy Fair Sun. We have two more Banks songs making a set of three which we’ll record next month in Oslo, but this will be the first time we’ll have tried any of them live. It’s been a huge adventure, from persuading Tony to write the songs in the first place to transcribing them for lute and then figuring out how to sing them.  Of course, we won’t know how to perform them until we’ve performed them…

Next week I’m in Mannheim with the Dowland Project at the Enjoy Jazz Festival:

 

DonwlandProject4web_ger

You can find the details here.  We’ll be doing pieces from all four of our albums plus some experimental Schubert. All in all, an interesting week for lute songs in the twentyfirst century…

 

Happy Days to Enjoy Jazz

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

 

Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Enniskillen

Lovely time at the Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen last week. Peyee Chen and I sang the rarely-heard Irish Madrigals – Gavin’s setting of J M Synge’s translations of Petrarch – as a prelude to the legendary Iarla ó Lionáird singing both Gavin’s music and Sean Nos songs. We also got to play in Jesus Blood. This is a bit like suddenly finding yourself on stage with a rock star hero of your youth – something you never imagined could happen. I’m no keyboard player (as generations of students will confirm) but I couldn’t say no to Gavin’s invitation to join in in Vilnius last year. Needless to say, I made sure the volume was turned down so low that no one could hear my potentially performance-wrecking efforts, but this time I was a bit more confident and could actually hear myself. It’s an extraordinary experience – the Vilnius and Enniskillen performances were among the most moving musical experiences I’ve ever had. I’m always banging on about performers not experiencing real emotion on stage – that way madness lies – but with so many and simple repetitions you somehow get hypnotized into the real thing. Then there’s that stunned silence at the end as the audience realises it won’t actually last for ever, as the tramp finally leaves the building accompanied by Tom Waites.

I see the Hilliards are there this week doing their amazing Heiner Goebbels theatre piece – one of the last opportunities to catch this if you haven’t seen it.

Secret History

There’s no sign of a release date from ECM, but we’re very excited about our first live concert at the Victoria festival in Avila on August 29th. The Hilliard Ensemble will be there too as artists in residence, so you’ll be able to compare an ‘a cappella’ way of doing things with our voices + instruments realisations. One obvious difference is that the four of us (Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and me) will be doing music in five or six parts.

We’ll also be rehearsing our new pieces by Sting, John Paul Jones and Tony Banks for the recording in Oslo later in the autumn.  Ariel and I hope to do the first performances of the Banks pieces in Portugal in October.

Coaching in Germany

I’m delighted to be coaching again with my old friend Werner Schussler in September at the Sing Akademie Saulheim. Ensembles on the course include the wonderful Nobiles from Leipzig, whom we coached in Engers two years ago.

Lutesongs in Portugal

In October Ariel Abramovich and I will spend some time in Seville recording a video before driving to Almada in Portugal for a recital of lutesongs. This may be an opportunity to try out one or two of the new settings of Campion written for us by Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks.

Potter & Abramovich

Dowland Project in Heidelberg

Shortly after this I’ll be in Heidelberg with the Dowland Project for the Enjoy Jazz Festival. The programme will have music from all our albums including the Night Sessions, and will also be a chance to hear our latest foray into Schubert. We’re not intending to do any more recording, so if you want to hear our latest material you’ll have to come to a gig.

Dowland Project

Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek

The Hilliards are in Heidelberg with Jan Garbarek the previous week. Strange how we seem to be following each other around in this their final year. They’ve just asked me to join them for the very last concert with Jan in King’s Chapel on December 6th – back to where it all began twenty-odd years ago. I hope we won’t be too tearful to sing. The very last concert will be at the Wigmore on December 23rd. Not sure how they’ll be able to get through that one, but I’ll be there cheering them on.

Turning on again

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

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Well, after almost a year with no sound system I’ve at last fixed up the hi-fi (as I still call it, pretty lo-fi though it actually is). When we unpacked all our stuff in the new house I was determined that the vinyl wouldn’t go straight into the attic and that I would from now on play the originals where possible. I’m not an audiophile and I never understood the shock-horror that many of my friends felt about compression – Radio 3’s full spectrum is all very well but hopeless if you can’t hear it in the car.

The big question (and I stalled for weeks, wanting both to savour the moment and not be disappointed if I got it wrong) was what to put on first. I eventually whittled it down to either With the Beatles – the first LP I bought (it took a whole term’s pocket money) or the first Stones’ album. Mine is almost illegibly inscribed ‘love Charlie’, whom I’d serendipitously met in Denmark Street on an unsuccessful attempt to find a publisher for some songs. I had hair in those days – and he was, appropriately enough, sufficiently out of things to think I was a girl. Slightly more worrying was the occasion later that year when I was crossing an Alpine border on my way to Istanbul and the guard referred to me as female until he looked at my passport; but then I was wearing something that looked more like a blouse than a shirt. The last time my gender was impugned was in the 80s when a BBC announcer introduced me as Joan Potter. I was quite a high tenor then but I did have a beard.

In the end ‘Roll over Beethoven’ got the vote (I’ve always preferred Chuck Berry to Beethoven so there was probably a bit of a subtext there). The needle skated across the record, giving me a bar or two of one track before alighting at random on various others, ending up with that bit in the middle that goes round and round. Hopeless. I gave in and put on the CD.
Performers often don’t listen much to music – music’s something you do rather than something that’s done to you. I’d expected my year of hearing only live music to refresh my palette and re-awaken the listening gene. To start with it felt great, but in time I began to miss my favourite recordings, bizarrely especially the ones I never played because it was enough to know that they were there on the shelf. But now I’m back to ‘normal’ I mostly don’t want to listen even to them. The thing is, there’s far too much music that you can’t help hearing – and far too much of it auto-tuned (pace Catherine Bott’s inventive advocacy). You begin to understand why John Cage and Arvo Pärt started from silence.

There was one area where I couldn’t help cheating: I was occasionally exposed to live tv performances. The best of these was Jake Bugg on the Graham Norton show. I’m obliged to sit through Graham Norton as my wife’s a big fan (though even she keeps it on mute till he’s finished shouting his intro). I don’t know if they have an inhouse arranger but if they do whoever it is has a knack of enriching the material in an almost Mahlerian way. I was so entranced by Jake Bugg’s rendering of ‘Broken’ that I bought the album – and a poor thing it is compared with the Graham Norton live version. This had everything you could possibly want in a pop song – incomprehensible lyrics, references to sixties tunes (esp Beatles), ace backing singers, drummer on another planet – but best of all a belted out gut-wrenching chorus – delivered by a singer who can’t possibly have any idea of what his listeners are creating in their own heads.

Sorting through my CD collection – the hundreds that are left having given boxes of them away, my juices do begin to flow a bit. It’s tempting to put on some Tallis or Josquin, but the best performances are in my own head, a blend of half-remembered actuality and wishful fantasy. Then there’s Mahler…