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.
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
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)
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)
New fashions: Cries & Ballads CRD 3487 (1992)
Red Byrd are the undisputed masters of the Cry… Gramophone
Gibbons: Songs & Anthems Naxos 8.550603 (1994)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Purcell: Hark how the wild musicians sing Hyperion CDA 66750 (1994)
Ivan Moody: Passion & Resurrection Hyperion CDA 66999 (1997)
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
‘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
‘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
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)
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
‘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.
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…