:: Dowland Project

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).



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



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.


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:



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…


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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.

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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…

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ECM News

Friday, April 18th, 2014

ECM News – Secret History

Great news on the ECM front.  We’ve agreed the final version of Secret History and are awaiting confirmation of the release date. We’ll be doing the first live version of the programme in Ávila  on August 29th (Anna Maria Friman and me singing, with Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman lutes) and we hope it will appear in time for this festival in Victoria’s birthplace. The programme will consist of the Surge propera mass and motets by Josquin Desprez, giving an idea of how this fantastic  music was performed after its brief incarnation as acappella polyphony.

Amores Pasados

ECM has also agreed recording dates for Amores Pasados. This is hugely exciting – we’ll be doing a new version of John Paul Jones’ eponymous pieces (with Anna Maria Friman doubling on Hardanger fiddle) and Sting has sent me an exquisite song he originally wrote for Russell Crowe to sing in Robin Hood (for whom it proved  far too delicate…). I’ve been an admirer of Genesis’ Tony Banks for longer than I can remember, and he has composed three beautiful songs to poems by Campion which we will do alongside Campion’s originals and some Dowland. We’re also contemplating at least one Schubert song (‘Pause’ from Die schöne Müllerin that Jake and I did for the BBC Schubert remix) and a Schumann duet or two.  There may be other surprises (a song is a song is a song…).

There are more details about both these projects here.

Dowland project news

We’ve been invited to take part in the Enjoy Jazz festival in Heidelberg in October. More news soon.

Conductus project

The final recording is now being edited and we expect a release date in the autumn. We’ve collected enough letters of intent for the AHRC grant application and hope to be doing lots of concerts and workshops next year both in the UK and on the mainland. This will be the Three Medieval Tenors version with me, Christopher O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump (who will by then have finished his grand Hilliard Ensemble farewell tour).


Apologies…we think the reason you haven’t been getting updates is that somewhere along the line the program became incompatible with a WordPress update. I’ve now had Mailchimp installed. It’s much simpler – just give it your email address and the rest will happen by magic.



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History of Singing

Thursday, December 19th, 2013


History of Singing paperback

book cover

I know we’re not supposed to support Amazon because of the tax business, but I have to congratulate them on the Potter & Sorrell paperback. I always pre-order a copy of my own albums and publications on Amazon as it’s a good way to know if they’re really out. This time my Amazon copy reached me three days before an email from CUP telling me it would be published on February 13th. CUP helpfully included a link to the book’s CUP page but this turns out to be the one for the American hardback copy (125 US dollars, in case you’re interested).

Victoria in Avila

Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I have our first live performance since the ECM recording a while ago, in Victoria’s home town in August. We hope this will really kick start our alternative history of renaissance sacred vocal music as dynamic accompanied song rather than the usual bland a cappella polyphony.  We’re negotiating for more concerts in Spain around the same time; more details soon. There’s no news of the recording we did for ECM a couple of years ago yet, sadly.

Dowland Project Night Sessions Press

Night Sessions cover

It’s been good to see the reception for the final Dowland Project album. This ensemble was very much an ECM creation and couldn’t have happened on any other label. When the Night Sessions first came out there was a flurry of (mostly quite perceptive) press on the web but the UK print media were much slower to take it up. I recently caught up with the monthlies and was quite touched by reviewers who really seemed to get it. We have no plans for more albums, and it feels good to complete the set with a radical retrospective.  I gather that the University of York Music Department has the DP as one of its Impact case studies to be submitted to the government’s so-called Research Excellence Framework;  very gratifying, though somewhat ironic since we’ve never had any truck with ‘Excellence’ as the government understands the term.

International Record Review had it as one of five Outstanding recordings of the month. Ivan Moody even forgave my ‘extra-terrestrial’ Portuguese pronunciation, and I’m deeply flattered by the references to jazz and smokey night clubs.He concludes:

Barry Witherden enjoyed it in BBC Music Magazine too:

Dominic Clements in Music Web International had some reservations, but sort of got it:

You can find additional reviews, mostly online, in my previous post on the subject, and here’s a sample of thoughts from the blogosphere:





Hilliards at 40…

If you scroll down or go to here you can read my blog, written as the mini tour went along. I’ll be doing gigs with the group in Leeds (Howard Assembly Rooms) and Seville Cathedral in April. Details soon.








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Sound & Fury, 3 Medieval Tenors…

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013


Caron cover

Sound & Fury Caron review

Long review of the Caron box set in the US mag Fanfare (http://www.fanfaremag.com/content/view/52971/10262/). The reviewer comments on the fact that we don’t do concerts but just focus on recording. He then adds that we must do a great deal of rehearsal as such recordings would impossible without it. Hmmm…which just goes to show you can’t tell anything about the rehearsal quotient just by listening to the results. When we’re all competent sight readers and have been singing the same texts since childhood, and have literally decades of experience singing 15th/16th century polyphony what would rehearsal achieve? If anything we’re more in need of a reverse-engineered concept that would enable us to unlearn what we know all too well: risk-taking not reinforcement, negotiation on the hoof, not sanitized pre-planned effects. In practice, the S&F recordings are mostly not the first takes so the music does evolve during the recording process, but what evolves is the musical conversation we have with each other, not some over-reaching concept of how the music should go.

The obsession with rehearsal is basically a 20th century phenomenon. Perfection is a very Modernist concept and there’s not much evidence of anyone doing very much of it before Wagner. Coincidentally, I learned at the weekend that the King’s Singers do a two hour rehearsal before every concert. That must surely make it more likely that a performance will just sound like another version of the rehearsal.  I have fond memories of early Hilliard concerts with Jan Garbarek, where TV crews would sometimes ask to come and film us. We’d say no, and they’d say well let’s film the rehearsal then. We’d  tell them we didn’t rehearse but might sing a chord to test the acoustic and that would be it. They’d never believe us, and would be mightily exercised when we turned up, sang a chord and then went for a cup of tea while they removed the gear they’d spent hours setting up.

Rehearsal, if you must do it, is more like Qualifying or Practice in Formula 1: it’s about making sure everything works – it has nothing to do with the race itself, where if you’re not absolutely in the moment you might lose everything.

The reviewer didn’t like the cover, incidentally, but he wouldn’t be the only one there. We’ve had some great feedback though, just people emailing to say how much these recordings mean to them – which is hugely gratifying.


Conductus 2…3 Medieval Tenors

Bernhard Jung 0420 resized

Hyperion will release the second volume in the first week of December, for anyone looking for an antidote to Christmas recordings. We’re now planning for the 2015 season, by which time all three CDs will be out and we’ll have a huge repertoire to choose from. We’ve also been debating whether or not to give ourselves a name. The recordings are Conductus 1, 2 & 3, and we refer to the whole process as the Conductus project (the full name of the research project that the live concept has been developed from is the rather cumbersome Cantum pucriorum invenire: finding a finer song). From its initial focus on recording the two-tenor repertoire the project is gradually morphing into a three-tenor performance platform, a process which will be complete when Rogers Covey-Crump becomes more available from the end of next year. We plan to focus specifically on the extraordinary Conductus repertoire for the foreseeable future but may eventually diversify into slightly earlier or later music (or possibly something slightly more radical one day). The term Conductus isn’t (yet) on everyone’s lips, so we’ve started to use the sub-title ‘three medieval tenors’ to give more of an idea of what we’re about. For the record, we do rehearse this music – but that’s because we read from facsimiles as far as possible and they not only take a bit of figuring out but the notation actually shapes the music. But as the pieces become more familiar we rehearse them less, so we can reinvent them each time.


Ambrose Field in Rumania


It’s been a while since Ambrose and I worked together on Being Dufay, and I’m very much looking forward to his new commission for tenor and amplified strings to be premiered at the Jazz in Church Festival in Bucharest next April.Here’s a reminder of our Leipzig gig: http://vimeo.com/41348327


The Dowland Project

There’s been lots of press interest in the Night Sessions on the web, but relatively little in print media. I wonder if it’s that the new media appreciate the risk-taking, whereas the papers look at the date and consider it past its sell-by date (which, for some of it, was indeed a while ago). I’m still very proud of it, even though I sometimes can’t help thinking about what we might have achieved had it come out even four or five years ago.

Here’s a few recent samples from the blogosphere:






Coaching Swedish speaking Finns

I love coaching ensembles. It doesn’t matter if groups are newly-formed amateurs or experienced professionals – there’s always a creative conversation to be had. I had a great time in Helsinki at the weekend, though it was very weird to hear almost no Finnish as I was a guest of the oldest Swedish-speaking male voice choir.   They still have that mordant Finnish sense of humour though:

me: What’s this next piece about?

tenor: We sing it at parties.

bass: Yes, it’s a funeral song.

me: ?

bass: At midnight we turn the lights out, sing it and then carry on partying.


me (on seeing a poster saying FAN in big letters): Does this mean what I think it means?

tenor: Probably not.

me: We get a lot of Swedish TV cop shows in the UK…

tenor: Ah, well it probably does then.

me: How do you manage with just the one swear word?

tenor: We swear in Finnish.

Sadly, I got home to discover that my lovely A3 had been wrecked (together with the four cars parked next to it) by a builder’s van, so I’m entering a period of mourning while the insurers sort it out. The one crumb of comfort was that West Yorkshire Police and LV Insurance have been terrific – efficient and courteous all the way.



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…and from the Colosseum to The Forum

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013



Following the Hilliard Colosseum experience last week I had a great Conductus concert in Otterberg with my fellow medieval tenors Chris O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump (for whom I’d been deputising in Rome). Very efficiently organised as always by the Kultursommer Rheinland-Pfalz. Fabulous acoustic – it’s the biggest church in the region after Speyer. Great review in the paper too, which also noted how much the audience enjoyed it. German audiences are the best! Our research gets more and more integrated into our instinctive way of doing things. We began and ended with monophony, but the ending had a sort of mini alternative history of how polyphony might have evolved, as the monophonic conductus degenerated into elaborate chords swirling round the acoustic before stitching itself together again for the final line. It was huge fun. I’ve updated the Conductus page on this site.


Last week I was invited to take part in one of the BBC World Service Forum programmes.  The format involves three experts from different but related disciplines coming together to discuss a topic refereed by the presenter, in this case Carrie Gracie.  The topic this time was Breath. I was in the studio with Carrie  (as a singer and writer on things vocal), and my fellow panellists down the line were  bio-chemist Renato Zenobi in Zurich and author William Bryant Logan in New York.  A regular feature of the programme after it breaks for the News is one of the panellists ranting for 60 seconds on the one thing they’d do if they had the power to change the world. We each had to submit a proposal which was then voted on by the Forum office to decide whose brilliant idea would be unleashed on the 180 million World Service listeners. I was the lucky winner, with my proposal to disable all electronic forms of music reproduction and storage, and to impound all scores of western art music which would then have to be recreated from memory.  To my great surprise (and for the first time ever, apparently) my fellow panellists both supported the idea.

In fact, the debate on my megalomaniac proposal didn’t really get off the ground because of time considerations, but our discussions on the main topic were wide ranging and often quite bizarre – especially Renato Zenobi’s work on breath printing and Bill Logan’s extraordinary engagement with Air. Carrie Gracie’s hosting was an object lesson in live radio (we did it straight through as though live) – absolutely on the ball every second of the time – and Bill and Renato (as I now know them) were both formidable and friendly. It was good to hear extracts from Accenti queruli (from the Dowland Project’s Care-Charming Sleep album) and Parce mihi (Officium) too.

I was a little distracted because as I was on my way to Broadcasting House I saw the legendary broadcaster Peter White coming towards me. He’s been a hero of mine for a long time and I just had to go and do the gibbering fan thing, attempting to tell him how much I loved his programmes and what an inspiration he’d been to me. I could hardly speak –  he must have thought I was absolutely bonkers. Thankyou very much he said, and went smiling on his way.


The programme will go out on Sunday/Monday, 28/29 September, depending on where in the world you are. UK  broadcast times on DAB, cable and Freeview are: Sunday 00:05 and 11:05, and for insomniacs Monday 03:05. For times and how to listen outside the UK go to  http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmeguide/. It will also be available online  from Sunday 29 September and there’s a podcast (available for four weeks after the radio broadcast): http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/forum or through iTunes.


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From Machaut in Acadia to Perotin in the Colosseum

Friday, August 30th, 2013


The Acadian Machaut was a wonderful experience – the combination of Peter Togni’s exquisite additions mediated by Jeff Reilly’s constantly creative bass clarinet  was a recipe for some great music making. Singing with Suzie LeBlanc and Charles Daniels again was a joy (both have made unique contributions to the Red Byrd discography: Suzie in Ivan Moody’s Passion & Resurrection and Charles’ revolutionary Record of John especially). And it was great to hear Canadian mezzo Andrea Ludwig too. Canadian hospitality is legendary and it was also good to chat with audience members. There are people over there for whom Red Byrd’s Songs of Love & Death was a life changing experience, and even some who’d bought Being Dufay!


We resolved the pronunciation problem by using French Latin for the Machaut bits and Italian for the Togni interpolations. This worked really well, and makes it clearer for listeners which is which. Well, up to a point – very little is unadulterated Machaut as almost all of it is mediated by Jeff Reilly’s stunning playing, weaving between styles and centuries. We did four concerts in beautiful Nova Scotia, and then recorded it. Look out for the CD – and if we do more performances come and hear it. Much of it has that spine chilling quality that comes when you get great composers (one living, one dead, in this case) and imaginative & sympathetic improvisers sparking off each other. The Togni/Reilly partnership is a formidable one.


I arrived back to a request to join my old Hilliard Ensemble colleagues in the Colosseum in Rome on the 15th.  No details yet – all I know is that I have to leave Helsinki at the crack of dawn and it’s probably Perotin. I guess this time the Christians will score an overwhelming victory if the PA is anything like what they use for rock concerts. My last ancient Roman experience was also with the Hilliards in the  theatre at Ephesus. That was an unforgetable experience, and unamplified. The Roman acousticians knew what they were about.


Next on the agenda is the Conductus conference at Southampton. Chris O’Gorman and I will be singing in various musicological presentations as well as doing a short concert with Rogers Covey-Crump (and film) on Monday 9th. This will be the first live performance by we three medieval tenors,  we’ll follow it up in Germany with a full length outing in the great church at Otterberg on the 22nd. The Conductus II CD is now ready to go and will be out in time for Christmas…


Cantum image


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The Night Sessions – Press so far

Saturday, August 10th, 2013


On not being a music critic…

Eons ago I had a brief career as a music critic, writing reviews for a (now defunct) contemporary music mag called Contact. I’d sent them a rather naive piece about the birth of Electric Phoenix and its raison d’être – my first attempt at writing anything – which they wisely rejected, but I was very flattered when they then asked me to review concerts for them: it meant not only getting into print but getting into concerts for free.

I managed a couple of pieces, but very soon realised that I couldn’t do it. I was cocky enough to think I could produce a clever piece of writing, but I couldn’t do the critical bit. I knew only too well what it took to put on a concert –  this was in the days of the old avant-garde when each piece took half a life time of rehearsal –  and I couldn’t just dismiss a performance in a few glib phrases. The more I looked at what music critics did, the more it seemed that the most engaging reviews were often at the expense of the performers or composers they were writing about.

I eventually cottoned on to what proper critics already knew – that it’s an art in itself and people read reviews as much for the writing as the written about. So I stopped writing (until I began my PhD some years later) and carried on doing the music itself, accumulating reviews rather than creating them.

Not many performers admit to reading reviews or caring about them, but I’m pretty sure we all do. I think this hesitation probably goes back to when we were starting out and seriously worried about the effect we were having. After all, a run of bad crits could spell serious doom. But if you’re fortunate enough to survive beyond that, the chances are you’re getting good ones so you can stop worrying.  The worse thing then becomes when you get no reviews at all. There’s also that stage where you’re no longer described as ‘a young artist’. I was mortified to be called ‘an early music stalwart’ after one Wigmore Hall recital, and realised that I’d crossed the border into musical middle age. On the other hand, sometimes credit comes from unexpected quarters. I sang the role of Pilate in Arvo Pärt’s Passio for many years, and not once did I get a mention (there were more interesting things grabbing the reviewers’ attention such as the multiple evangelists and singular crowds). Then one day I opened the Chicago Sun Times to find myself described as ‘effete and degenerate’. It’s great when they get what you’re on about, but can be just as good when they get it completely wrong. At least he wasn’t bored, presumably.


Critiquing the critics


The Dowland Project has been lucky enough to get reviews which are almost always positive in most respects (there’s a selection of quotes on the DP page here). It’s partly because we don’t do ‘the music’ in the usual way – the performances are the product of our peculiar dialogue with each other, which is as important as whatever the composer’s contribution might have been. Then there’s the fact that we come from different musical traditions and are on a label that’s famous for challenging its listeners (and have a producer like none other on the planet); we’re very dificult to categorise. All this tends to produce a more thoughtful engagement by reviewers and sometimes elicits some remarkable writing.


Reviews for the Night Sessions have started to appear, and it’s very gratifying that they all seem to get it, so far. My favourite is from the Czech site Arta. The Dowland Project has always had a following in the Czech Republic (and Slovakia and Slovenia too) so perhaps it’s not surprising. The anonymous writer doesn’t just quote from the liner notes, but has also read my contribution to Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007) where I told the story of the recordings in a bit more detail (and which I’d completely forgotten about).   He then goes on to reference other ECM recordings that we band members have done, and ends with selected press quotes for our three previous albums. It’s everything a fan could wish for: comprehensive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.



This is by the legendary John Schaefer, whose programme New Sounds for Radio NYC is rather like Radio 3’s Late Junction. JS really knows what he’s talking about so I was very gratified to be described as ‘one of England’s most thoughtful and expressive singers of both early music and considerably more modern fare’. He’s very familiar with our work, so his contextualising of the new album is spot on. He also picks up on the bizarre Solage piece which is another of my favourite tracks, and makes the point that sometimes you can’t tell what’s improvised and what’s composed. ‘The pieces flow together beautifully, linked by a sonic environment and a noir-ish approach… with its sustained, nocturnal mood and subtle musical surprises, this is an album that reveals more of itself with each listen.’


Financial Times

The first UK broadsheet print review, here David Honigmann has a short (but 4*) piece referencing Duran Duran’s ‘looser, darker and more intriguing’ material which they recorded at night. A slightly off the wall comparison, but I’m not complaining. ‘John Surman’s saxophone bubbles amid violin from Maya Homburger or Miloš Valent (depending on date); John Potter’s tenor voice impels and summarises.’


Irish Times

Michael Dervan in The Irish Times was also hot on the trail, with a running outdoor territorial metaphor. ‘The members of the Dowland Project – tenor John Potter, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, saxophonist and clarinettist John Surman, violinists Maya Homburger and Milos Valent and double bassist Barry Guy – not only cross fences whenever they want, but also set up encampments wherever they choose… The whole comes across as a kind of jam session in which things blur to the point where there are simply no fences to be seen.’ I like the last bit – several tracks really do defy categorisation.



John Surman and Barry Guy have huge reputations in the jazz world, and several jazz publications (especially on the web) have had a serious look at our stuff. Nick Lea, like many jazz reviewers, really understands the musical relationships – how improvisers can talk to each other even from different necks of the musical woods:

 The ‘improvised’ pieces are quite remarkable in the breadth of the music conjured out of the air as it  were. Potter and Surman’s rendition of ‘Corpus Christi’ so complete that it could be almost through   composed. ‘Swart mekerd smethes’ takes the opening from Surman’s bass clarinet and the plucked  and bowed strings of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger to an at times violent and  confrontational relationship with the text; whilst the quintet improvisation on ‘Man in the Moon’  takes on a much more sympathetic approach  to the words.

He’s in no doubt about which pieces are improvised and which are compositions, and he recognises the key role of the producer:

 The two contrasting methods to music making employed on this outstanding recording are as different  as, well as night and day, but provide a music that is absorbing and stimulating. The  satisfaction and interest is in how these musicians from different musical genres, and different  improvising traditions, come together and tackle not the notation but the flexibility of working from  minimal predetermined information towards a shared musical experience. It was a truly inspired  move on the part of producer,Manfred Eicher to return t the studio and let the musical sculptures captured here evolve.


Chicago Tribune

The first American print review talks about the past conversing with the present, and loves the results, which

represent a marvellous flight of time-travel across entire centuries and cultures – post-crossover riffs on everything from a Portuguese pilgrim song to Byzantine chant to Italian and French lute fantasies. If you’ve never heard soprano saxophonist John Surman’s imaginative dialogues with folk fiddle,  ancient plucked instruments, modern strings, winds and percussion, you’re in for quite an aural  odyssey, just the ticket for late-night listening.

So listen to it late at night, and you may be lucky enough to hear a larger ensemble than was actually there…


Rutcracker.org (Russia)

Review by Blair Sanderson

Recorded in 2001 and 2008, Night Sessions is the fourth album of the Dowland Project on ECM, drawing on music of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods as raw source material for improvisation. Leader John Potter is joined by Stephen Stubbs, John Surman, Barry Guy, Maya Homburger, and Milos Valent, all experts on antique and modern instruments who create a mysterious dialog between the past and present by crossing boundaries of style and expression. Much of the music they have reworked is anonymous, derived from fragmentary pieces or ancient chants, though there are a few pieces by known composers, such as Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Bernart de Ventadorn, Solage, and Pierre Attaingnant, and their music is also subjected to the group’s unpredictable adaptations. This album is not for early music purists or people who like to put their music in neat cubbyholes, because the blending of consort music with avant-garde jazz and experimental vocalizations does not allow for easy categorization. Yet the album works surprisingly well on its own terms, not only because of its compelling feeling of darkness and melancholy, but also because it provides many inventive transformations and surprises that keep the listener thinking. It may be called crossover music for the sake of convenience, but Night Sessions really is sui generis.


There are more to come, and lots in Eurpean languages which I haven’t yet translated.  Let’s hope they continue to be positive, and that maybe we’ll get the odd gig as a result. We certainly do odd.

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