:: News & Comment

Passports for academics and musicians

May 1st, 2018


This is an update of my previous one on the topic to draw attention to Peter Scott’s Guardian piece this morning (sorry subscribers…). The fact that the Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education has to show his passport to do a visiting lecture shows just how absurd the system has become. I happen to know that he’s not the only senior academic in the IoE who refuses to go along with this enforced alienation of British citizens. The comments under the by-line are interesting too – plenty from academics and administrators who’ve fallen foul of the same rules but also an undercurrent of troll-like contributions from those who think the hostile environment should be the new (continuing) normal. In fact, one doesn’t have to show one’s passport – it’s just a convenient way for university administrators to apply government policy – and I have to say that on the occasions when I’ve been asked for it the relevant admin person has clearly enjoyed  being an enforcer and raising the question of non-payment. It’s gets doubly daft, as Prof Scott and several others point out, when you wonder who in the Home Office imagines that illegal immigrants live off the fees paid to visiting lecturers. For me, the assumption that I’m an illegal immigrant unless I can prove otherwise makes me a foreigner in my own country. A passport, whatever its colour, is a document that you use when wanting to visit a foreign country, not one that proves you live in one.

It comes down to trust. University administrators don’t trust academics on all sorts of issues, and that lack of trust is what underpins much of the admin structure. If you don’t trust your employees it’s not that difficult to become an agent of government. The government doesn’t trust anybody.



This was my original post:

The cruel and degrading treatment that the British government inflicts on those in the desperate situation of not being able to prove their citizenship reminded me of the spat I had with Aldeburgh some years ago. My problem was trivial, and in the first instance only involved one engagement,  compared with the appalling examples of long-term residents being deported or refused medical treatment. But it did involve my passport, and it shows that the government does not just suspect immigrants of being illegal but everybody.  It was the first time I’d been asked to show my passport in my own country, and I refused to do it. To cut a long saga short, I withdrew from the concert rather than collude with the Aldeburgh Festival’s collusion with the UKBA.  Rather than tell the government where to put their shameful policy, Aldeburgh felt they had to go along with it or risk losing the right to use overseas musicians.  What kind of government does this to its leading centres of culture? What kind of centre of culture acquiesces in such a policy? I subsequently discovered that braver souls in music promotion had no qualms about resisting the UKBA.  When Aldeburgh did Grimes on the Beach I wondered if the cast all had their passports in their pockets in case someone tried to sneak in from the sea behind them.


So musicians: keep your passports with you. Academics too. The government also requires visiting academics – British nationals giving lectures at British universities – to show their passports. The default position, as with musicians working for major promoters, is that you’re not who you say you are, and they treat you as a foreigner in your own country. If you read through my old posts you’ll see that I had a lot of support from some very unexpected sources and there has been some heartening  resistance in the academic world.  It’s yet another example of what Stefan Collini calls the ‘erosion of integrity’ in British universities, as they become ever more closely allied to the economic interests of the state rather than the educational needs and ambitions of  its people.  Stefan Collini’s piece takes as its point of departure the 1998 Bologna statement agreed by all European countries about the nature and purpose of universities, their autonomy and freedoms.


We are about to leave Europe.


Death of the CD?

April 29th, 2018


I stopped keeping a tally of the number of recordings I’ve made when the total got to 150 or so. Some of them I’ve never owned or heard, some get re-issued and re-packaged, some even continue to sell; I suppose they represent  the story of a musical life – from fantastic highs that you want to remember for ever and some you’d rather forget. They’re also a history of the technology, from acetate demos of my more or less embarrassing teenage bands to my first LP (Handel, would you believe, but closely followed by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London),  lots more  vinyl, cassettes and finally CDs. Finally, because in my musical neck of the woods we’ve been around too long to get a grip on streaming and video.

Brigid Delaney’s recent piece on the death of the CD in the Guardian, provocative, simplistic and inaccurate, stimulated a fascinating discussion below the by-line from lovers and loathers of the format.  For consumers there’s no argument – if you’re younger than me you go with whatever the current technology is, if you’re of a certain age you’re probably keeping the CD industry going. It’s a curious thing about the niche world that I inhabit that the performance side tends to be age-blind (I may be flattering myself here) whereas the audiences we mostly perform to tend to be of CD-buying age. Decades ago I used to worry that the demographic we performed to would all be dead in twenty years, but it doesn’t work quite like that: there seems to be a threshold at which people start to go to concerts so the same demographic is still there. I can’t see music-lovers of my son’s generation returning to CDs though – streaming is just too comprehensive and convenient (not to mention somehow magical).

As the various formats have changed, so has the relationship between record companies and their artists. In the classical world it used to be the case that the company would pay you a fee (known as a buy-out, which meant you had no residual rights) or give you a non-repayable royalty advance (which is what being ‘signed’ means in the pop world).  The companies that I have had most to do with over the years have been Hyperion, ORF, EMI and ECM; the first two worked on a fee basis and the second two on royalty advances. The Hilliards left EMI still owing many thousands in non-repayable advances (that were spent on, among other things, extravagant post session dinners that we didn’t know we were paying for). Almost all the ECM recordings repaid their advances within a year or so. As far as I know ECM is the only company that still works in this way, giving its artists a stake in their own music, and it can do this partly because the CDs still sell – either through one of the online distributors or by artists selling them at gigs. The numbers are small compared with even a few years ago, and the company has recently embraced streaming, though everything is available on CD or vinyl, but ECM will always be identified with a physical product – the Gesamtkunstwerk, every aspect of which has the imprint of Manfred Eicher.

If you’re not lucky enough to record for a major label (or if you’re a new jazz or pop band) there are plenty of smaller labels who will consider taking you on. These are often run by audiophile entrepreneurs who produce excellent recording, but they work to a very different economic model. You pay for the recording, and may agree to buy a certain number of CDs. The company may have a distributor or you might decide to create your own label and sell at gigs. Either way, you are very unlikely to get your money back unless you do a lot of gigs. If it costs, say, £5000 to make an album you’ll need to sell 50 albums at 100 gigs to break even. Many of us would be lucky to sell half that at most gigs, so call it 200 gigs. Average 25 gigs a year? 8 years before you break even – probably longer as you won’t still be doing the same repertoire in 8 years’ time, and you might well have more recent recordings to compete with it.

Like most of my fellow performers I’ve never considered recording as an economic activity – it’s primarily a musical thing which may or may not earn something (some of mine have). As Manfred Eicher put it in his Royal Academy talk recently, you go somewhere, meet people, make music then go home. It’s always a wonderfully intense experience but it’s a one-off and you then forget all about it. That’s fine if the production and distribution are in the hands of the record company of course, but if you’re funding your own recordings you can’t avoid engaging with the whole process. I’ve never done that, and I continue to have a wonderfully creative relationship with ECM after some twenty-five years, but there is a musical elephant in the room in connection with the Alternative History project. The quartet is an ECM band, but increasingly various fractals (as Robert Fripp would put it) perform music that taps in to the project agenda but which there is no chance ECM would want to record. It’s the even niche-er end of a very niche market. Do we go down the self-funding route? Will I still be performing in 8 years’ time? Quite possibly, but almost certainly very different repertoire (my plan to sing until I drop involves doing much older music as I get much older). A YouTube channel maybe?  That might be the way forward – no profit but relatively little outlay, and the music will be there for people to enjoy. We’ll see.

Life after Josquin…

April 2nd, 2018

A luxury of lutenists


Jacob Heringman  &  Ariel Abramovich

(with John Paul Jones, centre)


I don’t know what the collective noun for lutenists is, but I’m very fortunate to work with two amazing players, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob HeringQman (John Paul’s preferred instrument after the bass guitar is the mandolin…). Together, they are the creative engine room of the Alternative History project which has produced the ground-breaking Amores Pasados and Secret History albums for ECM. The Alternative History diary for this year includes concerts in Krakow, Cork, York, London, Gothenburg, Seville, Cadiz and the Canaries, and the three of us also have plans for a programme that combines the calm subtlety of renaissance lute duets with the virtuosic mayhem of the jazz-like ‘division repertoire’ of the early 17th century. Ariel and Jake can be heard as a duo in the Swaledale Festival on June 7th, but book soon as they are likely to sell out.

escaping to Ecuador with Ariel Abramovich

[photo Guy Carpenter]

In addition to our quartet with Anna Maria Friman, I do separate programmes with Ariel  and Jacob. Ariel and I are celebrating ten years of concerts together, most recently in the Canary Islands and Ecuador, and we will be returning to Spain (our more familiar stamping ground) later in the year. Our repertoire has focused heavily on English lute songs, notably Dowland and Campion, and our current programme In This Trembling Shadow, combines this with intabulations of Byrd and Victoria.  Our performance of the Byrd 3 voice mass in Quito at around 3000 metres above sea level may be the highest Byrd has flown (I was actually offered oxygen before our first gig…).

[photo Guy Carpenter]

Jacob and I first worked together so long ago that neither of us can remember when, and Jake’s concern for our carbon footprint has serendipitously led to our doing more concerts in the UK. Our most recent work has evolved under the title ‘Life After Josquin’ and taps into both Jacob’s well-known work on Josquin intabulations and the ‘Alternative History’ way of doing things.  The title refers to the renaissance practice of re-inventing choral music as lute-based chamber music with (or without) voice(s) which often continued to be performed long after the composers were dead.  Jake has become adept at tabbing not only Josquin and his contemporaries but also twentieth & twenty-first century choral music and songs. Especially those called Peter (as in Warlock, Pope and Erskine).

April 22: Life After Josquin in York

The intabulation repertoire was created for informal performances at home, and it was probably the way most people heard renaissance polyphony (the choral interpretations beloved of the early music movement were relatively rare). Having said that, modern performances (whatever the Besetzung) invariably happen in a concert environment that is not remotely domestic, and although you can finesse the repertoire itself you can’t really avoid ‘Performing’ it. On April 22 Jacob Heringman and I will have a unique opportunity to explore this repertoire in something like a renaissance environment, courtesy of  Thomas and Jo Green who occasionally put on concerts in their house in York.  The plan at the moment is to repeat most of the Life After Josquin programme that we did in Newcastle in February, but in keeping with the informal nature of the event we will probably make it up as we go along (taking requests might be a bit tricky but not out of the question). It should be the perfect acoustic environment for the lute, but it will present interesting challenges for me as a singer: even my ‘early-music-lite’ way of singing would be a bit in yer face in a roomful of 20 people, so I’ll be experimenting with an even more speech-like delivery than usual. God knows what it’ll sound like, but it’ll certainly be the closest I’m likely to get to what we used to call an authentic performance.

May 26: The Book of Lost Lute Songs at the English Music Festival

Jake and I will be appearing next at the English Music Festival on May 26th at All Saints church Sutton Courtenay Oxfordshire (2.15 start). This programme takes the intabulation principle into more recent music. The first half will be all Tallis, Dowland and Byrd (excerpts from all three masses); the second half will consist of Jake’s intabulations of Warlock, Butterworth and Moeran, and of more recent pieces by Peter Pope, Stephen Wilkinson and Tony Banks. The festival was a little wary of including the latter (it’ll be Follow thy fair Sun from Amores Pasados) but I hope they’ll be reassured after the success of Tony’s orchestral album 5. 


Peter Erskine writes for Alternative History

We’re thrilled that American jazz legend Peter Erskine has written a new piece for us (with words by Anne Hills and intabulation by Jake).  Ash and Snow will be premiered in Krakow in August and we’ll also do it at Triskel in Cork (now re-scheduled for September after the snow beat us last time) .


S(no)w business like…

March 1st, 2018


STOP PRESS! Triskel concert re-scheduled for Sept 21!


Triskel travel terminated…

We tried very hard to get to Cork for the Alternative History concert in Triskel’s 40th birthday series but the weather gods eventually won.  Jacob Heringman got as far as Holyhead before turning back after my flight was cancelled. After all Tony Sheehan’s hard work to get us there I just wanted to cry, but we’ll have another go later in the year. If you’re sitting in Cork airport with a cancelled flight, the album is on Spotify… or you can catch us soon in Poland, Spain, the UK or the Canary Islands.

Islas Canarias

So I now have a few days off before going to the Canary Islands with Ariel Abramovich for the Sacred Music Festival. Our programme there is a new one and is the first in our 10th anniversary season. The title In This Trembling Shadow comes from the eponymous song in Dowland’s  Pilgrim’s Solace. We’ll also be doing the famous Thou Mighty God trilogy from the same book, Campion’s Author of  Light and motets by Victoria. In between there will be movements from Byrd’s 3 voice mass.

The first recital is at the Iglesia de Santa Brigida in Gran Canaria on March 16th. We then go to Tenerife and the Iglesia de Las Clarisas in  La Laguna on March 17th, and finally to the Iglesia San Francisco in Sta.Cruz de La Palma. Three evenings of intensive music making in amazing churches (and much as love snow it’ll be relief do go somewhere where there isn’t any).

Tristram Shandy

I come back to England for the Tristram Shandy celebration on March 22nd before re-joining Ariel in Madrid the next day on our way to Ecuador.  For the concert at St George’s Hanover Square I’ll be getting together briefly with my old Hilliard Ensemble colleagues for a performance of Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick. This promises to be a hugely entertaining evening with readings and music on the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s funeral in the same building.

Festival Internacional de Música Sacra Quito

This will be my first visit to Ecuador, and Ariel and I will be opening the sacred music festival with In This Trembling Shadow, and once again we’ll perform in extraordinarily beautiful churches. The schedule looks like this:

  • Sunday, March 25 Church of El Carmen Alto. 18.00
  • Monday, March 26 Variety Theater Ernesto Albán. 11.00 Master class.
  • Monday, March 26 Church of the company. 7:30 PM

Flammarion Correspondences

I get a week off at Easter (unlike  most of my fellow tenors who are frantically Bach-ing away with the seasonal passions), then at the beginning of April I’ll be spending a week at Trinity Laban working on Edward Jessen’s Flammarion Correspondences. This is a preliminary exploration with a production company intended to produce promotional material which will appeal to theatrical promoters in the UK and Europe. We’re aiming at a work-in-progress preview on Friday April 13th.


Life after Josquin

Jacob Heringman and I had the first outing of our Josquin programme at Newcastle University last week. We were asked not to cross the picket line and to cancel the concert, but I came to an amicable understanding with the union having gently I pointed out that they were expecting us to give up our meagre fee so that they could have a better pension and I couldn’t recall any of my old academic colleagues volunteering a pay cut so freelance musicians could be paid more. I was all prepared to thank a tiny audience for crossing the line and announce that we nevertheless supported the strike, but was completely wrong-footed when we went on stage to one of the biggest audiences for a lute song recital that I’ve seen for a while.

Our next performance, probably of this programme or something very like it, will be one of the smallest at a house concert in York.  We’ll be doing two performances (with tea and biscuits!): 2.30 for 3.00 or around 4.30 for 5.00 on April 22nd.  Unlike our previous one in the hugely resonant King’s Hall this will be very intimate, and perhaps not unlike listeners in the early 17th century might have experienced it (I don’t think I’ve ever performed in such a minimal acoustic, and I hope it doesn’t sound like my front room).  You can book a seat here but be quick as it’s likely to be full.

In May we’ll be back to a more resonant acoustic in the 12th century church of All Saints Sutton Courtenay. We’ll be doing parts of all three Byrd masses as well as Jake’s transcriptions of Warlock, Moeran, Peter Pope and Stephen Wilkinson at the English Music Festival.


There’s a longer list of ECM-related gigs on the ECM site.




More Spring updates

February 8th, 2018

Since the last update more details have come in about Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick at the Laurence Sterne celebrations with my former Hilliard Ensemble colleagues on March 22, after which I leave for Ecuador for concerts and a masterclass in Quito with Ariel Abramovich.  I’ll post further details about all these shortly, and concerts in April with Edward Jessen and Jacob Heringman.

La dársena

Ariel Abramovich has just given a long interview about Secret History (in Spanish)  for RTVE’s  La dársena music magazine programme. You can catch it here (starts at 1.25.19):  http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/la-darsena/darsena-ariel-abramovich-04-02-18/4459498/

Tony Banks 5

Tony Banks’ new orchestral album 5 has had a rapturous reception in the prog press, and Tony has spoken about the songs he’s composed  for me on the Genesis-News Website as well as in the current Record Collector (no relation to The Record Collector I mentioned in a recent post):


I went several times to the Marquee in 1967 though I didn’t see the Nice. I did hear the Yardbirds (with Eric Clapton), John Mayall,  Sonny Boy Williamson, Long John Baldry  and a very young and delicate Rod (‘the Mod’, as he then was) Stewart. The  Swingles stayed at the same hotel as Rod in Perth about ten years later, and we all stood and gawped as he processed through the foyer with his entourage.  I once heard a journalist ask Ward Swingle what he thought of progressive bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Nice, Yes? To which he replied ‘Very…’.

The diary for the next couple of months looks like this at the moment (recent updates in blue):

February 22

Life after Josquin                           Newcastle University (13.10)

(with Jacob Heringman lute)


March 2

Alternative History                        Triskel Arts Centre Cork


March 16

In this trembling shadow

Iglesia de Santa Brígida, Sta. Brígida, GRAN CANARIA. (20:00)

(with Ariel Abramovich (lute)


March 17

In this trembling shadow

Iglesia de Las Clarisas, La Laguna, TENERIFE (20:30)

(with Ariel Abramovich lute)


March 18

In this trembling shadow

Iglesia San Francisco, Sta.Cruz de La Palma, LA PALMA (12:30)

(with Ariel Abramovich lute)


March 22

Laurence Sterne celebrations       St George’s Hanover Square, London

(Roger Marsh: Poor Yorick with former members of the Hilliard Ensemble)


March 24

Master class                                  

Festival Internacional de Música Sacra, Quito, Ecuador

(with Ariel Abramovich lute)


March 26

In this Trembling shadow           

Festival Internacional de Música Sacra, Quito, Ecuador

(with Ariel Abramovich lute)


March 27

In this Trembling shadow           

Festival Internacional de Música Sacra, Quito, Ecuador

(with Ariel Abramovich lute)


April 13

Flammarion Correspondences   Bonnie Bird Theatre, London

(Edward Jessen preview)


April 22

Life after Josquin                           York (house concert 3.00)

(with Jacob Heringman lute)


May 26

Book of Lost Lute Songs               EMF Sutton Courtenay (2.15)

(with Jacob Heringman lute)


I’ve at last got around to updating the discography page. It’s still not complete but at least the press quotes are now pasted beside the relevant albums (thanks Inigo).


Spring diary dates

January 19th, 2018


Life after Josquin

Jacob Heringman and I start the season with our new Life after Josquin programme at the King’s Hall Newcastle at lunchtime on February 22nd. This continues the Alternative History agenda of performing 15th & 16th century polyphony as it might have been performed by subsequent generations deconstructed for voice and lute. We’ll be doing Josquin’s Pange Lingua mass and motets by Tallis and Byrd. At the English Music Festval later in the year we’ll be doing a programme of Byrd and Tallis alongside Jake’s intabulations of Warlock, Moeran and Peter Pope, and keep an eye out for our version of Dufay’s L’homme arme mass with my old Hilliard colleague David James.

Triskel’s 40th anniversary season


The full Alternative History quartet will assemble in Cork the following week for our contribution to the Triskel Arts Centre’s 40th season. The programme, Secret History: Renaissance Polyphony for Voices & Vihuelas, is based on the album (Victoria’s Missa Surge Propera and motets by Josquin) and will be recorded by Lyric FM and broadcast throughout the EBU on European Early Music Day on March 21st. This is doubly wonderful for us – firstly it’s a delight and a privilege to be back at Triskel, and secondly as a European ensemble it’s fantastic to be broadcasting to the whole continent from a proper European country. A huge thankyou to Tony Sheehan and to Lyric FM. Later in the year the quartet be returning to Poland and Spain, and even to the UK…

Festival de Música Religiosa de Canarias


Ariel Abramovich will start our tenth anniversary season with a short tour of the Canary Islands March 14-18. This will also tap into the Alternative History idea, this time with a programme based on the Paston manuscripts featuring English and European music from many periods as it might have been performed in England in the early 17th century.

Stay tuned for news of Former Members of the Hilliard Ensemble late March in London, and have a look at Lalala for an interview with yours truly which expands a bit on my time with the Hilliards and other collaborations.

photos Guy Carpenter (1&2) & Pablo Juarez (3)

Captain Stefan’s Corelli

January 10th, 2018


This is a riot of a book. If you’re interested in tenors it’s a must, if you’re interested in Franco Corelli you’ve probably already got it. If tenors’ sex lives are your thing, then you’ll learn a lot more than you probably want to know about tenorial orgasms, il pompino bolognese (Google it) and the like. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of tenor history thrown in. Don’t expect analysis or conventional referencing – this is not an objective academic tome. Stefan Zucker, self-styled opera fanatic, former baby-sitter to Franco Corelli, only begetter of the Bel Canto Society, radio personality extraordinaire, sometime holder of the Guiness Book of Records highest known tenor note, is not a conventional biographer.

I’ve been a fan of Stefan Zucker for many years. His Bel Canto Society has produced countless recordings and articles on both the greatest and most obscure opera singers – and with the minimum outside financial help. I was very happy to acknowledge his work in my Tenor: History of  Voice, though what most appeals is his complete obsession with opera singers and his no holds barred opinions on everything from larynx position and falsetto to sex and squillo.

It’s a maddening book – stuffed full of anecdote and facts that you won’t find anywhere else, but devilishly difficult to find your way around. The first volume is more coherent (and less salacious) and there’s a third one to come which will focus on singers who aren’t Corelli. Stefan and I have exchanged books in the past but we haven’t corresponded for a while, so I was astonished to discover that one of his chapters is devoted to my tenor book – which he basically seems to have enjoyed apart from the falsetto question. He calls what pre-chested top C tenors do at the top head voice, whereas my interpretation of the sources suggests falsetto (though I have to confess that as a tenor myself I don’t have a real falsetto and if I could sing a top C it would be in head voice). It’s possible we’re both guilty of over-insistence on our beliefs, and tenors are never if not opinionated. He points out a few inaccuracies and mis-attributions in my effort (but tactfully ignores the main howler which I corrected in the paperback reprint, which referred to the top Cs in  Traviata rather than Tell (I must have been asleep at the wheel there).

I can’t wait to see what Stefan has to say about Corelli’s contemporaries and successors in Volume 3. Unsurprisingly, he has a tendency to compare them unfavourably with his hero and he doesn’t pull any punches if the extract on Jonas Kaufmann published in a recent Newsletter is anything to go by.  I’m wondering what he’ll have to say about Rolando Villazon, whom I had the chance to interview for a TV programme a few years ago. When I arrived at the Covent Garden rehearsal room Villazon was sitting on the floor doing a piece to camera on  Corelli. At the end of the first take I couldn’t resist saying that he hadn’t mentioned Corelli’s legs, which were reckoned by some to be the best pair ever seen on a tenor (a bit of a risk as we hadn’t yet been introduced). He began again: …and Franco Corelli, he had it all, including two of the best pairs of legs in the business…then immediately realising what he’d said, he added…though he only used one pair at a time, of course. I can’t remember if that made the final cut, but it set the scene for a totally memorable encounter.  It was enormous fun, with Rolando fizzing away the whole time. So much energy! I’d taken the precaution of bringing along my copy of his Massenet & Gounod album and he agreed to sign it as long as I signed his copy of my book (that was a surprise). Of course, he never just signs, so I’m now the proud possessor of a Villazon cartoon of the two of us talking tenor stuff.


Some academic writing is objective to the point where you wonder if the author actually likes the topic. There’s a lot to be said for the informed fanaticism of the dedicated enthusiast. Combine this with an obsessive collecting mentality and you have another of my favourite institutions: The Record Collector. I have to own up to a certain nerdy tendency to ‘collect’ old recordings, but it’s only the singing I’m interested in and a list of serial numbers of old 78s will make my eyes glaze over. But it is exactly this attention to minute detail that drives many of the contributors to The Record Collector (don’t forget the definite article, as I did on the first printing of my tenor book – the article-less publication is a different kettle of vocal fry all together). You won’t find hundreds of footnotes, but you will find detailed, meticulous writing by collectors who love what they are writing about. The bizarre magic of the serial numbers and so on is there, but (sometimes almost incidentally) there are also wonderful insights into the singing of the early twentieth century. There’s a terrific bias towards tenors which suited me just fine, and there’s an annual CD of long forgotten singing which never fails to get the juices going.  I don’t write write about tenors these days, but I may return to the fray in the future, and if I do I don’t doubt that the Bel Canto Society and the Record Collector will be essential reading.

Both of these extraordinary resources operate on a shoestring in a world dominate by big conglomerates, so if you’re interested in the history of singing (early music students take note!) sign up for a subscription.



Remembering Roger Williams

November 22nd, 2017

Every now and again something happens to remind me that the life of a freelance performer is not quite the same as those who do a regular job. You share with your fellow musicians the excitements and the uncertainties of life on the road or in the studio and you have to get to know people pretty quickly, often working in intense bursts with people who briefly become great friends but whom you may never see again.

A few months ago I was contacted by Gillian Williams, wife of the trombonist Roger Williams who died earlier this year after a long struggle with cancer. Gillian had some photos that she thought might be of me, that Roger had taken back in the eighties. Would I like them? The first rule of being a performer is never listen to your recordings and the second is never look at your photographs, so it was with some trepidation that I asked Gillian to send them. I’ve lost count of the number of photographers I’ve met over the years, but some stand out. My earliest pro photographer memories are of sitting on a canon in the Tower of London with the Gentle Power of Song while someone from Polydor tried to get us to take the session seriously. Some years later Colin Gibbs took the iconic shot of the Swingles in a mason’s yard that became the cover of Madrigals (but what impressed me most was being driven around in CBS art director Roslav Szaybo’s brand new E-type Jag). The Douglas Brothers pics for the cover of Red Byrd’s Songs of love and Death were also spectacular (Factory Records sparing no expense).  The Hilliards used to dread photo sessions, but every so often Roberto Masotti would hit the mark between espressi at his Milan place (the Officium cover is one of his) and Tonmeister Peter Laenger was, like Roger Williams, a musician who also had a very sensitive eye for a visual composition. The other cover pic that stands out is Anna Tchernakova’s shot of Anna Maria Friman and me for Gavin Bryars’ Oi me lasso – Anna looking serene as ever and me close to death with ‘flu. More recently I’ve had some windy, wet and wonderful times with Guy Carpenter and the Alternative History project (there was a wonderfully orange reproduction of his water shot in the programme booklet for the Poznan Nostalgia Festival last week).

Seeing Roger Williams’ photos brought back a sheaf of memories from so long ago it seems like another life. As a musician Roger knew what it was like to be photographed, to have to summon up enthusiasm for something so vital and yet so tangential to what we do. We were all struggling young(ish) musicians then and it probably cost him more in film than I was able to pay him. The results still look convincing after thirty years. I probably first met him around 1983 as there’s a set of shots from the one gig I did with Gothic Voices, Christopher Page, Rogers Covey-Crump, Margaret Philpot looking very young.

Sometime after that there’s a set of formal portraits to send to promoters and agents (in which I look uncannily like my son Ned who’s now several years older than I was then) , and from 1988 a series of publicity shots for Henry Brown’s ‘And the Word was made Flesh’. This was an elaborate theatre piece that subsequently got me into no end of trouble. The pictures are from a dress rehearsal and Henry hadn’t finished constructing the set so Roger had to capture the spirit of the work with none of us quite knowing what the show would actually look like.

The plot was based on the pataphysical concepts of Albert Jarry, and took place in and around a giant vagina…

…and involved a complicated sound and light set-up as well as monkey masks and rather fine waistcoats.

One of the props was a ‘Physick stick’ –  part pistol and part loo-plunger. The score specified one shot, standing on one leg behind the audience before I clambered onto the stage while everyone was still in shock. The business end of the physick stick – a German bird-scaring pistol – hadn’t arrived in time for the photo session so we had to improvise:

After the first performance I was advised that theatres would require me to have a gun license so I took the contraption to the Essex Police fire arms department, who clearly thought I was bonkers (it’s not me guv, it’s the composer!) but conceded that I’d better have the right paper work. By the time it came through I’d done what turned out to be the last performance and I forgot all about it until a knock on the door a few years later. ‘About your gun, sir…’. ‘What gun?’ ‘The one with the expired licence…’ I retrieved it from the attic. The somewhat bemused WPC obviously hadn’t seen a physick stick before but after some rather surreal discussion she granted me an amnesty on the condition I gave her a carrier bag to take it back to the nick without anyone seeing it. I later kept the props (including a large plastic penis and two infra-red sensitive monkey costumes) in my office at York, and left them there for my successor to enjoy.

‘And the Word’ was the most elaborate and most fun theatre I piece I ever commissioned. It was also the most exhausting, needing hours to set up and take down (it had 8 channel tape wielded by the legendary John Whiting), and I just couldn’t keep it up. The photo session was also the last time I remember seeing Roger. He went on to become one of the most successful bass trombonists, and I got very busy with the Hilliard Ensemble and the newly-founded Red Byrd. I remember him as a warm and charismatic fellow musician with a huge amount of patience. There’s a wonderful online tribute to him by the trumpeter Paul Archibald. I think I only worked once with Paul, and that was on the first performance of part of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag at Riverside Studios under Richard Bernas. It was my first experience of Stockhausen and led indirectly to my being one of the few performers paid a huge sum not to appear at Covent Garden when I understudied the role at very short notice a few years later. My audition piece to Stockhausen and Michael Bogdanov was the monkey dance from ‘And the word was made flesh’.

with huge thanks to Gillian Williams

Nothing like the sun in Leeds & Prague

October 19th, 2017


I haven’t sung Gavin Bryars’ great Shakespeare cycle since the Australia trip a couple of years ago (though we did Sonnet 128  with Alternative History in Querenca last week).  This  time I’ll be joined by Sarah Dacey (famous soprano from Juice – who many moons ago was the first student to brave doing an MA with me at York). The Leeds performance is at the Howard Assembly Rooms at 7.45 on Wednesday 25th, and then we go to Prague for a performance on the 27th at the Archa Theatre.

Alternative History

We had a great time in Portugal last week and I’m looking forward to our next gig in Poznan at the Nostalgia Festival on November 18th. Jake, Ariel and I will then record some Josquin back in the UK the following week. Our dedicated page on this site is now up and running and you can find more details of the project here.

Cecilia Frode’s Från det blå skåpet 

I’m back in Sweden for the last week November for the intriguing Cecilia Frode project with Serikon and Mare Balticum. I now know something of what Cecilia’s script is about and it’s fascinating to watch the audience’s reactions to Från det blå skåpet. And yes, I do wear tails but so do the women, and I get to wear blue shoes.  Duo Lingo tells me I’m only 13% fluent in Swedish. Better than the 1% I got down to earlier this year though.

I’m taking most of December off. This is what the current diary looks like:

October 25 Gavin Bryars Nothing like the sun Howard Assembly Rooms Leeds

October 28 Gavin Bryars Nothing like the sun Archa Theatre Prague

November 18 Alternative History Nostalgia Festival Poland

November 24 Josquin recording with Ariel Abramovich & Jacob Heringman

Novermber 29 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Teatern i Falkhallen Falkenberg

November 30 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Växjö Theatre

December 1 Cecilia Frode/Serikon Från det blå skåpet: Kalmar Teater


October 8th, 2017

Not very close encounters

Some months ago I had a bizarre phone call. Are you the UK’s world expert on John Dowland? Er…well…I spluttered, modesty and all that… It was someone from the production company making the Philip K Dick series currently showing on Channel 4. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before I found out anything more, and then I was sent a script for Crazy Diamond, which went out last night. My task was to teach one actor (Steve Buscemi) to teach another actor (Sidse Babbet Knudsen) a bit of Flow my Tears, to enable them to operate some sort of electronic key and burgle a building.  A few weeks later I turned up at the rehearsal studio but the two stars needed very little coaching from me. I always try to get singers to sing like actors and here were actors actually doing it (there are plenty of YouTube clips of both of them in action). They were so good I told them they didn’t need me at the actual filming, which was a bit silly, on reflection. Oh, and they said they were going to use the track from my Dowland album over the credits. They didn’t.  Steve and Sidse were lovely by the way – and he’s still got my tuning fork.

The Dowland Project will be doing gigs in Germany next autumn.

Alternative History

Amores Pasados was taken by British Airways for their transatlantic flights, and Secret History is continuing  the tradition: it’s been selected by Oman Airways. This weekend we’re in Portugal at the  XIX Encontro de Música Antiga de Loulé Francisco Rosado. It’ll be the first time we’ve appeared under our new name. It’s a special Shakespeare-orientated programme but we’ll also be doing a couple of Josquin pieces. Next month we’re in Poznan and there are lots of gigs next year, so far in Spain, Poland and Ireland, and even (possibly) in the UK.

Alive or Dead: my life in composers

I’ve been asked to do a composers’ seminar at the Music Department. It’s the first time I’ve been back apart from concerts or seeing old friends. I thought I’d talk about composers I’d worked with since I left. But then I thought why only seven years – I’ll do all sixty since I was a choirboy. That’ll teach them. It’s at 4.00 on Tuesday in Sally Baldwin D008, Music Department, University of York. Open to all – it would be great to see some old friends there.