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Encounters with Veljo Tormis

January 23rd, 2017

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Veljo Tormis 1930-2017

The York connection…

I first met Veljo Tormis in the mid 1980s, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union.  It was, I think, the Hilliard Ensemble’s first visit to Finland, and I was only dimly aware of the extraordinary, symbiotic relationship between Finland and Estonia. Two black-clad figures came up to us after the concert and thrust LPs into our hands. ‘I am Tormis’, said one – the only English he knew back then. His companion was the conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, and the records were of the recently formed Kammerkoor Ellerhein, later to be re-invented as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Both men were on a semi-legal visit to Helsinki from Tallinn. I went home and put the LPs on a shelf.

I was getting used to being given stuff after concerts, and I didn’t think about them until several months later when I pulled them out and had a listen. I was immediately hooked. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I could certainly recognise a good tune when I heard one, and here were scores of wonderful melodies, sung in that vibrant non-western way that was the hallmark of the old Estonian Chamber Choir. Time passed; I made many visits to Finland and Estonia. I finally met the great man again when the Hilliard Ensemble commissioned Tormis to write ‘Kullervo’s Message’ (he didn’t much care for our interpretation of it…too English!)…but we recorded it for ECM, and stole one of his Estonian Lullabies for Jan Gabarek to improvise over.

Then in 2006 I taught a project at York called Estonian Icons: the Music of Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis. It was an exuberant experience: Tormis himself visited the Department and we serenaded him in the staff kitchen; one of the students went on to win  the BBC writer of the year with an article on the composer.  The Department serendipitously came in for some rare extra cash and we bought the entire Tormis catalogue for the university library.

Veljo Tormis (4th from left) in the Music Department kitchen

It was one of my last and most exciting undergraduate projects at York and I’m so glad to have done it. We performed most of the Forgotten Peoples cycle in one memorable concert with The 24. It was a timely reminder that in the far corners of northern Europe there is extraordinary music that is fun to sing and moving to listen to, and that Veljo Tormis was a crucial part of the nexus between folk and art music (along with Bartok, Kodaly,  Vaughan Williams and other composers who have kept alive oral musics that would otherwise have been lost). It’s a cliché to say that a country’s musical soul resides in a particular composer, but if it’s true of anyone it’s true of Tormis. He dedicated his life to the recovery and dissemination of the music of the Baltic peoples. Estonia, that most musical of nations, will never forget him, and nor will we musicians the world over who were privileged to know him and to know his music.

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January 11th, 2017


It was in my early years with the Hilliard Ensemble that I learned about coaching. The group ran its own summer school and had been asked to coach in mainland Europe, particularly in Finland and Germany. Our annual visits to Kangasniemi at the invitation of the Sibelius Academy – intense coaching sessions followed by traditional wood-smoke saunas and swimming in the lake – were the ultimate in combining business with pleasure. None of us had coached before, and it took a while for us to figure out how to do it. We were going through a huge change of approach to our own music making, moving away from the conventional leader/led string quartet model to a cooperative venture that would eventually revolutionise our ideas about how the music worked. We didn’t really know how we did it. It was an instinctive process – something we rarely talked about – and as we got more and more into it we rehearsed less and less, increasingly aware that no amount of rehearsal would reveal more than a fraction of the musical possibilities, some of which we would only discover in performance.  We enjoyed testing each others’ listening to the limit whenever we could, and on the Hilliard Live recordings in particular you can almost feel the risk-taking as we pushed the music into one-off new shapes (and that’s exactly how Officium worked). We were incredibly fortunate to work with a number of groups who would go on to become hugely successful – Singer Pur and Amarcord from Germany, Köyhät Ritarit and Lumen Valo from Finland and the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval were just the tip of an enlightened ensemble iceberg.  When I came to edit the Cambridge Companion to Singing some years later the ensemble singing chapter wrote itself – I’d had several years to contemplate how we actually did it.

It was very simple. Once you realise that every note you sing is communicating information to the others, and that you are similarly receiving information from them, all you have to do is listen. The person with the moving part effectively has control at any given moment, and in almost any piece of renaissance music the lead will pass from part to part. You negotiate in real time. It’s easy until someone tells you it‘s difficult, and it enables you to perform the music differently each time. You don’t expect a definitive performance and you don’t count the beats  – the text provides the rhythm. It’s endlessly creative, and was a far cry from the dull discipline we’d been brought up with – aim for a rehearsal close to perfection and reproduce it in performance; mark the score to make sure you got it exactly right, do as the director tells you.  I haven’t marked anything in a score for years – if something works I’ll remember it, if it doesn’t I’ll try something else next time. In the bad old days we used to mark exactly how long the final chords were. Why on earth would you want them to be the same every time?  The art of successful coaching is really to persuade your students that it really is that simple, and that they already possess the tools to make it work. So much more rewarding all round than simply telling them what to do.

Red Byrd, the Sound and the Fury and the Dowland project worked in much the same way; for me it’s the only way to work (it’s been a very long time since I worked with anyone who wanted to tell me what to do…).  I still coach some amazing groups (most recently Nobiles and Sjaella from Germany)and I’d certainly never dream of telling them what to do. Even the young musicians who did my ensemble singing MA at York (invented by the singers who would later become Juice) were given complete freedom to explore their collective creative personae once they‘d grasped the secret of how musical communication works.  In time the less courageous tend to revert to something more conventional and predictable, but I can always recognise those who really got it: you can never tell what they’re going to do next.

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Reading and Writing

December 8th, 2016


It’s been a while since I gave up the seasonal tenor repertoire, which means that while the cup of my younger colleagues runneth over with Bach and Handel I generally get December off.  January’s usually a pretty fallow month too so I have no excuse for not getting down to some writing. This process begins with as many displacement activities as possible (of which this is one). This year I’ve cleared the garden, laid a landing floor and even painted skirting boards before getting down to a kind of writing audit. It’s been a very busy performing year so my authorly optimism of a year ago turned out to be rather misplaced. I’m still struggling with a title, and with what sort of tone to adopt. I don’t want to alienate any more readers than absolutely necessary, but I can’t avoid some uncomfortable truths about the singing profession. I fully intend to get down it very soon…

I’ve been encouraged by the dozen or so publications which Google Alerts tell me have quoted Vocal Authority over the last year.  It’s bit weird given that it’s way past its sell by date and slightly disappointing that none of my more recent stuff has had such an impact – but I hope the sequel will be worth waiting for. The VA references are mostly in journal articles on topics ranging from folk music, musical theatre, jazz and ensemble singing to feminism and cultural theory, most published in the USA but with several from the UK and significant pieces in German and Finnish. I wouldn’t normally have the temerity to compare myself with Roland Barthes but one thing we have in common is that both Vocal Authority and ‘The Grain of the Voice’ are primarily critiques of classical singing, yet both have found relevance in other sorts of music and are mostly ignored by the readership the authors had in mind.

In the same sort of vein I’ve also been referred to in two new books: Tracey Thorn’s Naked at the Albert Hall (Virago 2015) and Timothy Wise’ Yodeling and Meaning in American Music (Mississippi University Press, 2016). Penny my wife is a big Tracey Thorn fan and I know many EBTG albums pretty much from memory so that was a real (and totally unexpected)) treat. Tim Wise takes me to task for not mentioning yodelling in either Vocal Authority or the Cambridge Companion to Singing, but Neil Sorrell and I get a Brownie point for a yodel mention in our History of Singing. I quite often  get complaints about what I’ve left out. The tenor book, inevitably perhaps, doesn’t cover everyone’s favourite tenor, and some of the more exotic singings of the world have tended to slip below the radar. But it still amazes me that anyone reads my stuff at all, just as I’m always surprised and delighted when I come across someone who’s bought my albums, and I don’t begrudge the complaints.

I can recommend both Naked at the Albert Hall and Yodeling and Meaning if you’re looking for last minute Christmas presents. I’m flattered to be quoted in both of them – not least because in their different ways they’re both great reads and a long way from the dry well of academia.

Merry Christmas all!

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Singing lute songs

November 3rd, 2016


I spent much of October singing lute songs in one form or another (with one or both of my fantastic collaborators Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman). As often happens I was asked at various points along the way to give lessons and classes. This is a difficult one – I like to encourage young singers and I don’t like to undermine the teaching of my fellow performers – but there’s very little about lute songs that an intelligent singer can’t work out for him or herself. It’s mostly a question of persuading them that they already have the means to do it, and giving them permission to suspend most of what they’ve been taught.

Obviously I can’t really charge a fee to tell someone they don’t need teaching so what I often do is invite them for a coffee and a chat. It’s free, and if they learn as much as they would in several lessons (as they sometimes do) it’s worth quite a lot. The first thing I point out is that Dowland, Campion and their contemporaries didn’t have singing lessons. They just applied their rhetorical instincts to the poetry and, probably with only minimal enhancement of their speaking voices, turned the poetry into song.  Our speaking voices are unique (which is why voice printing works) – they are the audible and aural representation of our personalities. No one would have mistaken Dowland for Campion, even if they were singing each other’s songs. Today’s trained singer is likely to be a generic tenor, soprano or whatever, and the price you pay for sounding like a proper tenor is some loss of your own individual vocal persona.  There are musical implications here too: modern breathing technique is what enables the legato line that we’re all taught to aspire to. No breathing technique: no line; no line: no tone colour. Horror of horrors…

What you’re left with when you take away the taught enhancements is a direct line to the poetry itself, a direct line from the creative bits of your brain to your voice. And there’s a bonus: you find yourself entering into a completely new relationship with the lute. It becomes your equally audible partner, not your inaudible accompanist. You breathe where the poet breathed, you adapt the music to the text and not the other way round. The lute can sing too, and the two of you merge into that extraordinary synthesis of words and music that is the 17th century lute song.  And you don’t really need a singing teacher to tell you that – it’s probably what you’d do if left to your own devices.

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Buenos Aires to Blackburn

September 30th, 2016


Ex-Hilliard Ensemble

October’s concerts start with a trip down memory lane with my old Hilliard Ensemble colleagues. On Wednesday  5th we’re taking part in a charity concert in St Paul’s Covent Garden. The plan is to sell off the group’s remaining stock of albums in aid of  Music For Open Ears which supports classical music in primary schools. We’ll be singing Tallis, Brumel, Dufay and Leonin among other composers. So come along and see if we can still cut it! If we’re still alive and kicking we’ll all be at the Singer Pur 25th anniversary concert at the Prinzregententheater in Munich on March 8th next year.

The Hilliards’ recording of Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick, commissioned for the anniversary tour with us ex-members,  is hot off the press and available from the Lawrence Sterne Trust.

'Alas Poor Yorick' CD by Roger Marsh

and Miserere and Officium are now available on Vinyl! Though the picture accompanying the Officium catalogue entry is a little misleading…

Goodly Ayres in Buenos Aires and Tenerife


Palacio correos BA 2015.jpg


At the crack of dawn the next day I set off for Argentina, and a recital with Ariel Abramovich in the fabulous CCK hall in Buenos Aires on the 8th. It’s a programme of Dowland and Campion with one or two surprises thrown in (and will be my first visit there). I then have a week off before meeting up with Ariel again in Tenerife on the 21st (my first visit to the Canaries since playing in a lava tube in Lanzarote with the Dowland Project a while ago). This time we’ll be featuring Johnson’s Shakespeare settings alongside Danyel, Campion, Dowland and Tony Banks at the Festival de Música Antigua La Laguna .

Amores Pasados news



Then it’s swiftly to Germany via Madrid for Amores Pasados in Murnau at the Grenzenlos world music festival on the 23rd  and  Enjoy Jazz in Heidelberg’s Heiliggeistkirche (above) the following day. We’ll be adding Jacob Heringman’s new transcriptions of Butterworth and the elusive Peter Pope, and having a first rehearsal of John Paul Jones’ Blake Lullaby which he’s just finished for us and which we’ll probably unleash in Madrid or Trieste in March (it’s going to be a busy month). We’ve just agreed to do the Swaledale Festival next June and hope to slot in more UK dates before recording the next album.

Northern Song

I’ll be making my way to Blackburn on the 30th to join my ex-Swingle colleagues Linda Hirst and Catherine Bott on the panel for the Kathleen Ferrier Junior Bursary. I was unable to make the recent Swingle reunions (one of them coincided with the Hilliard reunion gig) and I don’t think the three of us have sat down together in the same room for decades so we’ll have a lot to catch up on as well as listening to some of the brightest young singers of the year. Very appropriate, having started the month raising money for primary school music, to end it hearing what talented first year conservatoire students can do.




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Amores Pasados in Blaibach

September 11th, 2016


rehearsing in the Konzerthaus

It was great to kick off the new season at the Kulturwald festival in Blaibach – our first appearance in Germany – and to play in a hall voted by acousticians as one of the top 10 in the world. It was perfect for us – we could get the balance between voices and lutes absolutely spot on. A big thankyou to Thomas Bauer and his very efficient team, and thanks to Klaus Wenk for this picture from the concert:


The programme was our now usual mix of Jacob Heringman’s versions of English song (we’re big on Warlock and Moeran at the moment) with the new music by Sting, Tony Banks and John Paul Jones. We’re back in Germany next month for the world music festival in Murnau and Enjoy Jazz in Heidelberg  and in the spirit of early music we’ll be performing at least one piece that hasn’t see the light of day since way back in the last century (and not quite as the composer intended).

No news yet, sadly, of the release of Secret History or a possible new recording.

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Autumn gigs

August 27th, 2016

It’s going to be an interesting autumn with the first Amores Pasados concerts in Germany, and recitals in Argentina and the Canary Islands with Ariel Abramovich. I’ll also be getting together with my old Hilliard Ensemble colleagues for a grand charity concert at St Paul’s Covent Garden, and Jacob Heringman and I will be doing a lutesong course at Benslow (the first time I’ve been there since the days of Tragicomedia and the Hilliard Festival of Voices eons ago). We hope to encourage participants to think beyond the 30 year window that is English lute song.

Here’s what I’ll be up to in the next two months:

September 10 Blaibach  Kulturwald Festival Amores Pasados

September 19 Benslow Music Hitchin Secret Lute Songs recital with Jacob Heringman

September 20-22 Benslow Music Hitchin lutesong workshop with Jacob Heringman

October 5 London  St Paul’s Covent Garden ex-Hilliard Ensemble charity concert

October 8 CCK Buenos Aires lutesong recital with Ariel Abramovich

October 21 La Laguna (Tenerife) lutesong recital with Ariel Abramovich

October 23 Murnau World Music Festival Amores Pasados

October 24 Heidelberg Enjoy Jazz  Amore Pasados


There are no Conductus dates in the diary at the moment, but we have a newly revamped webpage here.

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fining universities for bad teaching

August 18th, 2016


I tend to keep quiet about the inanities of government educational policy these days, but I couldn’t help getting a bit exercised by the proposal to penalise bad university teaching by lowering the fees. As usual, they completely miss the point by focusing on the teaching (impossible to measure) rather than the learning (which is at least quantifiable according to some very broad criteria). Thinking back to my own time as a university lecturer I’m pretty sure I never taught anybody anything (just as my own teachers from O level onwards didn’t ‘teach’ me), but I hope I enabled students to discover their innate ability to be creative with their own learning. I was incredibly lucky with my university job: when I started out I had a free hand to teach what I liked however I liked. There were no specified ‘aims and outcomes’  – and the very idea that you could reduce the results of a course to three outcomes when you had maybe twenty students all with different expectations would have sounded completely mad. I’m probably seeing it through rose tinted reality goggles, but it seems like a glorious golden time in retrospect. Then the government decided it needed to measure everything, and it went downhill after that.  Now students are customers who expect ‘value for money’. It’s no good just hoping to inspire your students to be creative – you have to tell them how to do it, and they have to do it according to a set of rules (and as was made clear to me towards the end of my time as a lecturer, the Music criteria had to be the same as those for the Biology Dept).

I won’t bang on any more about it as there will be plenty of bile in my new book (assuming I can find a publisher that way inclined), but I can’t help thinking there might be an opportunity here for poverty stricken arts students to indulge in a bit of sabotage of the government’s obsessive educational monetizing. A cheap bad teacher – one who lets you do your own thing – may be preferable to a highly measurable expensive one. You get to be creative and your loan goes a bit further.

Normal service will be resumed with the autumn gig list shortly.

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Conductus complete

July 20th, 2016

nb: new Conductus webpage here

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The performance element of the Conductus project reached its climax at the 5th annual course on medieval music inBesalú  at the weekend.


Concert pic


Funded by the AHRC, led by Mark Everist at the University of Southampton, and known officially as Cantum pulcriorum invenire (‘Finding a finer song’), the project has involved Christopher O’Gorman, Roger Covey-Crump and me in more than a dozen concerts and workshops in five different countries as well as three CDs. Our repertoire consists of some fifty pieces and is continuing to expand.  A big thankyou from the three of us to the AHRC, all the Southampton team, our manager Robert White and those workshop organisers who did such a great job. We’re looking forward to future collaboration (and, of course, the book). For those interested in the complete story – the venues, the repertoire, the name changes… there are more than 30 posts on this site charting our progress over the last few years.

We had a terrific time in Besalú – a great bunch of students from all over the planet (Mexico, the USA, Japan, Canada, France, not to mention Catalunya…) and a relaxed, friendly,  efficiently organised course.


Workshop pic


Mauricio Molina‘s vision will surely carry his project forward to great things in the future.  Part of our concert was featured on the local tv station (the final shot, somewhat embarrassingly, featuring an edition that was more Australian than Southampton…). We ended our last workshop with an open rehearsal of Exiit sermo, a virtuosic three voice organum which we’re performing in Gloucester next week.


Cantum image

One of the conditions of the AHRC grant was that we should reach beyond the higher education community, and we tapped into the wider audience this implied by engaging with festivals and concert series, some of which had never had a medieval experience before. Now that the research project is complete we’re able to take a sideways step into academia, so if there are universities out there interested in our post-Conductus projects do please get in touch…

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The Hilliard Ensemble and the Art of Tidying

July 12th, 2016


David James   | Rogers Covey-Crump | Steven Harrold |

 Gordon Jones | John Potter

LONDON: St Paul’s Church Covent Garden

Wednesday 5th October at 7:00pm


To quote Mirjam James…

‘After retiring at the end of 2014, the former members of The Hilliard Ensemble (one of the world’s foremost male a cappella ensembles) have had time to tidy up their shelves, lofts and drawers and discovered a number of unsold cd-treasures. Realising that they don’t really need to keep multiple copies of their own cds and not wanting just to sell them they have kindly offered to donate their hidden stocks as part of a fundraising concert to support the charity ‘Music for Open Ears’. Music for Open Ears gives children of primary school age the opportunity to develop their active listening skills and fosters a love for classical music. Supporting the spirit behind Music for Open Ears – that the most exciting music is performed live – five members, David James, John Potter, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones, will perform a selection of pieces from the cds to be sold at the concert. The one hour concert will include works such as Viderunt omnes by Perotin and the first part of Tallis’ Lamentations and will be followed by a reception and the opportunity to purchase cds. ‘

This should be a terrific occasion – not just the five of us resurrecting ourselves which should be entertaining in itself, but a chance to meet lots of old friends and make some money for Open Ears, a wonderful charity that supports music in schools. Oddly enough, before Steven Harrold took over from me permanently we had a brief incarnation as an occasional five-voice group (and we three tenors even joined Trio Mediaeval for a Scandinavian tour with Gavin  Bryars’ Second Book of Madrigals which he wrote for the six of us). The last time I appeared in the Covent Garden piazza Sean Williams and I were  busking John Edmonds’ and Nigel Osborne’s Paganini. Ned was about five and has never quite recovered from seeing me leap out of a coffin brandishing a cardboard violin.

In the meantime Rogers, Chris O’Gorman and I are off to Besalu for the final AHRC Conductus event. When we get back we begin charting a slightly new path, still exploring the conductus but branching out into organum at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. Coincidentally, this programme will also have a Hilliard connection as Rogers and I will be doing Perotin’s Dum Sigillum which, like Viderunt Omnes, can be found on the Hilliards’ famous Perotin album.

More info on the reunion concert from Mirjam James musicforopenears@gmail.com or 0759 0657 025.

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