:: Lute song

S(no)w business like…

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

Triskel travel terminated…

We tried very hard to get to Cork for the Alternative History concert in Triskel’s 40th birthday series but the weather gods eventually won.  Jacob Heringman got as far as Holyhead before turning back after my flight was cancelled. After all Tony Sheehan’s hard work to get us there I just wanted to cry, but we’ll have another go later in the year. If you’re sitting in Cork airport with a cancelled flight, the album is on Spotify… or you can catch us soon in Poland, Spain, the UK or the Canary Islands.

Islas Canarias

So I now have a few days off before going to the Canary Islands with Ariel Abramovich for the Sacred Music Festival. Our programme there is a new one and is the first in our 10th anniversary season. The title In This Trembling Shadow comes from the eponymous song in Dowland’s  Pilgrim’s Solace. We’ll also be doing the famous Thou Mighty God trilogy from the same book, Campion’s Author of  Light and motets by Victoria. In between there will be movements from Byrd’s 3 voice mass.

The first recital is at the Iglesia de Santa Brigida in Gran Canaria on March 16th. We then go to Tenerife and the Iglesia de Las Clarisas in  La Laguna on March 17th, and finally to the Iglesia San Francisco in Sta.Cruz de La Palma. Three evenings of intensive music making in amazing churches (and much as love snow it’ll be relief do go somewhere where there isn’t any).

Tristram Shandy

I come back to England for the Tristram Shandy celebration on March 22nd before re-joining Ariel in Madrid the next day on our way to Ecuador.  For the concert at St George’s Hanover Square I’ll be getting together briefly with my old Hilliard Ensemble colleagues for a performance of Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick. This promises to be a hugely entertaining evening with readings and music on the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s funeral in the same building.

Festival Internacional de Música Sacra Quito

This will be my first visit to Ecuador, and we’ll be starting with a workshop on the 24th, then concerts on the 25th and 26th. The programme will be In This Trembling Shadow, and once again in extraordinarily beautiful churches. The Festival website isn’t up and running yet, so more details to follow.

Flammarion Correspondences

At the beginning of April I’ll be spending a week at Trinity Laban working on Edward Jessen’s Flammarion Correspondences. This is a preliminary exploration with a production company intended to produce promotional material which will appeal to theatrical promoters in the UK and Europe. We’re aiming at a work-in-progress preview on Friday April 13th.


Life after Josquin

Jacob Heringman and I had the first outing of our Josquin programme at Newcastle University last week. We were asked not to cross the picket line and to cancel the concert, but I came to an amicable understanding with the union having gently I pointed out that they were expecting us to give up our meagre fee so that they could have a better pension and I couldn’t recall any of my old academic colleagues volunteering a pay cut so freelance musicians could be paid more. I was all prepared to thank a tiny audience for crossing the line and announce that we nevertheless supported the strike, but was completely wrong-footed when we went on stage to one of the biggest audiences for a lute song recital that I’ve seen for a while.

Our next performance, probably of this programme or something very like it, will be one of the smallest at a house concert in York.  We’ll be doing two performances (with tea and biscuits!): 2.30 for 3.00 or around 4.30 for 5.00 on April 22nd.  Unlike our previous one in the hugely resonant King’s Hall this will be very intimate, and perhaps not unlike listeners in the early 17th century might have experienced it (I don’t think I’ve ever performed in such a minimal acoustic, and I hope it doesn’t sound like my front room).  You can book a seat here but be quick as it’s likely to be full.

In May we’ll be back to a more resonant acoustic in the 12th century church of All Saints Sutton Courtenay. We’ll be doing parts of all three Byrd masses as well as Jake’s transcriptions of Warlock, Moeran, Peter Pope and Stephen Wilkinson at the English Music Festival.


There’s a longer list of ECM-related gigs on the ECM site.




Singing lute songs

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016


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

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

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