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ECM from the Hilliard Ensemble to Alternative History

March 25th, 2020



If you were hoping to get to one of our Corona-cancelled Alternative History gigs and haven’t got one of our albums, Amores Pasados has several pieces that are still in our repertoire, and the Josquin and Victoria on Secret History is the tip of an iceberg of similar material that we would be doing live. The ensemble name post-dates the albums so you’ll find them under our individual names – and do check out the discographies of  my fellow band members Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Anna’s most recent Trio Mediaeval recording is Rimur (with her husband, trumpeter and extraordinary vocalist Arve Henriksen); you can hear Jake and Ariel playing vihuela duets on Cifras Imaginarias, and Jake and I also put in a brief appearance on Ariel’s latest album Imaginario with Maria Christina Kehr. It was a winter’s day and close to zero when I recorded my bit of Josquin and it has had unusually mixed reviews ranging from the mythical to the mediocre, but don’t let that stop you listening to the magnificent Maria Christina and Ariel. Jake has a huge discography, and if you want to wallow in a Brexit metaphor, Guy Carpenter videoed the two of us in a post-Brexit (post-Coronavirus?) landscape for In Darkness Let me Dwell.

ECM…

Three of these five albums are on ECM, Manfred Eicher’s iconic label that has so successfully captured the musical Zeitgeist either side of the millennium. My connection goes back to the first meeting between the Hilliards, Manfred and Arvo Pärt in the back of a BBC van in the mid-1980s. When I left the Hilliards about fifteen years later I was incredibly touched to be asked to suggest new recording projects and the Dowland Project was born (as much the creation of Manfred Eicher as we musicians).  I don’t listen to my own stuff obviously (there’s a full discography here) but if I did here are some of the earlier ECM tracks I might summon up…

The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium produced lots of fantastic music but many people didn’t get beyond the first album. Mnemosyne, the second recording, is a double CD and we were a lot better at negotiating with the saxophone by then. Two of my favourite tracks are Quechua Song, put together from fragments of South American folksongs, and the Brumel Agnus Dei. The Brumel has that wonderful sequence and we reordered it so that it would keep on coming. We used to do it live as the final piece, leaving the stage while still singing with Jan Garbarek soaring away above us. Of the other Hilliard albums from my time, A Hilliard Songbook is a double album of the the group’s greatest 20th century hits including not only works by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis  but also wonderful pieces by James MacMillan, Barry Guy, Paul Robinson, Elizabeth Liddle, Joanne Metcalf, John Casken, Piers Hellawell and Ivan Moody.  The Arvo Pärt Passio and Miserere albums continue to resonate decades after we made them. I also love the gloriously bonkers When Sara was Ninety Years old (also on Miserere), where Rogers Covey-Crump and duet over Pierre Favre’s shamanic drum for the ninety year gestation period until the moment Sara (in the form of Sarah Leonard assisted by Christopher Bowers Broadbent) is miraculously delivered of  Isaac. We hardly ever did it live as it’s almost impossible to programme, but long after I’d left the Hilliards I was doing a gig in Sofia and found myself sharing a taxi with the distinguished percussionist and we bonded once more over the six words that we had in common.

Being Dufay

The Bulgarian gig was a new work by Ambrose Field for me and amplified string quartet, the second piece he’d written for me. Ambrose was a colleague at York and one day asked me to find him some fragments of Dufay, which we recorded in the Music Department studio. I was totally gobsmacked when about a year later he produced the extraordinary electronic tour de force which is Being Dufay. We played a bit to Manfred when he came to the university to deliver the PRS Lecture and he remixed and remastered it for ECM. There are proper prog moments when (as one reviewer put it) ‘the full digital Potter is unleashed’ but I really like the final track, La Dolce Vista. It’s a delicate love song,  one line of a three-voice ballade which I sing over an electronic drone. Ambrose used to re-mix it when we did it live, and I still do it with the Dowland Project, with Jacob Heringman providing the drone and John Surman and Milos Valent alternately inventing additional parts.

The Dowland Project

It’s impossible to pick a favourite Dowland Project track as they’re mostly single takes and you enjoy each one as though it’s the last you’ll ever do, so each one has everything you’ve got.  The most serendipitous album is Night Sessions, half of which was done after midnight and a lot of alcohol, having completed the previous recording (Romaria). With no music left but a feeling that the night was still young we went back into the monastery church and busked away with a book of medieval poems that I happened to have with me. We didn’t really know what we’d done until the next morning. The track about medieval gardening is excruciating, but Corpus Christi and I sing of a Maiden hit the spot. You’d have no idea we were making it up and that these were the only takes. With Night Sessions I think the process that began with Officium reached a kind of point of no return (and I’m sure my ex-Hilliard colleagues are very relieved that I left before I could drag them in that direction). Strangely enough Theoleptus 22 was originally intended for the Hilliards and Jan. It’s an ancient Byzantine chant (with 22 notes, I seem to remember) and obviously got very different treatment in the hands of messrs Guy, Stubbs, Homburger and Surman. Thankyou Manfred for half a century of fantastic music making.

Alternative History update

March 19th, 2020

I’m not really a football fan, but my son Ned is so I try to keep up with the fortunes of Liverpool. He’s supported them since he was about ten. One of the most serendipitous things that ever happened to the two of us was driving from Essex to Liverpool decades ago to watch a home game and we stopped at a service station which turned out to have a picture by Ned’s great grandfather Ernest Walbourn on the wall of the cafe. Can’t imagine what Ernest would have made of that.  The Liverpool manager/god Jürgen Klopp famously said when urging fans to understand and support the Coronavirus cancelling of matches, that football is ‘the most important of the least important things’. It’s a brilliant way of describing the things that obsess us but in the end are not actually real life. That’s the case with music too of course, but if you’re a freelance musician during the plague the lack of public music making is very real indeed. It may be hard for us ancient musicians to be in quarantine for 3 months but at least we have a pension (of sorts) so we won’t starve. We’re also lucky enough to have a wonderful family to look out for us. I’ve been age-blind for as long as I can remember, but the 70-till-dead bracket does tend to make you a bit more aware of how the rest of the world sees you.

The news on the work front isn’t good. We think the Alternative History recording planned for Madrid next month will have to be postponed if its associated gig falls through. I won’t be going to Portugal or Australia either, but hopefully there will be opportunities in the future. Fingers crossed for the summer. I’ve never thought of retiring (most singers can’t afford to) but the next three months will be a pretty good rehearsal should it ever happen (apart from the social distancing stuff, obviously). I’ve become a serious gardener now that my greenhouse is fully operational and I can imagine that becoming as important as the music. Every windowsill and every shelf in the greenhouse is bursting with plant life. Nurturing a plant is a wonderful thing and has many parallels with musical endeavour. And then there’s writing. I may even get to complete the much junked sequel to Vocal Authority…

January 31 is a dark day

January 30th, 2020

Europe, European Union, Flag

I’d never been abroad until I left school, when I hitchhiked to Istanbul with a mate. I can’t remember how it came about – maybe one or other of us suggested it in jest and having agreed neither of us dared pull out. Somehow we found ourselves on the Dover-Calais ferry, from which we miraculously managed to get a ride to somewhere in the middle of Germany. Off the Autobahn we found ourselves on a country road that looked distinctly unpromising for hitchhiking. But it wasn’t long before a huge beer lorry rumbled to a halt and the driver beckoned us in, reaching behind him for a couple of bottles. This was a proper country.  A day or two later in deepest Bavaria I opened the youth hostel window at first light to see the Alps. We’d arrived the previous night and hadn’t even known they were there. Awestruck doesn’t cover it. Then over the Brenner pass, crossing the border with sufficient German to understand the guard’s joke to the driver about how my hair was too long to tell which sex I was. On down through the Dolomites, crawling exhausted one night into a small building that revealed itself in the morning as a disused toilet. Eventually arriving in Venice and encountering not only canals but something called pizza. We made a mental note to start a pizza stall when we got back to the UK (we forgot, sadly, but we would have been years ahead of our time). On to Jugoslavia as it then was, burning a tic out of my leg after a night in a field, a train ride to Sofia with lovely Slavs sharing their food and drink, then a mega lift across Bulgaria from a German smuggling shirts in the false floor of his Volkswagen estate, who stopped at a mountain spring to treat us to fresh water (the only English words he understood), yoghurt and pickled cucumbers. Finally Istanbul itself, the bazaar and the cisterns, changing money on the black market, crossing the Bosphorus so we could say we’d been to Asia and jumping fully clothed into the Sea of Marmora.  Nick and I decided to have a race to Athens. I went via Bulgaria, having been assured that no Turkish driver would take me to Greece.I walked over the border in darkness and asked the guard where the nearest youth hostel was. There wasn’t one but he fixed me up with somewhere to stay the night.  Nick went the quick way and won.  A few days later we were lying on the harbour smoking who knows what before I set off for Corfu and the long journey home, my money getting precariously low. My first lift, most of the way to Delphi, was in the back of a Lambra, those tiny three wheeled trucks the Italians call Ape. The driver was taking fruit to market (at around twenty miles an hour for several hours).  He plied me with wonderful apricot-like fruit which I thought he called something like ereeks and which I’ve never seen since.  Then the Brindisi ferry and several lifts across the baking Italian south, eventually reaching amazing Rome to be greeted by a fantastic firefly display in the youth hostel gardens. Total magic. Then on to Florence and up through France. I met a couple of Israelis who asked me which country I thought they came from. Israel was somewhere in the bible so there was no chance I’d have guessed. We spent the night in a ruined castle sharing stories. They were on their way to England for some final fun before compulsory military service. It all sounded very grown-up to me. By the time I got to Calais I was surviving on a baguette a day and was horrified to discover when I changed my last pounds that I was several francs short of the ferry fare home.  As I was wondering how on earth a penniless teenager could get across the channel who should appear but my Israeli friends of a couple of nights before, and who gladly helped me out.  I probably never knew their names for more than a few minutes, but thankyou guys! On the other hand, maybe I’d still be there…

I went back to a bit more hospital portering before going on to university. In time I became a musician and I got to work not only in all those countries I’d visited on that riotous trip, but in all but two of the countries of Europe. My first working trip was in the Belgian Ardennes where I was introduced to iced radishes and neat gin, then with the BBC to France where we emptied the hotel kitchen into the swimming pool (proper rock ‘n’ roll but as this was classical music we were banned from the hotel), I was in Berlin just after the wall came down (and have a bag of bits to prove it). I’ve been paid in hockey sticks and ice skates in the old Czechoslovakia, I’ve belted out Finlandia at four in the morning with a load of happy Finns before jumping naked into the snow, I’ve been in restaurants in old Estonia where I hardly knew which way up to hold the menu (and in Israel, come to that) with serendipitously delicious results, in Sweden I was introduced to the startled children of a friend of mine as the man who’d never ski-ed, before being taken cross-country skiing, I’ve seen storks nesting in chimneys in Latvia, sung on a forklift in a former armaments factory in the Ruhr, a power station in Norway, a Roman amphitheatre,  dozens of abbeys in  France, Austria and Switzerland, half the cathedrals in Germany. Talking of Germany, that country where the kindly truck driver gave us free beers all those years ago, I’ve worked there more than anywhere else and have more friends between Berlin and Munich than here in York. The Hilliards did hundreds of concerts in places I’d never heard of and I even got to teach at the legendary Akademie für alte Musik in Bremen for a while, commuting on the now-defunct Air Bremen flight from Stansted.  I discovered that in German churches you could find photographs of wartime destruction (usually behind the altar), and that so many of those beautiful old towns had been rebuilt brick by brick after the war. A dear friend of mine, on hearing of Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders to Syrian refugees said it was the first time in his life that he was proud to be a German.  21st century Germans are surely the first true Europeans.

I now work a lot in Spain with a Swede who has a Norwegian husband, a German Jewish  American with an English wife, and an Italian Russian Jewish Argentinian with a Spanish partner. They are fluent in more than half a dozen languages between them but we speak English to each other because I live on this  tiny island off the European coast and can only splutter a few words in their languages.

My wife Penny (60% English,  28% Welsh, 8% East European and 6% Iberian) gave me a DNA test for Christmas. I’ve just got the results: I’m 60% North West European and 15% Scandinavian, and only 25% English. I know it’s all approximate and random but I’ll happily take 75% European.

What on earth are we doing leaving the most civilised (and civilising) geo-political entity the world has seen? Get a grip people.

Alternative History in Spain

January 15th, 2020

Next year will see the 10th anniversary of the Alternative History quartet (as we eventually became).  Ariel Abramovich and I had been working together for a couple of years and were beginning to explore the ‘intabulation’ repertoire where 16th and 17th century musicians made their own versions of earlier a capella  polyphony. We hatched a plan to record Josquin with two lutes and two voices; this was a great advenure for me as it meant I could continue performing the renaissance polyphony I’d done with the Hilliards but in a radically new way. Anna Maria Friman was the obvious choice for the top line as she and I had worked together for many years (most recently with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble) and Ariel invited Lee Santana to join him on lute.  We then remembered that the big Victoria anniversary was coming up, and we thought we could also slot in a celebratory Victoria mass album with just me and two lutes.  Lee couldn’t make the Victoria sessions so we invited Jacob Heringman, who’d already made his landmark Josquin recording but who’d never worked with Ariel before.

It didn’t work out quite as we’d imagined: the Josquin proved disappointingly problematic and we ran out of time. Anna was able to stay on for a couple of Victoria pieces and we ended up with a single album of both composers.  It makes a kind of musical and historical sense but it wasn’t the result I’d hoped for (needless to say, we didn’t make the Victoria anniversary). It’s the only time I’ve done a purely ‘early music’ record for ECM and it was a bit of a miscalculation on my part (all the more poignant for being in St Gerold, the Austrian monastery where I’d had such extraordinary times with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliards and subsequently with the Dowland Project). But during those fraught sessions a unique musical partnership was formed. Anna and I had been vocal and musical soul mates for many years, but the real surprise was the instinctive rapport between Ariel and Jake, two very different musicians who were playing together for the first time. From the very first note the four of us were all on the same musical wavelength.

A selfie from 2014…the earliest I can find

We were determined to do more together.  Another repertoire which I had lost through lack of opportunity to perform it was 20th century English song, and if we could apply 16th century performance practice to Josquin, what about trying it with, for example, Peter Warlock who would surely have written for lute had there been any lutenists around in the 1920s? And while we were at it why not get some living song writers to compose for us? Amores Pasados coalesced into an album featuring not only 17th century songs but Jake’s Warlock and Moeran transcriptions, a new version of John Paul Jones’ eponymous suite, and new songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting. It was quite a journey and recording it at Rainbow Studios in Oslo with Manfred Eicher and the late Erik Kongshaug was a joy, so much so that ECM released it unusually swiftly (and before the original Josquin/Victoria which came out as Secret History in 2017).

rehearsing at the Swaledale festival with John Paul Jones (mandoline) and Malcolm Creese (bass)

Both albums had great press and led to lots of gigs all over Europe (and even once or twice in the UK). Many of our concerts have been in Spain thanks to Ariel’s energy and vision, and we started this year at the amazing Teatro Circo in Albacete on January 24, and the local press put us in a gilded frame…

There’s a short interview – in Spanish – with Ariel here.  On April 17 we’ll  be back in Madrid at the National Concert Hall where we’ll be giving the first performance of Sonnet 2 by ex-Weather Report drummer and composer Peter Erskine. In the previous week we’ll be recording much of our current repertoire (including Peter’s poignant Ash & Snow that we wrote for us last year). We’ve continued to expand all of our repertoires and now have programmes with  Victoria,  Josquin and Morales transcriptions (including his De Falla arrangements), more new works from our rock musician friends John Paul Jones, Tony Banks and Sting, and a host of what we call Jake’s English cowpat transcriptions (which now extend to Charles Wood as you’ve never heard him before, English choral tradition fans might like to know).  2020 promises to be another exciting year, and I’d like to pay tribute in advance to my amazing musical partners: Anna, whose singing and violin playing are a constant inspiration,  Jake, whose unfeasibly long train journeys enable him not only to save the planet but produce stunning arrangements for us, and Ariel whose creative energies know no bounds. Muchas gracias amigos – I’ve never had so much fun!

 

Alternative History…

November 3rd, 2019

 

Alternative History

Our final concerts of the year were in Sweden, Spain and Portugal. On 14 November we were at the AHA! Augmented Reality Festival in Gothenburg. This was an Amores Pasados programme, and our application of 16th century performance practice to much later music was a very good fit with the agenda of the festival (which also included an especially bizarre event by Stefan Östersjö, Bill Brooks and Jez Wells that Bill and Jez presented at York last year). We then met for gigs in Idanha-a-Nova (Portugal) on the 22nd and  Cadiz the following day (as part of the Cadiz de Falla celebrations).

Once again we were able to bring our particular take on historical reality, this time by interpreting some of de Falla’s arrangements of Cristobal de Morales.  The two gigs involved a prodigious amount of travel for all of us, in my case visiting Spain and Germany twice as well as Portugal. And as for Jake – the fearless eco-warrior had to resort to the skies on the way home rather than face a thirteen hour bus journey to the boat. Spain has really become the home of the group, and we’ll be returning in January (Albacete) and April (Madrid Auditorio Nacional de Música – Sala de Cámara with new music including a premiere of another new piece by legendary percussionist and composer Peter Erskine.

The Dowland Project

DP in Murnau (photo Heribert Risenhuber)

Very gratifying to see that the DP is rarely out of the classical charts in some form or another. There will be more concerts in Germany next year, and we hope there may be another recording (perhaps in collaboration with Alternative History). In the meantime I’ve updated the webpage.

 Milos Valent, JP, Jacob Heringman at Radovljca, Slovenia (photo Jana Jocif)

Alternative Future…

Sadly, the forces for good lost the UK election and it looks as though we’ll begin the long and terrible process of withdrawing from Europe in 2020. Here’s a reminder of our video contribution to the Brexit debate. As the only English member of a European ensemble I can only apologise to fellow band members and to our many European friends.  It’s hard to think of anything positive to say, except perhaps that we will soon see what Brexit means, and once the perpetrators become aware of the reality we can begin the long haul back to sense and civilisation.

Happy New Year everyone.

Working with Trio Mediaeval

September 16th, 2019

I’ve known Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Anna Maria Friman since the  newly-formed Trio Mediaeval first came to the Hilliard summer schools some twenty years ago. They subsequently asked me to produce their first CD and we went on to collaborate on two more albums for ECM. We’ve have kept in touch since, exchanging ideas about programming and so on, and of course Anna and I have worked extensively with Gavin Bryars and Alternative History, and more recently with Serikon. Eons ago there was a brief Trio Mediaeval sextet when the Trio invited the (then) three Hilliard tenors to join them for a new commission from Gavin  Bryars, but apart from a bit of spontaneous droning at a concert in York for which they hauled me out of the audience I’ve not sung with them for almost two decades. Until last week when I joined them and their newest member Jorunn Lovise Husan in the great church at Otterberg in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Over the years I have done many concerts in the  Via Mediaeval – Musik und Räume des Mittelalters series run by Kultursommer Rheinland-Pfalz, and last year, after a concert by the Conductus Ensemble, project director Holger Wittgen floated the idea of a programme by Trio Mediaeval and me for the 20th anniversary season this year; Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus was the result.

It was a very special occasion. Of all the ensembles to have absorbed the Hilliard experience the Trio comes closest to the HE musical aesthetic, combining a finely blended, fine-tuned sound with an enterprising approach to both old and new repertoire. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to feel a little as though I was coming home. From the first notes at our rehearsals in Oslo it was like the sun coming out, and we knew that both the sound and the programme would work. Our programme choice was designed to make the most of the the fact that Linn and Anna have similar soprano ranges and Jorunn Lovisa (like her Trio predecessors) also possesses a tenor rang that overlaps with mine. I hadn’t imagined I’d ever sing the Machaut mass again, but the parts fitted us perfectly with some careful transpositions so it virtually chose itself.  The Cypriot polyphony (early 15th century equivalent of Richard Strauss…) has the ars subtilior line-up of two (sometimes three) virtuosic voices over one or two slower moving parts, and this too proved absolutely ideal for our quartet. For an encore we sang Descendi in hortum meum, an old Hilliard favourite written for the HE by Ivan Moody (whose PhD Gavin Bryars and I examined at the University of York some years ago). It really was a kind of homecoming for me (if only temporarily!), a great joy to fit in to an ensemble whose musical instincts are identical to mine, and I’m looking forward to repeating the experience in the future.  We had a wonderful time in Otterberg, and the audience loved it too, one reviewer likening it to a walk in a magical garden:

 

Thankyou Holger! And thankyou Linn, Anna and Jorunn!

Greenhouse!

September 2nd, 2019

So what do singers do between gigs apart from preparing for the next one? From childhood I’ve had a mild obsession with flying. This began with model gliders built from kits and then getting a glider pilot’s licence as a teenager, and reached a high point when I went hang gliding between gigs with the Swingles.

I still have an assortment of flying models, though these tend to be electric nowadays (I even have a rather frightening vertical take-off machine).  I’ve also had instrument-building phases – an Italian harpsichord and a couple of psalteries, all from kits. But when you reach a certain age it’s the law that you have to get into gardening, and gardening means greenhouses. We don’t have anywhere  really suitable to put a greenhouse, but when we had our ancient Georgian-type windows replaced with double-glazed copies there was only one thing to do with the old windows. There’s nothing in the literature about not putting a greenhouse under an apple tree (can’t think why) so that’s where it is, up against the shed.

It began with a model, created by Penny and based on the available windows, some of which I would have to cut up, with additional panes created to fill any gaps.

Then I had to get bricklaying, which turned out to be every bit as therapeutic as everyone says it is; and we bought and restored an old door.

 

And I bought some tomato plants…

The roof fitted magically as it was the top halves of each of our old bedroom windows (the vertical ones being the bottom bits). It left a narrow strip at the top, too small for any of the remaining spare windows but perhaps solvable with wooden vents.

Then we remembered the apple tree, and that apples can rain down for several months in the summer and autumn. So we temporarily double glazed the roof with acrylic (it’s held on with Velcro), in the hope that the apples will bounce off. So far, so good…

In the meantime, the tomatoes continued to rocket and were joined by a couple of cucumbers;

Then Nigel Wood, who made our new windows, got in touch to say he’d finished the last remaining one, a copy of the Yorkshire sliding sash in our attic. Quite by chance the old sliding sash, cut in half and with a few additional bits, gave us two proper opening glass vents after all.

So that was the spring and summer days off taken care of. Now I have to figure out how to use it once we’ve eaten the tomatoes. Over the winter I’m going to fit it out with shelves, seed trays,  a potting area, loads of tiny pots and things like that.

DP in Dobrss

August 18th, 2019

JP      Milos Valent      Ariel Abramovich

This was a first for us, multiple firsts in fact  – the first time Ariel, Milos and I had performed together, the first time Ariel had played with the Dowland Project, and the first time we’ve done a gig without the sax of John Surman. It was exhilarating – bang on the DP button, with neither us nor the audience knowing exactly what would happen next. We revisited some old DP repertoire, beginning Can ve la lautzeter mover, with Milos conjuring bird noises on his rebec from up in the gallery, then morphing into Pulcherima rosa from C16 Prague. Then we were into new territory with Godric’s oldest songs in the English language, and on through Dowland, Holst, Vaughan-Williams, ending up with some Alternative History pieces by Sting and Tony Banks. We finished with Finisterre, and when I announced it as our anti-Brexit song there was an outbreak of spontaneous cheering which was  deeply touching.

We were in beautiful Dobrss, about halfway between Prague and Salzburg and so deep in the Czech countryside that your Satnav probably won’t find it. Yet people came from Prague and even Bratislava to hear us. The Dobrsska-Brana festival is a wonderful combination of local hospitality and international music making – a big thankyou for inviting us. There’s a comprehensive review (in Czech) of the first part of the festival in JazzPort by Michal Sykora  here (with some stunning pics and video).

The good people of Dobrss were obviously well aware of the giant cock-up that is about to befall us Brits:

That’s the last Dowland Project gig in the diary for this year, but we will be on the road again in Germany in 2020. In the meantime I’ll be doing duo recitals with both Ariel and Milos, and Ariel and I will get together for more Alternative History in Sweden and Spain in the autumn. My next gigs are with Trio Mediaeval in the UK and Germany next month: Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.

 

Summer concerts

August 2nd, 2019

A Singer’s Guide to Britain

Some weeks ago Jacob Heringman and I did some recording in the Treasurer’s House for  a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series ‘A Singer’s Guide to Britain‘, fronted by Roderick Williams. Our contributions will appear in episodes 2 and 3 transmitted on August 14 and 21. We wittered away at some length between pieces – mostly about our Alternative History view of the world and how different it is from the CD-driven fantasies of today, but no doubt only a fraction of our ramblings will have made the final cut. Roddy Williams, incidentally, used to sing in our expanded Hilliard choir for Arvo Part’s Passio in his youth and once sacrificed his trousers when mine got left behind.

Dobrsska Brana

On August 16 Ariel Abramovich, Milos Valent and I will be doing  a unique Dowland Project one-off in the Czech Republic, not far from Prague. This will be the first time the three of us have performed together, though I have performed many times with both of them in different contexts. As well as revisiting some Dowland Project numbers we’ll be exploring Holst and Vaughan-Williams as well as new versions of songs by Tony Banks and Sting.

Trio Mediaeval quartet

It’s more than twenty years since I first heard  Trio Mediaeval at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge.  They invited me to produce their first albums, which went on to be hugely successful on ECM.  Our paths have occasionally crossed since then, and we’ll be getting together again in September for a new programme called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.  This explores the connection between Machaut and the mysterious Cypriot-French composers of a generation or two later. The first half will consist of the Machaut mass, together with Cypriot chant antiphons, followed after the interval by a mass and motets from Cyprus.  The first outing is at Hebden Bridge on September 12,  and then in Otterberg on the 14th.

As it’s summer and holiday time, my next post will reveal what tenors do on their days off…

 

The Book of Lost Lute Songs

July 1st, 2019

photo Guy Carpenter

This coming Saturday Jacob Heringman and I will open our Book of Lost Lute Songs for the final time in the UK this year. The idea behind it is to apply 17th century performance practice to later music, and among other things imagines a counter-factual take on the early music movement which is assumed to have begun in the 1920s. It’s very much the agenda that drives our Alternative History project with Ariel Abramovich and Anna Maria Friman, and which came together in our Amores Pasados album for ECM.

The programme opens with a group of renaissance poems set by Stephen Wilkinson (originally for voice and guitar) and Peter Pope (for choir). These have been intabulated and arranged by Jake for voice and lute as his 17th century forebears would have done, but with one difference: he plays as many of the composer’s notes as will fit on the instrument and I don’t attempt to ‘improve’ the vocal line. It’s a nod in the direction of what might have happened had lute players been around when 20th century composers set renaissance verse.

Next come three of Holst’s Four Songs for Voice & Violin set to medieval texts. We miss out I Sing of a Maiden, partly because Patrick Hadley wrote the definitive version in my book, but also because I’ve improvised on the poem so many times with the Dowland Project I couldn’t trust myself to stick to Holst’s notes. Instead we’ll do Jake’s intabulation of The Thought (also a love song but of the human rather than spiritual variety). I will be doing the complete set with Milos Valent on violin in the Czech Republic next month as penance.

Then we have two short songs by Vaughan-Williams: Along the Field, also originally for voice and violin, and Twilight People, originally for voice and optional piano. The first half finishes with a group of songs by Peter Warlock. It was Warlock’s settings of 17th century verse that inspired our first forays into this imaginary neck of the woods, but two of the three we have selected have poems by his contemporaries Bruce Blunt and Hilaire Belloc. The third is Warlock’s shortest song, How Many Miles to Babylon, a lullaby which I hope to surprise my granddaughters with as it’ll be just about their bed time.

The main reason we like to inhabit the 16th and 17th centuries is not just that the composers are dead, but that the composer-performer relationship would have been completely different when they were alive. That relationship survives in many other compositional genres outside ‘classical music’, and we have been very comfortable asking jazz and rock musicians to create songs for us. The pieces by Sting and Tony Banks in the second half work in exactly the same way as a song from the 17th century: the composer provides a blueprint and our task is to realise the song in whatever way we like; although the composers own the rights, we performers in practice own the music. We’ve never commissioned a ‘proper’ composer, but Late Music asked if we’d do a new piece by Michael Parkin, and we’d already decided to perform the winning song from John Casken’s Alwinton composers competition held earlier this year. This turned out to have two winners: Patrick Gardner and Joshua Brown. So our counter-factual machinations now include assuming the early music movement hasn’t happened at all…except that the Alwinton pieces also have bass viol so we are hoping Susanna Pell will be passing by, instrument at the ready.

Of course it’s not actually as simple as that: Jake has done huge amounts of ‘proper’ music and my concert biog at one time claimed I’d done more first performances than any other English tenor.  Do come and join us on Saturday evening at York’s beautiful St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel if you’d like to hear how we get on.

 

Amores Pasados