:: Vocal Authority


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.

Ecology of Trust

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015


A huge thankyou to Elisabeth Belgrano and Fredric Gunve for the Ecology of Trust meeting. I won’t call it a conference as it was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended – walking seminars on the rocks by the sea, provocative and compelling presentations by musicians, the complete uncertainty of what was going to happen next, but most of all the wonderfully generous and open minded spirit in which everything was conducted. I’ve never really enjoyed conference discussions on critical theory – in the UK they’re generally characterised by aggressive academic point-scoring and a delight in obfuscation. Here we had the complete opposite – searching discussions (largely focusing on the work of Karen Barad) between scholars – many from non-music arts disciplines – clever enough not to need to prove the point. It was a real treat. And on the final evening we had a Moroccan-inspired arena of simultaneous performances, complete with delicious food and mint tea. The event ended with the legendary David Medalla energetically lip-synching with Nikola Matisic


Since officially parting company with academia five years ago I’ve kept a (mostly) friendly eye on my old discipline, but I’ve now decided to give it a complete rest at least until my current performance projects have run their course over the next few years. Being here in Gothenburg was a great way to stop. There are some very exciting young minds in the field, and it’s their turn. With a pretty full performing calendar I just can’t keep up with the reading, apart from anything else. I’m flattered that people still invite me to conferences and so on, but for the foreseeable future I’m going to say no. I’m also touched that so many people seem to have read Vocal Authority, but guys it’s over fifteen years old now. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll write a sequel.

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.