:: Red Byrd


RED BYRD: the final update

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

R&J

 

After something over twenty five years of exhilarating flight, Red Byrd has landed for the last time. We were asked to join Fretwork last week for a programme of street cries in the Spitalfields Christmas Festival, which serendipitously brought us back to our starting point: a CD of almost identical repertoire which we recorded with Fretwork in 1988. Miraculously, we were joined by the legendary Harvey Brough, who also sang on the first recording (and was still wearing the same outfit). It was a great way to go.

Richard Wistreich and I have slightly different memories of the birth of the Byrd. I remember it on a tube station somewhere, he’s pretty sure it was on the steps of the Albert Hall (pretty well opposite his office at the RCM). Wherever it was, we’d done a concert together (possibly for Andrew Parrott) and began to speculate on what we might do beyond the fulltime groups we’d been associated with (the Hilliard Ensemble in my case, and the Consort of Musicke which Richard had just left). We’d both been energised by our work with Bernard Thomas’ London Pro Musica, in particular a concert of Italian renaissance carnival songs at the Wigmore Hall. Determined to prevent the clichéd  applause that automatically accompanied the opening of the doors on the Wigmore stage we leapt in dressed as Mafiosi and carabinieri. Not sure you could do that these days without triggering armed response (lucky it wasn’t Aldeburgh with its links to the government’s immigration police). Harvey, in true Mafioso style, placed his (empty) saxophone case on the front of the stage where it stayed till he took it away at the end as we strode into the audience distributing biscotti. As it said in our publicity material, Red Byrd believed that the point of singing the music of the past is to illuminate the present.

The idea of a two-man group with no fixed repertoire and open to anything was never going to be anything other than a nightmare to sell to promoters, and we were extraordinarily fortunate to find in Robert White an agent who was prepared to give it a go. Things actually moved very quickly to start with. Soon after the Cries recording we were taken on by Tony Wilson’s iconic Factory Classical and we made the Songs of Love and Death album. We also had another large slice of good fortune when Dominic Barrington (a former Hilliard manager) offered us a contemporary music network tour.

The Discography

Songs of Love & Death Factory FAC 336 (1990)

Vocal duo Red Byrd’s collection wilfully mixes the haunting formality of 16th Century Italy with uncharacteristically lovely settings of poems by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones! Unfortunately for Red Byrd, it’s the use of modern guitar and bass that really catch the attention, particularly in the twisted, fractured textures of Frank Martin’s’Trois Poems‘ Cerysmaticfactory

L&D

One of the ideas we had was the thought that there might be rock musicians willing to experiment beyond their comfort zone, and I knew from organist Chris Bowers-Broadbent (who once famously performed Passio with a nose bleed, stemmed by the handy application of a certain sanitary product obtained from the soprano soloist) that John Paul Jones had written classical pieces. Richard and I had both worked with Tragicomedia (Stephen Stubbs, Andrew Lawrence King and Erin Headley) so we decided to ask John Paul to write something for voices and continuo (if you take away the drum kit rock music is bass lines, chords and tunes, just like Monteverdi). TC spent a day going through their paces with the Led Zepplin bassist, at the end of which John Paul was completely familiar with 17th century compositional practice, and a few months later the score of Amores Pasados arrived in the post. John Paul preferred to use baroque instruments though he could have opted for electric guitars, as Steve, Andrew and Erin had volunteered to play these for Frank Martin’s Poemes de la Mort (two electric guitars and bass guitar, paralleled by two tenors and a bass). Steve had played with Chuck Berry in his youth, but Andrew and Erin bought and learned their instruments specially for these pieces. As far as I know it’s the only Frank Martin recording which uses fuzz/sustain. TC also used electric guitars on a couple of Monteverdi duets (one of which I did with myself as Doug Nazrawi had to get back to Paris), and what was then the only recording of any piece by Brian Elias, beautifully sung by Linda Hirst (with me on hurdy gurdy) – which segued into Richard singing one of his great Monteverdi hits. And of course, the album also has Harvey Brough’s The Red Bird, with words by his then girlfriend Emma Freud and drum machine programmed by his brother Rex. On the tour we did Sting’s They Dance Alone as an encore. Heady times.

Our first concert with Amores Pasados was actually in the Musikfest Bremen in 1989 (somewhat to the disappointment of a handful of Zepheads who came expecting something altogether more hairy). Like many British ensembles we hardly ever worked in the UK and basically earned our keep in Europe, and we went on to do gigs in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Finland. More recording contracts followed, notably with Saydisc, Naxos and Hyperion.

Elizabethan Christmas anthems Saydisc CD-SAR 46 (1990)

Christmas

 

This gave me an hour of the greatest pleasure CD Review.

 

Beautiful performances … consummate musicianship. I recommend this recording without reservation Viola da Gamba Society of America.

 

 

Morley: Joyne Hands Virgin VC 7 91214-2 (1991)

Joyne hands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New fashions: Cries & Ballads CRD 3487 (1992)

nEW fASHIONS

 

 

Red Byrd are the undisputed masters of the Cry… Gramophone

 

 

 

 

 

Gibbons: Songs & Anthems Naxos 8.550603 (1994)

Gibbons

Beautifully performed and finely recorded, this selection of Gibbon’s music is especially attractive on account of the variety of its programme. Gramophone

“…if I had to have only one disc, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Naxos collection of Consort and Keyboard Music, Songs and Anthems.” BBC Radio 3 September 1996

 

 

 

Byrd: Songs & Anthems Naxos 8.550604 (1994)

(also Naxos sampler Classic CD 14)

Byrd

 

This is a fine anthology…if you have no Byrd, put your next £5 on this. Early Music Review

 

 

 

 

 

Tomkins: Consort Music Naxos 8.550602 (1995)

Tomkins

 

All the performances are excellent. American Record Guide

Well worth buying and will win Tomkins many new fans 

Early Music Review

 

 

 

We continued to explore English renaissance church music with both Fretwork and the Rose Consort. New Fashions, basically Nancy Hadden’s project, was a much more relaxed and radical attack on the cries repertoire but the most memorable was the Elizabethan Christmas anthems which we did with the Roses for Saydisc. We wanted to explore the speech-like declamation that renaissance singers used but didn’t want to invent some spurious olde Englishe so we opted for modern regional accents. Charles Daniels’ This is the Record of John was particularly spectacular (and when I was a lecturer I used to compare it to the King’s Cambridge recording that I sang on as a treble). We used a similar approach for the Naxos recordings with the Rose Consort.

Monteverdi: Balli & dramatic madrigals Hyperion CDA 66475 (1991)

Monty

One of the most perfect CDs ever made. Unsurpassable: glorious music, superb performances and hair-raising sound. The performers, engineers, and Hyperion Records deserve the highest praise (Classical Express)

At the pinnacle of current Monteverdi singing on records (Fanfare, USA)

Blow: Awake My Lyre Hyperion CDA 66658 (1993)
Blow2Delightful‘ (Gramophone)
Red Byrd’s recordings have been consistently superb … and this recording is no exception‘ (Fanfare, USA)
‘Another revelatory disc in Hyperion’s wonderful ‘English Orpheus’ series … Treasures to savour from a fine composer’ (British Music Society Journal)
First rate. Add to the excellent performances a clear, balanced recorded sound, and you have a highly recommended disc’ (In Tune, Japan)

 

Purcell: Hark how the wild musicians sing Hyperion CDA 66750 (1994)

 

Purcell2
‘These are by far the best recordings of these wonderful works to have come my way … exactly as Purcell must have envisaged it’ (Classic CD)
‘”Recommended” is far too mild; this is an absolute must-have for anyone irretrievably bereft of a musical soul’ (Fanfare, USA)

 

 

 

Ivan Moody: Passion & Resurrection Hyperion CDA 66999 (1997)

 

Moody2Intensely spiritual, but also readily accessible in its gentle simplicity to the average listener . . . A strange work, filling the uncertain ground between liturgy and drama. But a perfect choice for anyone wishing to penetrate deeply into the meaning of the most austere season of the Christian year’ (Gramophone)
‘This is given such a compelling performance on this recording that there are times when it touches sublimity’ (Choir & Organ)
‘A piece that will, I am sure, find fans and advocates. It is honestly expressive and extremely well performed, and for those who share Moody’s religious beliefs it may very well be a moving experience‘ (Fanfare, USA)

 

We moved into the baroque with our first CD for Hyperion,  Monteverdi dramatic madrigals with the Parley of Instruments; we went on to record Blow and Purcell with the same team, and Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection. We’d first performed this with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Tampere International Choir Festival in 1993 and recorded it in Holland with Cappella Amsterdam in 1997.

All our recordings up till then had used different line-ups chosen for each specific project.  We then decided to step back into the medieval period and look at Leonin, who wrote only music for two voices. Mark Everist provided us with new editions and we used Capella Amsterdam and my student choir Yorvox for the chant sections. The first Lenin album (as we affectionately referred to it) won a Diapason d’Or d’Annee and was a BBC Music Magazine Record of the Year:

Magister Leoninus: Sacred Music from 12th century Paris Helios CDH55328

Lenin

‘Sung with beguiling beauty. These readings renew our sense of wonder at western music’s most fundamental innovation – the sound of two voices simultaneously singing different lines that not only fit with, but also enhance, each other’ (The Sunday Times)

‘A fine contribution to the repertoire on disc of twelfth-century polyphony. A composite sound of great beauty’ (Gramophone)

‘Marvellously atmospheric. A rare and highly rewarding disc. Brilliant performances of neglected treasures’ (Classic CD)

‘Avec un splendide choeur pour le plain-chant, Red Byrd proposent une rencontre vivante et vibrante avec Léonin’ (Répertoire, France)

‘Absolutely stunning. Lost music re-born’ (BBC Music Magazine)

Magister Leoninus II Helios CDH55338

Lenin2

‘John Potter and Richard Wistreich wring the utmost tenderness and beauty from these pieces – especially in the verse of ‘Sedit angelus’ where the word ‘crucifixum’ is made to evoke a mysterious medieval religious agony. And the odd, searing harmonies in ‘Iudea et Iherusalem’ take us into a long-lost, almost psychological world of musical expression.’ Anthony Pryor, BBC Music Magazine March 2002

 

 

 

 

A Scottish Lady Mass: Sacred Music from Medieval St Andrews Hyperion CDA67299

Lady mass

The listener is left marvelling at the ingenuity and imagination that produced such an intriguing wealth of rhythmic, harmonic and textural effects from the interplay of just two voices. Red Byrd’s performances convincingly recreate this distant sound-world, as well as conveying the excitement with which musicians must have explored the thrilling possibilities opened up by the idea of having two notes sounding simultaneously.” Elizabeth Roche, Daily Telegraph

“The music is stark and plainly cast, and these very experienced early-music singers effectively capture its direct, unadorned style, delivered with their typically warm, accurately pitched, carefully inflected, prodigiously engaging voices.” David Vernier, Classics Today

 

Roger Marsh: Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire (NMC D127)

Pierrot

 

 

A sheer feast with dreams left over. Marsh shows the greatness of Giraud’s haunting images. Music Web International

 

 

 

Thea Musgrave: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (NMC D167

Musgrave

 

 

 

‘A reminder of a genre that seems to have disappeared from the schedules; the radio opera. The atmospheric music on this disc deserves your attention.’       International Record Review

 

 

 

Both Richard and I eventually stumbled into academic day jobs, and although I returned to full-time performing in 2010 it became harder and harder to find time to generate new RB projects. We did Roger Marsh’s Not a Soul and Tim Souster’s Mareas in Tampere, and several broadcasts for Radio 3 with music ranging from  Landini, Palestrina and Purcell to John Cage, Thea Musgrave, Nigel Osborne and John Surman.  There were memorable performances of Barry Guy’s Waiata with both of us wielding a bunch of instruments which neither of us actually played beyond about Grade 1. One unforgettable duo concert happened at the Dublin Early Music Festival which was sponsored by the Guiness Brewery (where the black stuff  is pumped direct from the earth’s core). We turned up for the concert to find no one there at all. Hearing voices from below we discovered a bar in the crypt, filled with serious drinkers. We could only persuade them upstairs by starting on the stairs  and gradually luring them up until they filled the church. It was a grand evening with one of the happiest audiences I’ve ever experienced – the applause sometimes drifting contentedly on for longer than some of the pieces had taken to sing.

The Lichfield Festival broadcast of Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter was later released on NMC. Our last recording, also on NMC, was Roger Marsh’s Pierrot Lunaire, parts of which he had written for the two of us at a Hilliard Summer School at Schloss Engers. All Red Byrd CDs (including the cult classic Songs of Love and Death which will set you back around £90 second hand) are available from the Amazon Red Byrd Store and there’s also a discography on  medieval.org.

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Red Byrd was really a state of mind; our way of working informed almost everything else I did, and it continues to do so; there are very strong musical lines of succession that run through much of my current work too. Both Richard and I sang in the German ensemble The Sound and the Fury, and we made many records of C15 Franco-Flemish polyphony for ORF which we hadn’t been able to do with RB itself. Mark Everist’s  Cantum pulcriorum invenire research project was a kind of follow up to the work he did for us on our three Hyperion medieval albums, though it couldn’t actually be a Red Byrd project as there’s no music for bass. Gavin Bryars wrote his Irish Madrigals for Red Byrd’s three voice line-up with Anna Maria Friman,  and I still perform the current versions of them with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.  Most recently of all, I’ve been exploring the rock music/lute song connection again with new music by Tony Banks and Sting, and John Paul Jones gave his blessing to a version of Amores Pasados for two voices and two lutes which ECM released earlier this year. Richard is also combining his RCM Professorship with creative projects – watch out for a solo album from him in 2016.

—–

We used to be asked where the name came from. We sat down one day with an early computer spell check file and started at A until we got to ‘bird’. Ah, yes, let’s make that ‘Byrd’. And why red? In the sense of not blue, of course…

 

 

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Unobtainable Recordings…

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

 

Red Byrd

Every so often I get an enquiry about how to get hold of Red Byrd’s Songs of Love and Death album, usually after there’s been a broadcast of either the John Paul Jones Amores Pasados (which there was last week) or the Monteverdi duets with electric instruments (often when Claudio is composer of the week and they get a bit desperate playing the same old stuff). More recently the Sound & Fury Charon box set has generated a number of emails from frustrated potential buyers who want the physical product rather than the download.

The Red Byrd album is sometimes to be found on eBay. The details are on the Factory history site here. We’ve tried hard over the years to get hold of the rights so that we can get it re-released, but have now given up the struggle. But the good news is that the John Paul Jones pieces will get a new lease of life (with the composer’s blessing) in versions for Anna Maria Friman and me, with Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on lutes. Anna will also play the lirone part on her hardanger fiddle. They’ll be in our Amores Pasados programme available next year, and we hope to record them on the same album as the new material we have by Sting and Tony Banks.  If you’re desperate for a copy of the RB album and all else fails, get in touch and I’ll think of something.

Sound & Fury

The latest news from producer Bernhard Trebuch is that the Fra Bernardo albums (of which the Charon is one) will be distributed by Note 1 and their partners from January. Until then you have to email  office@frabernardo.com. The earlier S&F recordings are still available from the ORF online store (typing Sound & Fury in the Suchbegriff eingeben box will bring up at least 10 of them) but for the Charon box set you need Fra Bernardo. It does exist – I had a copy until very recently…

Jesus Blood

didn’t fail me in Vilnius. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever taken part in. Since my time in teenage bands I’d only played keyboards in public twice: one accompanying Linda Hirst in Cage’s Forever and Sun Smell (for closed keyboard) and once accompanying Nicky Losseff in Neil Sorrell’s ironic role reversal piece (where I just made it up). So this third time was pretty nerve wracking even though I’ve got Grade III (which is about the level of the Jesus Blood organ part). A friend of mine once was so moved during a performance of some Shropshire Lad songs that he was quite overcome. Trouble was, it was his own performance and he had to leave the stage to recover. I was worried not only about the concentration needed for the dozens of repetitions but also whether I could get through it without weeping, making it impossible to see the dots. Fortunately we did a complete run in the afternoon so I could get all the emotional stuff dealt with in advance, and the performance was just plain magical. Sadly, sound man Chris Ekers (he of Olympic Games fame) didn’t record it (though he did explain the Paul McCartney doppelganger effect during the closing ceremony).

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LIFE AFTER THE UNIVERSITY OF YORK

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010


Reflections on theRobert Kirby Memorial Concert

Fabcab

I didn’t know Robert Kirby well (even though we’d sung together as children) but I felt I got to know much more of him in a wonderful afternoon at Cecil Sharp House. It was a wonderfully warm occasion with some inspirational music making from musicians whose lives he had touched, and a tear or two as we remembered him and, for the Gentle Power singers at least, those extraordinary times at the very end of the Sixties. The whole event was held together with cool affection by Harvey Brough, whose own arrangement of Nick Drake’s ‘Fruit Tree’, powerfully delivered by Clara Sanabras was for me the hit of the afternoon. The FabCab experience was quite an emotional one for all of us. Our tuning definitely continued the curve that began in 1967 but you couldn’t fault our commitment, and that window on Robert’s student life clearly touched a chord with the packed hall. We did the first ever live performance of our single (it got to No 74…), Richard Hill’s Constant Penelope, in a new arrangement by Harvey (thanks Harve!). That was quite something… Marcus, Alan, Dave, Martin, Edward, Julian – it was fantastic to see you all and to sing together again.

Fabcab 1967Marcus Bicknell, Hugh Dibley, John Potter, Chris Johns, Dave Sloan, Alan Fairs

Fabcab 2010

JP, Edward Bailey, Julian Bicknell, Dave Sloan, Marcus Bicknell, Martin Nelson, Alan Fairs


No more academia?

I was going to whinge on about why I left academia, but having such a great experience only 3 days after leaving the day job has made me realise that life’s much too short to go back over all that.  So here’s a paragraph or two about my plans for the immediate future…

I won’t actually be losing touch with the academic world completely, and I’ll be doing the occasional keynote at conferences with creative agendas. The first of these will be at the  Katholische Akademie Schwerte next year for the Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte, Gegewart congress.   I’ve also been invited to participate in the 25th anniversary events at the Bremen Akademie für alte Musik (I taught there in its early days,  when we lived in Great Dunmow and  Air Bremen did a daily return flight from Stansted until it went out of business). More on these in due course.

Cantum pulcriorum invenire

Cantum imageI also now have part-time research fellowship at the University of Southampton. The ink was barely dry on my resignation letter  when I was invited by Mark Everist to take part in his Cantum Pulcriorum Invenire project. This is the result of  Southampton’s success in getting a huge AHRC grant to look at the 13th century Conductus repertoire, and will involve me and Chris O’Gorman experimenting with the research findings and recording the results for Hyperion over the next three years. There is also an Australian dimension to this: much of the 13th century material was originally edited by Gordon Anderson at the University of New England (the volumes of music are known in the trade as Anderson Conductus), and the University of Sydney will explore his legacy as a partner on the project. This is a hugely exciting project, and we’re looking forward to performances in both hemispheres.

NEW PROJECTS, NEW PROGRAMMES


The Dowland Project

Actually, most of what I’ll be doing immediately is developing existing projects, which I now have much more time to devote to . The Dowland Project still has the famous night sessions from St Gerold awaiting release. These were completely improvised (and featured a rare performance by John Surman on lecturn). We don’t have a release date from ECM yet, but we’re working on it. It’s not easy to get the band together (Steve lives in Seattle, JS in Oslo and Milos in Bratislava) so we try to make sure that every gig is groundbreaking in some way. Our visit to the Prague Strings of Autumn Festival next month will have several surprises.

Beyond Being…

Being Dufay FolignoAmbrose Field’s new and as yet untitled project is nearly ready to roll. The first performances will happen from June next year onwards. Like Being Dufay, it will be a multimedia presentation with a video response from Michael Lynch. The source material is 15th and 16th century pieces where composers tribute their fellow composers, so it’s really a trope of a trope of a trope.

…and beyond the lutesong

Potter & Abramovich in SloveniaAriel Abramovich and I are moving into radically different repertoire from our lutesong comfort zone. We will continue to explore the more eccentric byways of the early 17th century (notably Danyel and Morley as well as Campion and Dowland), but we’ll also look at the parallel ‘division’ repertoire, which works in similar ways to jazz some 300 years ahead of its time. We’ll be doing surviving examples by Rognoni and others as well as creating new versions of our own.

VICTORIA & JOSQUIN

But the main difference from next year onwards will be doing programmes with vihuela, and where possible with two of them (or vihuela and bass lute). The first opportunity for this is the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria in 2011. We’re preparing several programmes of masses and motets, adding Jacob Heringman to Ariel’s vihuela. After that we’ll be returning to Josquin with a similar ensemble including Lee Santana and soprano Anna Maria Friman, so that we can explore the canonic part writing with two voices. We hope to record both these projects for ECM in February.

I won’t be neglecting acappella performances of Josquin and his contemporaries though. The Sound & the Fury will continue to record Franco-Flemish at Kloster Mauerbach, and the Ciconia Ensemble is beginning to plan new programmes for the 600th anniversary of the composer in 2012. Red Byrd will also fly from time to time: NMC is planning to release the live BBC Lichfield Festival recording of Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter. More on all of these later.

Writing

Vocal Authority coverI completed two chapters for new Cambridgetenor book pic Histories over the summer. The immediate writing task is for Neil Sorrell and I to finish our singing history, which we’ve promised to  CUP by the end of the year. I also have a chapter to write with Liz Haddon for the book of the IMP project. After that I’ll be taking my time updating the tenor book and writing a sequel to Vocal Authority. Neither of these will be conventionally ‘academic’. The paperback corrected reissue of the tenor book has had a good reception, being  listed in the Financial Times Hottest Holiday Reading and a Sunday Telegraph paperback of the week.

What I won’t be doing…

I’m not intending to do any more academic writing of the sort that has tiny print runs and goes mainly to libraries where three people read it (and in the case of the Cambridge UL  copy of Vocal Authority, scribble oh-so-clever glosses in the margins).

No one-to-one teaching either – the old master-apprentice model needs completely re-vamping for the 21st century, especially in higher education.

Nor am I going to sing any of the mainstream tenor repertoire. I’ve never understood why people want to sing the same old stuff year after year. It’s been a while since I sung Bach Passions, Handel oratorios and the like, and as far as  possible I won’t be doing anything I’ve done before. None of  my performing projects is actually repeatable: programmes have an evolutionary shelf life, and if anything gets to sound the same as last time then it’s time to stop. It’s risky of course, but I like to think that avoiding the bland  predictability of the mainstream is partly why I’m still in business when so many of my contemporaries who took a safer route are now finding life difficult. That’s something  that our all-centralising university education factories don’t really get.

and best  of all, I’ll now have plenty of time for this…

Mybeautiful granddaughter Emily, born to Alice and Ned on August 7th

Emily asleep

Life is good!

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CONCERTS OCTOBER-NOVEMBER

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

This is my first autumn back in the real world…and November has an unprecedented 5 gigs in England, including new works by Gavin Bryars at King’s Place and the first London performance of Being Dufay…

October 3

Robert Kirby memorial event

Cecil Sharp House, London

October 15

Sound & Fury live broadcast from Mauerbach ORF 22.00

October 15- 19

Kloster pic
Sound & Fury recordings (Vienna)

Josquin Desprez: Missa Gaudeamus & Missa Sine Nomine

Marbrianus De Orto: Missa Mi mi & Missa L’homme armé

November 3

Dowland Project (Prague)

Strings of Autumn Festival

November 6

Gavin Bryars Ensemble

King’s Place (London)

to include new versions of Madrigals by Gavin Bryars to poems by

Blake Morrison

November 11

A Musicall Banquet (Birmingham) with Ariel Abramovich

Birmingham Early Music Festival

November 18

Being Dufay

The Albany, Lewisham

part of the Sampler Festival

November 24

Roger Marsh 60th birthday concert (York)

to include new works by Ed Jessen and Morag Galloway

November 25

Launch of UYMP Songbook (compiled by John Potter & David Blake)

Birmingham Conservatoire

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