:: Swingle Singers


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.

Ward Swingle

Monday, January 19th, 2015

It’s a sad day for anyone involved with acappella singing. Ward Swingle – the Boss, as we knew him – has died at the age of 87. Almost exactly three years ago I wrote a blog post (which I like to think Ward read) about the 70s generation of Swingle Singers. A slightly edited version is reproduced below. We owe him a huge debt. I took part in a short tribute to Ward at the start of The Choir on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 24th January at 4.00.

 

 

Swingle 2

 

Like almost all the important things that have happened in my working life, joining the Swingle Singers (Swingle II, as they were about to become) was a serendipitous accident (through meeting an old mate in a pub). I’d done quite a bit of microphone work but I was still set on becoming what we used to call an oratorio singer (and was still having the odd lesson with Walter Gruner). In no time at all, together with Olive Simpson, Mary Beverley, Linda Hirst, Amy Gunson, John Lubbock and David Beavan, I found myself doing Berio’s Sinfonia in Paris conducted by Pierre Boulez (or was it Luciano himself? I can’t remember). For a young singer barely out of vocal nappies that was quite something. I’d never heard of Berio, and Sinfonia and later A-Ronne became almost an obsession. I had no idea that contemporary music could be that visceral and exhilarating. These days Sinfonia for singers is a bit like the beginning of the Rite for bassoonists: what used to be barely possible after countless hours of work is now within easy reach of good students, but back then it took over our lives. The first gigs of the new group were all Berio as it took us about a year to learn the Swingle jazz technique well enough to unleash it on the pubic (in fact we junked an early attempt at recording Bach after more than 100 hours of rehearse/recording, once we finally discovered how to do it).

A-Ronne

I learned a huge amount from Ward. It wasn’t always easy – he often found the English sense of humour quite baffling, which sometimes led to terrible misunderstandings. We were never very good at scat (the English choral tradition has its limits…) but through his previous immersion in jazz he was able to teach us how words work, and how they relate to rhythm and tempo; lessons I’ve never forgotten. The Berio gigs were always amazing, especially when conducted by the man himself. I seem to remember the poor Sinfonia pianist getting fired rather often, and between rehearsals the composer could sometimes be found looking in the window of what used to be called surgical stores. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We were once sitting in a cafe when a Gilbert O’Sullivan song came on the muzak. Berio was entranced: ‘I wish I could write tunes like that,’ he said. Which, actually, he could.

 

Swingles 2
The pop gigs evolved and so did the personnel. Catherine Bott took over from Mary, Amy didn’t like to fly so gave way to Carol Hall, and Simon Grant replaced John Lubbock who was getting busy as a conductor. After three years some of us were clearly more interested in extended vocal techniques and developing the avant-garde side, and there was a big bust up when Linda, Simon and I left to form Electric Phoenix, along with the manager and sound engineer Terry Edwards. Kate Bott left at the same time to pursue her interest in early music.

 

What a fantastic time it was (in retrospect) – and how lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time; our unforgettable trips to Mexico (the Olympic village), Japan (that Frank Lloyd Wright hotel) and Israel (G&T with lemons from the tree outside our window), not to mention colour tv (the DG had to be summoned when A-Ronne ran over as the cost of colour video tape was draining the BBC coffers).

 

It was sad that it ended so acrimoniously: I guess we were just young and cocky, and wanted a group that was ours rather than Ward’s (we called him Boss, and were very aware that we owed it all to him); all of the members of that incarnation of the group went on to have extraordinary careers. It was a privilege to work with Ward, which I acknowledged in the preface to my first book, Vocal Authority.

 

The reason for this digression into ancient history is the story of the group that has appeared online at http://www.jazzhistoryonline.com/ which Olive Simpson drew our attention to. It starts with the French group and continues to the present day (our four mid-seventies years being a very small part of the 50 years the group has been going). If you’re a Swingle fan (or former member) it makes interesting reading.

 

The original version of this post from February 2012 (together with several comments) can be found here:

http://www.john-potter.co.uk/blog/2012/02/02/swingle-singers-the-seventies-generation/

 

 

 

Conductus II and Singing History Paperback…

Friday, November 15th, 2013

Conductus 2

Conductus 2 cover

…was released by Hyperion on 25th November. It’s Christmas-free (though with the usual quotient of Virginbirth-related stuff). Perfect for those who are already bored by the seasonal offerings from the usual suspects, and who like a challenge. Prepare to be berated about corruption in the Catholic church, the joys of marriage and the wonders of the book, in music that was heard all over Europe 800 years ago and still resonates today.

Here’s the link to pre-order it on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/conductus-music-poetry-from/id714759316?ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Or on Hyperion http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA67998&vw=dc

We’ll be recording the third and final album in April but it doesn’t stop there – we’re looking forward to developing the three medieval tenor repertoire over the next couple of years, still with the aid of cutting edge musicology from Southampton. If you haven’t got Conductus 1 yet, you can find it here together with a selection of press quotes. I’ve updated the Conductus – Three Medieval Tenors page on this site and you can hear sound clips there from both albums.

A History of Singing – the paperback…

 

Book cover

 

If you have any change…the paperback of the phenomenally expensive Potter & Sorrell History of Singing will be published late December by Cambridge University Press. It’ll probably be too late for Christmas, but the price is likely to be under £18 – a snip compared with £75 or so for the hardback. There’s a comprehensive review (of the hardback) in Singing, the AOTOS journal, at the end of which Karen Sell nicely draws attention to the price and the possibility of an affordable paperback. The issue also has a review of the summer conference (complete with a rare pic of me propping up the bar).   

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concerts

Here are details of the three 40th birthday concerts. All feature Roger Marsh’s new work Yorick as well as some Byrd and Shepherd sung by the massed voices of the ensemble and four of its five previous members:

London 11th December:

Spitalfields Winter Festival, St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch High St, London E1 6JN

[sold out]

 Paris 12th December:

Oratoire du Louvre, 1 rue de l’Oratoire et 145 rue Saint Honoré, 75001 Paris

Tickets:

http://philippemaillardproductions.fr/rubrique/reservation-abonnement.html?idArt=3

Munich 13th December:

Michaelskirche, Neuhauserstraße 52, 80331 München

(in the pedestrian zone between Karlsplatz/Stachus and Marienplatz)

tickets: https://www.bellarte-muenchen.de/programm.php?id=ddbe8bd8c7325a09cc3b3f91d65c8491&action=bestellen

or by phone: 0049 89 54 818181

Swingle Singers at 50…

By a weird coincidence the Swingle Singers will be celebrating their 50th anniversary at the Albert Hall’s Elgar Room on the same evening. I won’t be able to make that, though since there are now apparently over 100 ex-Swingle Singers I probably won’t be missed.

 Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Italy

But before that, Anna Friman and I will be singing with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at the All Frontiers Festival in Gradisca d’Isonzo near the Italian-Slovenian border on December 1st.  The programme will feature new versions of music from The Morrison Songbook.

Swingle Singers: the seventies generation

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Swingle 2

Like almost all the important things that have happened in my working life, joining the Swingle Singers (Swingle II, as they were about to become) was a serendipitous accident (through meeting an old mate in a pub).  I’d done quite a bit of microphone work but I was still set on becoming what we used to call an oratorio singer (and was still having the odd lesson with Walter Gruner). In no time at all, together with Olive Simpson, Mary Beverley, Linda Hirst, Amy Gunson, John Lubbock and David Beavan, I found myself doing Berio’s Sinfonia in Paris conducted by Pierre Boulez (or was it Luciano himself? I can’t remember). For a young singer barely out of vocal nappies that was quite something. I’d never heard of Berio, and Sinfonia and later A-Ronne became almost an obsession. I had no idea that contemporary music could be that visceral and exhilarating. These days Sinfonia for singers is a bit like the beginning of the Rite for bassoonists: what used to be barely possible after countless hours of work is  now within easy reach of good students, but back then it took over our lives.   The first gigs of the new group were all Berio as it took us about a year to learn the Swingle jazz technique  well enough to unleash it on the pubic (in fact we junked an early attempt at recording Bach after more than 100 hours of rehearse/recording, once we finally discovered how to do it).

A-Ronne

I learned a huge amount from Ward. It wasn’t always easy – he often found the English sense of humour quite baffling, which sometimes led to terrible misunderstandings. We were never very good at scat (the English choral tradition has its limits…) but through his previous immersion in jazz he was able to teach us how words work, and how they relate to rhythm and tempo; lessons I’ve never forgotten. The Berio gigs were always amazing, especially when conducted by the man himself. I seem to remember the poor Sinfonia pianist getting fired rather often, and between rehearsals the composer could sometimes be found looking in the window of what used to be called surgical stores. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We were once sitting in a cafe when a Gilbert O’Sullivan song came on the muzak. Berio was entranced: ‘I wish I could write tunes like that,’ he said. Which, actually, he could.

Swingles 2

 

The pop gigs evolved and so did the personnel. Catherine Bott took over from Mary, Amy didn’t like to fly so gave way to Carol Hall, and Simon Grant replaced John Lubbock who was getting busy as a conductor.  After three years some of us were clearly more interested in extended vocal techniques and developing the avant-garde side, and there was a big bust up when Linda, Simon and I left to form Electric Phoenix, along with the manager and sound engineer Terry Edwards. Kate Bott left at the same time to pursue her interest in early music.

What a fantastic time it was (in retrospect) – and how lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time. It was sad that it ended so acrimoniously: I guess we were just young and cocky, and wanted a group that was ours rather than Ward’s (we called him Boss); all of the members of that incarnation of the group went on to have extraordinary careers.  It was a privilege to work with Ward, which I acknowledged  in the preface to my first book, Vocal Authority.

The reason for this digression into ancient history is the story of the group that has appeared online at http://www.jazzhistoryonline.com/, which Olive Simpson drew our attention to. It starts with the French group and continues to the present day (our four mid-seventies years being a very small part of the 50 years the group has been going). If you’re a Swingle fan (or former member) it makes interesting reading.