:: Tenors

The Perils of Online Discographies

Monday, January 28th, 2013

If your research involves discographies you’ll know about the hazards of the online variety; they’re a very diferent animal from the work of professional discographers (as those who subscribe to The Record Collector will know). On the other hand, every new release or re-release will be electronically identified by the major discog websites, and that means even the most obscure records needn’t remain forgotten for long.  I was reminded of the problem recently when I received a letter (a sheet of paper – or in this case several sheets -  that comes wrapped in another sheet) complaining that I’d omitted Heinz Hoppe from Tenor:History of a Voice. This was the first complaint since the online updating (and was shortly followed by another one from my friend Larry Josefovitz telling me I’d missed Yossele Rosenblatt – barely conceivable since he and I corresponded at length on the subject, but sadly true).   I always check out these omissions; it’s impossible to account for everyone’s favourite tenor but if someone’s taken the trouble to write it’s the least I can do. I then reply with whatever info I’ve found and file it away in case of a future update.

My Hoppe fan doesn’t have email, but assuming she at least had access to a computer I printed out some links to online discographies and a German Wikipedia entry and posted them off. Some weeks later a package of photocopied Hoppe discographies arrived, courtesy of an old boyfriend and a helpful Barnes & Noble person who’d downloaded them for her. She was naturally excited by the fact that there were Hoppe discographies of any sort, but disappointed to have to wade through multiple CD sets which contained only one Hoppe track, not to mention unwanted information about a bass called Fritz Hoppe (I hadn’t heard of him either).

When I was doing the online update I abandoned the format in the printed tenorography, which had separate subheadings for print and internet material and token discographies that were just there to whet the appetite. Between the print edition and the update there had been an explosion in internet material and I opted for links to online materials wherever possible. It was itself an online resource so readers just had to click on the links and could then search for print versions  if they wanted to. For most tenors I used AllMusic; at its best this has comprehensive listings, often with a brief but accurate biography – just what most people need if they’re trying to explore further.

Having had mixed results with my Hoppe exchange (over several transatlantic snail mail weeks) I thought I’d revisit AllMusic and see how the site was progressing (these sorts of programmes never stand still – see my previous post). It’s now even more comprehensive, with detailed categories of contribution ranging from performer to liner note writer. To test its accuracy I did the only thing you can do in the circumstances and tried it on myself.

Well, there was a rather flattering biography from  Patsy Morita. It was bang up to date (and even mentions the Conductus project). The list of recordings totalled 189 which must be about right (I lost count a while ago). And there were the usual re-release/re-packaged albums that I didn’t know about (including a Shakespeare anthology for EMI in which ‘Come again’ is sandwiched between readings from John Hurt and Ralph Fiennes). But  I have no recollection of playing banjo on a Kenny Ball album and trombone on one of Veljo Tormis’ Estonian Lullabies, or doing English translations for Soul Flower Union’s 90s singles anthology.  I  couldn’t remember doing the paintings for  Inanition’s  Controlled Bleeding either, or the layout design for Mortification’s Scrolls of the Megilloth. Well, at least I’m on Harmonia Mundi’s Decade of Excellence (what…???).

So…be warned – the discog algorhythm still needs work. There’s a link for corrections, but I think I’ll let it sort itself out; some of that stuff  I never knew I did…or, in fact, did… is pretty cool.


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Biographical List of Tenors: the Update!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012


It’s up and running at last. There are links from the Yale site to both the original Pdf and the Supplement here, and the two lists are themselves now linked. Thanks to Jamie Forrest at Yale for sorting it out. You can get straight there from here.

Inevitably, the Supplement is out of date, and there are bound to be omissions of people’s favourite tenors. At the moment I can’t see myself doing another update (this one took for ever, and I’m embarking on a new writing project over the winter) but I’ll keep any complaints/suggestions on file just in case I do return to it in the future. As always, many thanks to all those who contributed suggestions to both lists. If I’ve missed you off my acknowledgements lists, do let me know and please accept my apologies. It’s been a wonderful experience engaging with everybody (even those who got quite cross when they discovered I’d overlooked their main man).  The earliest work on the original ‘tenorography’ was done by my son Ned, then my unpaid research assistant at the University of York. In the meantime he’s produced his own book, so now we’re a two-author family.


August dates:

Dowland Project

The Dowland Project will be doing the final concert the Radovljica Festival on August 19th.  The concert will be taken by Radio Slovenia and we hope this may form the basis of a BBC programme about the group. The Radovljica programme will be a variation of those we did in Slovakia last month and there will be more Schubert…

Latest news on the next album from ECM is early 2013…


After that I’m doing a week’s coaching at Schloss Engers (Neuwied)  with some fantastic groups from Germany and Italy. There will be three concerts in the Rheinland-Pfalz area (it’s part of the Kutursommer) – details to follow.

Lute songs old and new…

Plans for next year are developing fast. There will be a Morales programme with Anna Maria Friman (soprano), Ariel Abramovich and Jacob  Heringman (vihuelas). This line-up will also be doing new pieces composed for us by living singer-songwriters and rock musicians, in the context of 16th entury music. Ariel and I will also be including prog-orientated pieces in our lutesong programmes – looking for parallels between Dowland and his contemporaries and modern singer-songwriters. More soon.

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July update

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

The Dowland Project

While surfing the Times of Inda site recently (as you do) I came across this bit of video from our Prague concert last year. There’s also some footage of our recent Bratislava gig here with an interview (in Slovak) with Milos Valent.

I’ve replaced the photos on the DP page with some more recent ones from Milan,  Prague and Bratislava. The latest hint from ECM is that the ‘Night Sessions’ album will appear early in 2013.  It’s still difficult to get the band together for one-off dates as we’re all so busy, but if we get wind of an actual release date we’ll try to put a short tour together.

Conductus Project

The first live outing of the Conductus music went very well at All Saints Harewood (very efficiently managed by the York Early Music Festival crew). There turned out to be enough light with just candles and tiny lamps on our folders (I only had to use my phone for the first piece) and it was great to put the music to the test in an actual concert. People seemed to appreciate the film (there were gasps when at one point a horse seemed about to bite Chris O’Gorman’s head off).  Now that we’ve proved the concept we will certainly work on more gigs, though probably next year when we’ve got the next tranch of material recorded. The first CD is officially released in September, but there are full details (including the liner notes) on the Hyperion site here.

History of Singing

I’ve taken down the History of Singing page and its Prezi, partly because of problems with video but also because I feel uncomfortable promoting a book with such a high cover price. As Jeremy Nicholas put it, in his very perceptive review  in the June issue of Gramophone, the price would make even Patti’s water. One of the original stimuli for the book was a course I taught at York called ‘Sources for Singers’ (having discovered that student singers knew very little about vocal history and weren’t being taught it by their singing teachers). The substantial reference section in the book is really for the benefit of students – they can knit their own history from it or track down all our sources -  but no student is going to buy it at £75.

Tenor: History of a Voice

I really am in the process of setting up a link between the update of the Biographical List and the pdf on the Yale site. The update itself is ready to go (and will be run from my site so I can update and correct if necessary). It will go live very shortly, once it has been properly linked to the original. In practice I don’t think I’m going to be able to find time for another comprehensive update (the current one is already out of date), though I would consider a revised and expanded print edition linked to a dedicated website (as my son Ned has done with his new book on marketing libraries).


Future Musical Box?

Next year’s concerts will include recitals with Jan Walters when she’s over here in the summer. YouTube has some slightly hysterical videos of songs from our Braunschweig concert, including El tens d’iver and Ich setze minen vuoz. Ariel Abramovich and I are contemplating a lute-song anthology programme that will include some of our favourite Genesis songs. Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones has also promised us a song, so watch this space.


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Biographical List of Tenors

Saturday, April 7th, 2012


Updating the tenorography is taking much longer than I expected. I told Yale they’d have it by Christmas (last Christmas, that is) but I’m still only half way through M. It’s partly laziness on my part – it’s a labour of love and I do have other things to do – but mostly that there’s a huge amount of new material to process. There are lots of new entries of course (and thanks again to those who contacted me with suggestions) but almost all of the existing entries have new info. At the very least this will usually consist of a website – often one of the many excellent Wikipedia entries. At the time of the print volume I was an academic, and like most of my colleagues was inclined to treat Wikipedia with considerable suspicion. How wrong we all were – it’s a fine resource, and for many of the more obscure singers it’s the only source of information, often researched and verified by dedicated enthusiasts who do just as good a job as an academic.  In fact, the transformation of the web as a whole since 2009 has been astonishing. Many of the original print sources (from newspapers to entire books) are now available online, and there are several sites devoted to discographies – much more useful than my original specimen discographies.  Soundfiles, video and pictures are readily available at the click of a mouse, not to mention a plethora of sites dedicated to tenordom. These sometimes fight among themselves, so users need to be a little bit careful.

My basic criteria for inclusion are still the same: reputation in the form of a serious recording, article or website, but if I do a new print edition I will organise it rather differently. There’s a risk of the whole thing looking like a list of urls as online sources replace print, so this needs some thought. Technology is now available to (in effect) convert print urls into electronic links (scanning QR codes, for example) and if print publishers want to keep pace with the web they will have to take this on board. If I were starting from scratch I’d certainly use a different model, something more like Ned’s book on library marketing (which I’ve just proof read). This has a fixed print core but an infinitely expandable interactive web presence so it will not only not date, but will continue to explore and expand. The future of publishing is actually incredibly exciting for publishers who can keep up.


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Vocal Authority lives!

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

I’ve begun the process of updating the web version of the Biographical List of Tenors in my tenor history book, and have been reading Ian Bostridge’s A Singer’s Notebook.  It was quite a shock to discover that it  reprints IB’s ancient critique of Vocal Authority.  The review sounded pretty patronising first time round back in 1998, and it hasn’t improved with age.  He doesn’t really get it and gets all sorts of things wrong – and he certainly doesn’t like it.

V A  was my first book. It was based on my PhD thesis, and like many first books it’s very much of its time (as is Bostridge’s review). It still figures on university reading lists, especially in the USA, and I sometimes get asked if I would write the same book today. The answer is ‘no’ (often to the dismay of the enquirer).   I’ve come close to attempting a successor, but disillusionment with academia set in a while ago and the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I have just finished is definitely my last foray into anything remotely academic. I suspect poor IB won’t like that either, should he happen to stumble across it, but he can take comfort from the fact that it’s my last in this particular genre.

But having said all that, I have been touched by the reception Vocal Authority had (and still gets) in certain quarters.  Converting the thesis into a book was a long and frustrating process. In the thesis I put the theory chapter last as it was generated by the main body of material and I didn’t want readers to be distracted by my Gramscian analysis if they weren’t that way inclined.  At my viva the examiners asked me to move the theory to the front (in keeping with more usual academic practice). This was in the days when cutting and pasting meant literally that, and it took forever to make the change.  Then having finally done it, I collected the copies from the binders on my way back from a gig, fell asleep on the tube and woke up to find my bag had been nicked. Poor thief – three copies of Vocal Authority, my concert gear and the previous day’s shirt and underwear.  The upside was that my examiners – having eventually taken delivery of a second set of copies –  kindly said they thought it publishable  and suggested I sent the thesis  to CUP, who liked it but said they’d much rather the theory chapter was at the back…

It was worth the agony though. Being a performer can be a humbling experience – people being moved by what you do – but performances die even as they’re born, so their effect is confined to the moment (or the immediate memory). Writing on the other hand stays with you, right or wrong. The Cambridge UL copy of VA has been somewhat cynically (and definitely illegally) annotated in pencil by a reader of the Bostridge persuasion who thinks it’s complete rubbish, and you expect disagreement (better that than readers falling asleep). But the compensation when someone tells you that you’ve changed their life is quite something. It’s happened to me on a number of occasions in different parts of the world with Vocal Authority (not with anything else I’ve written, sadly).  I wrote it to try to explain the world of singing as I saw it then, but it clearly touched a nerve with many singers. There won’t be many bookshelves where it sits side by side with A Singer’s Notebook but both books have in common a singer’s musings on aspects of history and the sometimes rather unworldly profession that we inhabit, and the fact that we can have such differing perspectives is not such a bad thing.

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Wednesday, August 31st, 2011


It’s coming up to the first anniversary of my return to freelancing.  It’s also the anniversary of my first attempts at blogging (thankyou Ned for getting me started – I’m afraid my efforts are never going to match yours).

Made it!  I was very heartened by so many people  seeming to think I was doing the right thing. Only a few said  I was brave (a polite way of saying I was stupid) and it’s been a very exciting year.

I’ve been quite pleased that the academic/pedagogical side hasn’t disappeared altogether.  I still get asked to do keynote conference papers, and the doctoral examining has branched out into Europe (really interesting).  I’ve done lots of coaching and workshops from Scandinavia to Slovenia, and  I’ve encountered some really creative students wanting more than just one-to-one singing lessons. A bit like having postgrads but without all the bureaucracy.  It’s ideal really – I  get  to do the interesting stuff and none of the boring institutional bits. Can’t help feeling a little Schadenfreude thinking of my ex-colleagues about to start a new term…

I wonder if it’s actually possible to give yourself completely to a regular job or project and still keep the freshness (maybe the naivety) that attracted you to it in the first place.  Three of the most important things in my life have been Electric Phoenix, The Hilliard Ensemble and my university job. I loved and left them all, and for the same reasons:  once I’d got the hang of them and found myself unable to think in terms of permanent revolution any more I just couldn’t knuckle down and get on with it. I never did get to love big brother (though at York I came pretty close once or twice).  A very great friend of mine once said I couldn’t cope with success, but I think it’s more a case of just not wanting to  grow up. I’m actually very lucky to be able to earn a living as a permanent adolescent – like most of the performers I know, in fact.

It’s been liberating to be able to pursue my own projects, whether in performance, writing or teaching. It hasn’t always been easy – the ECM recording sessions were a bit of a shock to the system (my mistake, and it all turned out OK in the end), and CUP took a while to understand what we had in mind for the referencing system in the history book; and telling a conference in Germany that they should all change their singing teachers when one of them was Francisco Araiza was a bit daft. But on the whole I think I’ve got away with it. There’s been lots of interest in the tenor book, and I’ve corresponded (at length in some cases) with people all over the world who know much more about the topic than I do.   My friend Larry Josefovitz, for example  – I don’t think he would object to my calling him that even though we have never met – was able to guide me through the Jewish part of the singing history as a result of his having read the tenor book. Larry’s an Orthodox Jew, an American Zionist, and I’m a heathen with a secular European take on religion and the Arab/Israeli comflict, yet in metaphysical and musical matters we have a huge amount in common. Venn Diagrams again.

The gigs have been fantastic – whether sweltering in Seville with Ariel Abramovich, going to Tampere  for jury service and Being Dufay, or  busking with Gavin Bryars at Opera North’s Howard  Assembly Rooms.  I’ve also been inspired by some amazing music throughout the year. Not just by friends and colleagues but by musicians I’ve never met. At the top must be Gianluigi Trovesi, whose ECM recording Profumo di Violetta in some ways epitomises the permanent adolescent musical life. You can’t categorise his music: there’s not a trace of the old avant-garde or of post-modernism either – along with 70s Genesis, Satie or Percy Grainger  he probably wouldn’t cut it in contemporary academia.  We’re going to miss the CD format when it’s gone – just taking the album out of its sleeve is an adventure: the Sascha Kleis  cover (typical ECM – where does that water come from? Bergamo’s on a hill…),  the Roberto Masotti photos, and the touching liner note by Trovesi himself about the town bands that he grew up with in the northern Italian valleys. Then there’s the music – an exhuberant pillaging of Italian opera from Monteverdi to Mascagni. Has ‘Pur ti miro’ ever sounded more eloquent than as a flugelhorn and saxophone duet, or the windband arrangement of the Orfeo fanfare more riotous? He even makes you wish you could play the clarinet. And it all happens in a magical acoustic representation of  the cathedral piazza in Bergamo – where I’ve been so many times with family and friends (and I’m still waiting to be paid for a gig I did in the opera house two years ago).


The coming year is also full of excitements: three CDs to record between now and Christmas, and 2012 will see the release of the new Dowland Project album (actual date to be anounced at the end of September), the first Cantum release (July at the York Early Music Festival) and several more Sound & Fury CDs. On the publishing front,  CUP will launch the history of singing and two other Cambridge Histories that I’ve contributed chapters to (page proofs for the history book are due back at the Press at the beginning of October and it should be in the shops in February). Gigs and workshops continue to materialise, and I’ll even have time to start on a new book…


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Tenors: collecting and connecting

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011


Enthusiasm & knowledge

I gave a talk to the Recorded Vocal Art Society last week. It operates under the wing of The Record Collector, which is required reading for anyone interested in historical singers in general and tenors in particular. Most of the Society’s members are collectors and many have an interest in the tenor voice, and it was my Tenor: History of a Voice that precipitated the invitation.  I had to confess that unlike their usual celebrity speakers I was not really an expert in the topic, and I told them the story of how the book came to be written, and something of my background (which is one of the reasons it is how it is); being an ex-choirboy with distinctly ambiguous feelings about opera I had to make quite a journey from looking at tenors dispassionately, ‘academically’ even, to finally coming to understand and appreciate the real thing.  Many people in the audience knew far more about curious corners of tenordom than I did, but I was really touched by how many of them appreciated the book, and by how they really enjoyed sharing information about their favourite singers. I must have read every one of the hundreds of tenor articles in The Record Collector, and like the audience at my talk, they all combine obsessive detail with fanatical enthusiasm.  You can’t beat knowledgeable people who really love their subject, and I’m very grateful to those of the collecting fraternity who manage to put pen to paper. My book wouldn’t be the same without them.

Criticism & knowledge

When I was doing my PhD one of the lecturers asked me what music I really liked performing. That’s always a difficult one, as I don’t really think in terms of liking or disliking a piece. It’s more a question of engaging with it, so whatever you’re currently working on is the most important piece, and you don’t need to decide whether you like it or not. That sounds like a lack of critical judgement, said the lecturer. The C word is problematic for performers – we don’t really do critical judgement, we just do the music. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to commit to new music or perform different repertoires; some of my unreconstructed modernist composer friends find it incomprehensible that I also perform minimalist music (and vice versa). But for non-performers, and academics in particular, critiquing of one sort or another is fundamental to the discipline. I’m not quite sure how this came about, but it wasn’t the case fifty years ago or so. It’s a shame it has such negative connotations – we could have called it ‘analytical theory’ or something more neutral, and maybe more academics might appear to enjoy their topics.


The day draws nigh. Not quite sure why it’s quite such a source of mirth to some of my friends – after all, in days of yore I used to mount ye olde warhorse several times a year just like a proper singer. But if you want to share your amazement in public, come along to Great St Mary’s in Cambridge next Sunday (26th) at 6.00. It’s for a very good cause (the Clifford Bartlett Appeal) and will have proper singers too (Emma Kirkby, Clare Wilkinson & Stephen Varcoe, with Peter Holman conducting The Parley). We’re going to have a lot of fun (and there definitely won’t be any more!).  Tickets can be had from the Suffolk Villages Festival box office.


Cardiff singer of a very small number of roles

I tried to watch Cardiff Singer of the World. So much wonderful talent being squandered on such a tiny corner of a repertoire that we all know all too well. Were there any tunes that most of the audience hadn’t heard before? It wasn’t so different from hearing autotuned club music – you just knew what was coming next.  I caught Mary King, who’s a lovely person, great teacher and very experienced singer, saying that Fiordiligi was going to be bread and butter for some successful soprano for years to come. How sad to live on  bread and butter (even though more like brioche in this case) when there’s such a rich diet available to those who have the will to seek it out.  It was a snap shot of all that is awesome and awful about the opera scene at the moment. In a few years time many of those with such glittering prospects are going to find themselves up against the Cardiff Singers of the future who’ll be even more brilliant. And cheaper.

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Academia strikes again!

Sunday, May 29th, 2011


There were many things about my 12 years as an academic that I absolutely loved, and had I gone to it straight from school (like most university lecturers) I’d probably have learned to cope with intransigent colleagues, arcane procedures and all the other banalities that form the undertow of university life (and eventually dragged me out to sea).  The great thing about being a freelance performer and researcher is that people invite you to conferences and so on, and you get parachuted in to a community of people who already know and appreciate your work. I’m really enjoying my occasional excursions into some curious academic corners, the latest of which is on the Ruhr, not far from Dortmund. I’m sitting in my room in the Katholische Akademie, Schwerte; it’s Sunday evening and I’m the only person in the building (bizarrely, Catholics in the Ruhr don’t seem to work on Sundays); conference delegates have departed and I have an early flight to Sweden in the morning.

Corinna Herr asked me here last year to give a paper at their conference on the countertenor, which I declined (it would have been a very short paper) but I couldn’t resist her invitation to this year’s conference entitled Der Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte, Gegenwart. I gave a rather rambling account of the evolution of the tenor since 1900, my brain still spinning from trying to digest about twenty excellent papers in German and a fascinating one in Italian, and I had long discussions in the bar with several experts who knew far more about my topic than I did. It was a great atmosphere, very friendly and incredibly efficiently organised – and a beautiful, very well-equipped campus.  Corinna Herr, Arnold Jacobshagen and Thomas Seedorf are a formidable team.

The highlight was a masterclass by the great tenor Francisco Araiza. He began with a sideswipe at me – having not been amused by my suggestion that any student with a singing teacher should change to a new one. I’d been answering a question after my own presentation and would certainly have been a little more circumspect if I’d known the maestro was in the audience…but his class was a stunning tour de force, and his demonstrations were absolute magic. I went to congratulate him afterwards and he kindly said how much he’d enjoyed my paper apart from the bit about teachers, but I told him that he’d proved my point – the students had in effect come to him for one lesson and it had a radical and instant effect. It also proved one of my other points (which I managed not to tell him), which was that his teaching was so effective that in almost no time at all he could turn very talented singers into versions of himself. You have to be quite strong to resist the temptation to become the next Araiza rather than the first you. But hearing him at first hand was a great experience, and made me realise that I’ll have to try harder if I ever do a revised edition of the tenor book.

Still on the academic trail, I’m off to the University of Gothenburg tomorrow to be the opponent in a PhD Defence. In English, fortunately. Sounds a bit frightening. We’ll see…


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Singing Book, Syd Barrett & Braunschweig Blues

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

The Book

…is finished…sort of.  As with all books, you don’t ever actually finish – you just get to a point where it seems OK to stop. Neil Sorrell and I have finally got there and it’s on its way to Cambridge University Press and we now await editorial fall-out from some of the fireworks we may have set off, and a publication date.


The Plainsong & Medieval Music Society  symposium

I gave a paper entitled ‘Finding a Voice: the medieval singer in the 21st Century’ at the Birmingham University PMMS symposium hosted by Mary O’Neill.  I was focusing on the early 13th century repertoire that Jan Walters and I did in Braunschweig last season, so to get an idea of the difficulty of being anywhere near right when you perform music from 800 years ago I played an old demo of my blues band in 1964, then fast-forwarded the conference to 2811 and tried to reconstruct the song from the scrap of paper on which I’d written the words and chords… distressing some German musicologists in the process (and they weren’t even alive in 1964).  But I think it made the point – that worrying over the niceties of pronunciation, syllable counts, mode and the like are as nothing when you have no idea what the singers actually sounded like. After all, music is for listening to, and it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

The Sound & the Fury


We recorded five new masses at Karthause Mauerbach (2 by Caron and 2 by de Prioris – who was new to me – and one by Pierre de la Rue). These sessions are always inspirational (though sometimes a bit awkward, with our wonderful resident musicologist sitting in like a member of the politburo representing the dead composers). We also did the usual live broadcast – this time preceded by a spontaneous performance of ‘Flow my Tears’ with Evangelina Mascardi.

John Potter & Evangelina Mascardi

The two of us were caught by Bernhard Trebuch having a quick run-through in the corridor 2 minutes before we went on air.


Constant Penelope & Syd Barrett: unlikely contemporaries…

David Sloan played the legendary Gentle Power single at his daughter’s wedding (having thoughtfully rejected the idea of asking us to do it live…), and we hear that the album Circus is in real  danger of being re-released.  Sixties freak beat (as it’s apparently called now) is  commercially viable in a way that it obviously wasn’t in the sixties. There won’t be any reunion tours though since we only get together when one of us dies, and hopefully that won’t be for a while yet. Cambridge memories came flooding back with the new Syd Barrett book by Rob Chapman. I didn’t know the Floyd members, though my wife Penny was at Cambridge Art  School (the famous Tech) with Syd Barrett and actually introduced me to the then unknown Dave Gilmour whom we encountered on our way to the Arts Theatre for one of my very rare opera gigs. Syd Barrett: a Very Irregular Head mentions Syd and Dave swapping Chuck Berry licks in the Cambridge Tech canteen, which is exactly what Penny remembers (the Chuck Berry bit, that is) and which none of the other Floyd histories mention). ‘Memphis Tennessee’ was a favourite, apparently. Penny’s folio contains at least one  fascinating sketch of an arty guitarist  but we don’t think it’s Syd, sadly.  This is one, though, is unmistakably the Barrett head:

When I taught at the University of York several of my postgrad students were Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd fans, but unfortunately none of them wanted to do a  PhD in Prog Rock.

Tenor updates/obits

Now that the history book is finished I have time to update the tenorography for the Yale tenor book web page. Very sad to hear of the death of Robert Tear, who was a choral scholar at King’s Cambridge when I was a treble there. It was hearing him (and fellow tenor Brian Head) sing day after day that convinced lots of us that we’d be tenors when we grew up. Robert Ponsonby’s Guardian obit perfectly captures the man.

Videos with Harp

Jan Walters

Back in January Jan Walters came up to York and Mick Lynch filmed the two of us in St Denys church (which has some of the oldest and finest stained glass in the country). It was very cold and one of the cameras packed up, but Mick did a great job, aided by  Ambrose Field as sound man. Jan did a solo Cantiga and we did spontaneous performances of an anonymous Minnelied and song by the troubadour Bernhard de Ventadorn.   There’s clip from our 2009 Braunschweig performance here, but the acoustic was a bit much for one singer and a tiny harp.


April Diary/site updates

I will be updating the  other pages when I have a minute.  There have been interesting developments in my ECM vihuela project and all sorts of things are bubbling away for later in the year. There are two interesting projects this month. The practical experimental sessions for the SouthamptonUniversity  Conductus Project finally start.  Chris O’Gorman and I will begin looking at facsimiles and finding out how to declaim 13th century Latin, and we’ll be joined for some of the sessions by Rogers Covey-Crump.  Ambrose Field and I will be be doing an interview down the line for RTE Lyric FM’s  The John Kelly Ensemble on Thursday 14th April ahead of our gig on the 16th at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. The interview goes out on the 15th in the afternoon. This is an exciting new venue – a  converted and restored church – and it’ll be the Opening Weekend. Tickets are free and expected to be in short supply, so grab one while you can.

Much of May will be spent exploring France, Italy and Germany, ending up with PhD viva-ing in Gothenborg and a conference on the Tenor in Schwerte. That’s followed in rapid succession by coaching the vocal ensemble Versio in  Helsinki and returning to chair the ensemble contest at the Tampere International Vocal Festival.

There’s an internet radio festival of the music of Gavin Bryars on the New York based radio station Q2 from April 14 to April 20.


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Ensemble Singing, Singing Teachers and the Pavarotti syndrome

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

British universities (not just Oxbridge) produce a huge number of outstanding  ensemble singers, who for decades have sustained  successful professional choirs from the Monteverdi Choir (recently described on Radio 3 as the best choir in the world) to The Sixteen and a plethora of creative ensembles from the Hilliard Ensemble to Juice. Conservatories don’t really do ensemble singing (being still geared to the mass production of conventional soloists); nor do most singing teachers anywhere: they seem only to be able to think in terms of increasingly over-powered solo singing. Has your teacher ever tried to engage with a line of Ockeghem, the Berio Sinfonia, or considered tuning problems in Lassus? But then you may well have learned with one of those teachers who used the same book of arias for forty years, so maybe not.  Strange how there are colleges all over the world dedicated to churning out the same old stuff, but so many singers actually earn their living in rather creative ways that don’t have much to do with what they were taught. There are hundreds of British non-opera singers who, like me, earn their living mostly in mainland Europe (where the work is) so tend not to figure on the UK radar. We do lots of creative stuff, often with European colleagues, and in many ways we’re a great British export. One thing we tend to have in common is a sense that very little of what we were taught by our singing teachers has been of any use to us in our professional careers.

You were born to sing Bach, Mozart, Schubert…Puccini?

To over-simply only a little, our singing teachers had a very sure idea of how we should earn our living, and they were almost without exception wrong. I had some very distinguished teachers. One told me I was a Mozart singer, another said I should focus on Bach and Handel, yet another wanted me to do Lieder full time. One spectacularly misguided one even had me singing Puccini (he was also rumoured to have danced with Diaghilev).  What they all had in common was that none of them could envisage my doing anything else. None of them knew anything about the professional world that I or my more adventurous contemporaries would later work in. One didn’t let me sing any music at all – just exercises, week after tedious week. He never told me what they were for, and he was such a distinguished teacher and I was so green I didn’t dare ask him. The then principal of the Guildhall School once told me that it was his duty to ensure that I became an opera singer as within ten years nobody would be singing anything else.

Having just emerged from a decade in a university (which included three years as an eternal examiner at a major UK conservatoire) I can confirm that nothing much has changed: most singing teaching continues on its traditional path (some teachers still claiming unique links to a glorious past) oblivious to the realities of a fast-changing profession.

Generic teachers produce generic singers

Singing teachers are too often out of touch with the profession as it currently is. Some  teach because they simply don’t have enough work as performers (or are simply past it). How many are familiar with the huge amount of research that’s been done in performance and education?   The older (and generally more distinguished) ones base their pedagogy and their predictions on the world as it was when they were younger, and on skills they acquired from their own teachers. This narrowness of experience means that so much teaching is still teacher-centred (do it my way) rather than student orientated (explore your own potential).  There is also an assumption that everyone wants to be a success in the mainstream, so if you’re a tenor you aspire to be the next Pavarotti or whoever, and you always sing the repertoire that your teacher is familiar with from when he aspired to be Pavarotti’s predecessor. A very narrow skill-set is taught, in an effort to get the student to conform to generic norms – you have to sound like a TENOR: it’s no good sounding like YOU!  At its worst (in the USA, often) it narrows still further, as your teacher insists that you stick to your chosen (by him/her) Fach. Not only are you programmed only to be an opera singer, but to specialise in a tiny, fixed number of roles. How different from 200 years ago, when singers were some of the most creative performers ever known.

Educating for unemployment?

Conservatories are very successful by their own (self-justifying) criteria – and these great music factories are now so efficient that they can turn out top class soloists  just as easily as  the pop industry can create  boybands. Boybands have a limited life-span, partly because it’s so easy to create them once you know how,  and partly because there are so many of them that the market very soon becomes saturated.   The pop industry is entirely at the mercy of market forces, and is therefore genuinely self-regulating. Conservatories aren’t – as long as they can secure funding (from the state, students and private sponsors) they can continue to produce more singers than the market can actually absorb. A few years ago I was part of a big research project which aimed to discover how you create better performers. No one asked why we need to know, or what we’d do with the information if we found the answers.  It didn’t occur to anyone that if everyone could perform Beethoven Sonatas like Barenboim, you wouldn’t need to pay someone to do it for you.

A new European model?

Most British conservatoires are still in denial (though you will hear slightly embarrassed talk of portfolio careers), but on the European mainland there are signs of fresh thinking.  Some music colleges are beginning to ask themselves if they should perhaps focus on developing individual creativity rather than insisting on the time-worn standard repertoire and dooming so many to unemployment. In Oslo, for example, the conservatories produce up to 50 world-class opera singers every year. There are five professional opera companies in the country. The figures for the UK are quite similar, so both countries have, in effect , to absorb huge numbers of brilliant singers every year, or export them. Where do they export them to? Germany, the USA, and other European countries, some to the Eastern hemisphere – Japan and Australia. But all of these countries have the same problem – vast over-production of singers. The Norwegian government, though, makes a point of directly subsidising a very wide variety of creative work, which includes the many great Norwegian choirs, and ensembles such as Trio Mediaeval and Nordic Voices. That’s a start. Incidentally, if you want to know what non-generic voices can sound like, have a listen to Sweden’s Real Group or the Finnish Rajaton (or any of the winners of the contest for vocal ensembles at the Tampere Vocal Festival over the last twenty years).

Are university music departments becoming second-rate conservatoires?

You’d expect universities to be able to do rather better in all this. After all, they’re filled with clever people and students go there to think, not just to sing.  But the university world  now too often mimics elements of the conservatoire system, to the extent that many music departments sometimes look like second-rate conservatories, with their Solo Recitals and arcane assessment criteria. Such a shame there’s so much focus on product (they call it ‘outcome’ – and it has to be easily be measured, however bizarre this may seem from the outside). You’d have thought universities would have the wit to understand that music is not quite the same as  biology or physics, or doing your accounts.

There is a benign effect of all this seemingly pointless teaching though: quite lot of singers are probably a bit better than they would otherwise have been, and many of them become fine choral singers. Ironic really, as many conservatoire teachers forbid their pupils from singing in choirs and certainly wouldn’t teach them how to do it. I personally don’t think it’s either healthy or creative to lean on your teacher for ideas or inspiration, or to be told what repertoire to specialise in, but it works for some.  It’s also OK if you really are the next Pavarotti. But it’s not much use if you don’t want to sing opera or what we used to call oratorio, or you want to record for ECM or Nonclassical, start a professional  ensemble or do creative work beyond the mainstream. And that’s where you will need to work if you want to make an impact (unless you’re the next Pavarotti): the core of the profession is full to bursting, so anyone who tells you that you can make living singing Bach, Handel or Lieder is way out of touch. Yet all too often univesities are suckered into shelling out huge sums on singing teaching in response to teachers’ insistence that they need to see students once a week for three years to work on their Lieder or whatever. It’s simply not true. They wouldn’t dream of stumping up for weekly maths coaching.

It’s not surprising that many of my contemporaries who stuck to the tried and tested path now find themselves underemployed: there’s no point in a promoter paying vast sums to an established ‘star’ (unless they’re very big box office) when a newly graduated conservatoire product will do the same job for a fraction of the price. Even those who are initially successful in the mainstream are always at risk of being undercut by the next ever more brilliant generation, and unless something is done to address the problem, even quite successful singers are probably doomed to very short careers.  The ultimate logic of all this is that a generation or two down the line highly trained young singers may well have driven down the cost of  a Messiah or a Manon so far that the mainstream will be a virtually amateur ‘profession’.  But on the bright side, there should be some fantastic choirs…

The best singers invent themselves

Pavarotti would have made it whoever taught him. He was the first Pavarotti, after all. Like many of the great singers of history (Fischer-Dieskau springs to mind) he invented himself. That’s what ‘ensemble singers’ do too, with their vast repertoires, sophisticated skill sets, their ability to interact rather than compete with each other –  and not least, their creative entrepreneurship.  Sadly, many talented singers, seduced by the singing teacher sales talk, will never discover that. They’ll go on singing the Schubert and Bach they were ‘born to sing’ until it’s too late. Or, like ensemble singers of my generation, they realise that it was all a bit of a waste of time and money, and just get on with unlearning what they were taught.

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