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Ernest Walbourn in Brittany

January 20th, 2021

This is the second post about Edwardian landscape painter Ernest Walbourn. The earlier post can be found here.

In the summer of 2005 Penny and I set off for France with our copies of Ernest Walbourn’s 1923 oil sketches, hoping to track down the scenes that Penny’s grandfather had painted 82 years before. Intriguingly, with the collection of Ernest’s paintings there was a small notebook in which her father Peter, his talent already obvious at the age of 12, had made drawings of his own.

There are detailed drawings of trains and cars as you’d expect from a young boy, but also some portraits and several pictures that looked like same views Ernest had painted on the same trip. For Peter and his two brothers it must have been an idyllic time, painting and fishing for the long summer months while their father faithfully recorded the Breton countryside and its inhabitants.

None of the oil sketches can have taken longer than a day to produce so the holiday perhaps yielded around a hundred roughs to be taken home for further work. Of the 12 that came down to us only one appears to be finished, but four of them have names scribbled in pencil on the back.

One of the paintings is of the interior of a church, and on the back Peter had written two names: Le Faouët and St Fiacre. We assumed that he couldn’t remember which of these it might be so had written both. Two townscapes were identified as Pont-Aven and Rochefort-en-Terre and there was a rather anonymous field marked Lannion on the back. The one signed picture is of a busy timber framed covered market with vegetable stalls and other products spilling out of it, and several others depict what might be the same market. We had no idea where any of these might be until we looked up St Fiacre on the web and read that it had a famous chapel with a unique carved rood screen and was close to Le Faouët which had an extraordinary 16th century covered market.  There was no screen in our church picture but the market hall sounded promising.

We didn’t have much to go on but we set off very optimistically for Rochefort-en-Terre, which we thought might lead us to the sites of at least two of Ernest’s paintings and several of Peter’s drawings.  It turned out to be a beautiful village, absolutely unspoiled and surely very like it was all those years ago, but there was nothing remotely like our Ernest views and we drew a complete blank.  The one hotel was full so we tried nearby Vannes, which had a large square with a mounted knight in it a bit like one of Peter’s sketches  but all their hotels were full too, and the knight’s arm was in the wrong place.  We eventually found somewhere to stay on the way to Pont-Aven, our next hope. This little town is also much as it must have been and here we had our first success. After thinking that Peter must have got it wrong about this town as well, Penny realised that we were looking at a bridge in one of the unidentified paintings. We even managed to photograph it with a heavy lorry approaching the same turning as a large covered wagon in the painting.

Buoyed up by all this we drove on to St Fiacre in a state of great excitement. The chapel is famous for its unique painted wooden screen dating from 1450 and featuring the seven deadly sins in minute and colourful detail.

There was nothing like that in our picture, which is a very impressionistic sketch of something vaguely church-like and largely covered in green mould. You can’t miss the riotously exuberant  screen as you enter the cold stone of the chapel, but Ernest had ignored it and for some reason ghosted an outline of a side isle. Or perhaps there’s a wonderfully detailed painting of the screen that he actually finished out there somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view was almost identical, and although the walls were now pristine the floor showed unmistakable signs of green mould still growing between the slabs. By now we were getting quite emotional, having stood several times in the same places and recorded the same views as Penny’s grandfather eight decades ago.

We drove on to Quimperlé, which the map showed had a suitable river which might match one of the unidentified views and desperately tried to make it fit the sketches. The river was just right, complete with an avenue of trees on each side and a church in the background, and there were some lovely half timbered houses in the town.

Nothing quite matched up though, however much we tried to make things fit. We tried to persuade each other that this or that building must have been demolished or rebuilt, and even the local residents we asked thought that Quimperlé must be the place in the picture. Another puzzling feature of these paintings was that the view from one side of the bridge seemed to be autumnal, whereas we knew that Ernest had only been there in the summer. Nevertheless, we had high hopes of Le Faouët’s market hall, and the next day went to have a look.

to be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Walbourn: Edwardian artist

January 11th, 2021

So what’s next, now that Brexit and Covid have reduced normal life to a standstill?  Well, there will be gardening…and generally adjusting to a slower, less frantic pace. It’s hard to imagine what the future might hold but there’s writing to do and the past to be mined, so here’s a first post about my wife Penny’s grandfather, landscape artist Ernest Walbourn.

Ernest died in 1927 at the age of 55 and we have a number of his paintings, mostly unfinished oil sketches, and this is their back story. It begins in 1783, when James Waldbourn, a young and not very accomplished pickpocket from Philadelphia, was arrested  in London for stealing a handkerchief. He then must have spent four years in a prison hulk before being sentenced to transportation in 1787.

That same year one Sophia Lewis, a maidservant, was sentenced to the same fate for a much more enterprising felony, not only nicking two handkerchiefs but also her master’s coat, penknife, and a silk purse full of coins.

Perhaps she flashed her eyes at the judge, or maybe he was instinctively inclined to mercy – if you add up the value of the goods the total is a lot more than the 39 shillings of the guilty verdict. Had it been 40 shillings she would have been hanged.

They were among the first convicts, known as the First Fleeters, sent to Australia,  he on the Scarborough and she on the Lady Penrhyn. We don’t know if they knew each other in London, but in March 1788, two months after they set foot in the new country, they were among the first Europeans to marry there.

It may have been a pragmatic arrangement rather than a love match; James and Sophia had a troubled relationship and eventually parted, each given the custody of one of their children. Their descendants prospered however, and a century later were reaping the benefits of owning the property allotted to their felonious forebears. It was the income from this that enabled the young Ernest Walbourn to devote his life to painting rather than architecture as his parents would have preferred. The crimes of James and Sophia paid off in the end.

Ernest’s middle son Peter, Penny’s father, in turn became a war artist and then a portrait painter (ironically, his painting of the Queen Mum hangs in the Middle Temple not far from where his ancestors’ story began). When Peter died Penny inherited a pile of Ernest’s oil sketches and an old wooden box bursting with faded snapshots of comfortable middle class life between the wars, confident young men sporting blazers or more languid family groups with not a care in the world.

Most of our sketches are on fragile pieces of card, sometimes used on both sides, on which Ernest had quickly roughed out landscapes during summer field trips which he made with his wife Eva (also a painter in her own right) and three sons. His usual practice was to work up the sketches during the winter months, often adding peasant figures (usually modelled by Eva or the family’s gypsy maid Phoebe) and turning them into the rather sentimentalised romantic landscapes for which there was a ready market both in London galleries and in the more lucrative Europe-wide business of coloured prints. You can still find them on greetings cards, chocolate boxes and the like. The sketches have an immediacy and freshness which sometimes didn’t survive into the finished work. He was particularly good at water, trees and vegetables. A cunning critic at a Royal Academy Exhibition in the twenties once satirised him in Punch as ‘Mr Walbourn, earnestly painting cabbages’.

Most of his work is quintessentially English, and his summer painting excursions took him all over the country from Devon and Cornwall to Wales and Scotland. In 1902 he travelled to Australia to sell the family’s Tasmanian property and stopped off in Capetown, where he sketched Table Mountain. The First Fleet had put in there 114 years earlier on its voyage into the unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

In Penny’s pile of old cardboard were several almost-finished oils of French market scenes dating from a visit to Brittany in 1923. There is a family story that Ernest was once painting a Breton woman sitting outside her cottage, spinning; invited inside, he discovered that her few possessions included a print of one of his own pictures, which hung on the otherwise bare walls.

We’d often wondered where these very French scenes might be, and what they might be like now. Then in 2005 my ensemble Red Byrd was booked for a concert in Poitiers, so Penny and I decided to drive down and stop off in Brittany on the way. We took copies of Ernest’s sketches with us, hoping to track down the places painted and photograph each one from the same spot. It turned out to be an extraordinary trip, which I’ll attempt to chronicle in a future post…

Where now…when now…?

January 1st, 2021

Where now, when now?

I know it’s Beckett, but I have Ward Swingle’s voice in my head. No one could deliver the spoken text of Berio’s Sinfonia like he could. I could go on…

…Call that going, call that on?

But wait, it’s barely moving now…

Well, it’s day one of the rest of our careers. Or maybe we should use the French – restes – remains (oh the irony), leftovers (post-Christmas), ruins, wreck…

The financial wreck is survivable for most musicians of my generation. We can’t work in some European countries anymore because we don’t reach the income threshold, but we have pensions. It’s incredibly sad that some of my European friends won’t be able to play here because they won’t reach our income threshold either, but they have 27 countries to work in. The real damage is to the soul. For forty years we’ve developed partnerships centred on our mutual history, moving freely between countries, expanding our horizons with every step. We revelled in each other’s uniqueness and celebrated what we had in common. We became Europeans. Making music is a microcosm of the European project: you can’t do it by yourself (even solo instrumentalists need an audience). I could go on…but Twitter and The Guardian have mourned for all of us. It just remains (that word again) for me to say thank you: to all the promoters from Bergen to Bratislava, Paris to Palermo, Aarhus to Athens, Dublin to Gdansk… Regensburg to Radovljica who supported the Hilliard Ensemble, Red Byrd, the Dowland Project, Conductus, Being Dufay, Alternative History and all the many other European projects that have sustained me for four decades; thanks to all the wonderful European friends we made along the way, musicians, audiences and students. I hope that one day our grandchildren will be welcomed back into one of the most civilised (and civilising) projects the world has ever seen.

 

 

Josquin journeys

December 16th, 2020

Art of the Netherlands

The Art of the Netherlands (EMI 1976)

Early Music Consort

My first encounter with the most significant composer of the late 15th/early 16th century was in 1976. They were heady times: I’d been grappling with scat and Berio for two years with the Swingles when out of the blue came an invitation to sing on what would be David Munrow’s last two recording projects, the Art of the Gothic and the Art of the Netherlands. Everyone who sang on those seminal albums had come up through the English choral tradition – which only went back as far as Tallis and Byrd (or Tavener if you were especially esoteric), so they were as revelatory as Berio in their way.  I sang on four Josquin tracks and was also introduced to Brumel and Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. The Brumel Et Ecce Terrae Motus Gloria included a stonking countertenor line-up consisting of David James, James Bowman and Charles Brett, and four of the five tenors who would later sing in the Hilliard Ensemble, all of us driven along by DM’s energetic conducting. It was in Abbey Road, and if the earth didn’t move it wasn’t for want of trying. Inviolata and Josquin’s mass movements would reappear decades later in a process that would mirror the historical life of the piece, morphing from liturgical polyphony to domestic performance based on lute intabulations. Actually, Nesciens wasn’t yet by Mouton; here’s it’s anon, the authorial limbo that claimed many pieces originally attributed to Josquin. Whoever wrote it, it’s one of those pieces that is so moving that it can be almost impossible to sing unless you’re completely in the zone.

 

Josquin Desprez - Motets and Chansons

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (EMI 1989)

Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliards had already made one Josquin recording before I joined them. By this time Jozza was beginning to shed more of his attributions (Mouton had gained Nesciens and Lugebat Absalon had fallen to Gombert). We took part in a famous Josquin conference at which several academics who should have known better walked out during a performance by the American ensemble Chanticleer (one of the first groups to challenge the comfortable euphony of the Oxbridge sound). Although more than a decade after the Munrow recording, on our 1989 album (like the Munrow albums, re-released and anthologised many times since) we were still singing like soloists reining ourselves in; for the mass propers we added additional voices, giving it a choral feel that we would later abandon. The last track is Tu Solus Qui Facis Mirabilia, sublime in its stillness and simplicity, but not quite yet the instinctively blended, perfectly tuned performance we would later achieve live. Over the years we would perform plenty more Josquin, but only one motet found its way onto disc: Ave Maria is the final track on the 1993 Codex Specialnik album.

 

Master of Musicians - Songs & instrumental music by Josquin des Pres, his pupils & contemporaries /Musica Antiqua of London

Master of Musicians (Signum 2000)

Musica Antiqua of London

I’ve tried to avoid Josquin’s songs wherever possible but couldn’t resist agreeing to taking part in this Musica Antique recording. I grew out of Scaramella, el grillo and La tricotee quite quickly and have tried not to look back. This album of secular music by Josquin and his contemporaries is very much of its time: an excellent instrumental band getting in a bunch of singers who had never sung with each other before, and presenting the same song in several different versions (a bizarre obsession of early music programme planners at the time). Another distinctive feature is the booklet, which is so strangely laid out that it can take a whole track to discover who’s performing (by which time you’re on to the next one).

 

Romaria

In flagellis; Tu solus qui facis (ECM 2006)

Dowland Project

Jacob Heringman’s 2000 DGM album of Josquin intabulations made a huge impression, not least because it opened my eyes to the colourful history of Josquin performance normally overlooked by scholars. It confirmed that the Dowland Project (which Jake would later join) was on the right track, and the two performances on this album take the process further still. We’ve come a long way from the intensive head-banging rehearsal days of a quarter of a century before. These are first or second takes and have the freshness (and sometimes panic) of the moment.

 

Secret History: Sacred Music By Josquin And Victoria

Secret History (ECM 2011)

This is in one respect the most important recording I did in the second decade of the 21st century: it gave birth to the Alternative History ensemble (the name came later). It was conceived as two CDs, one of which would celebrate the Victoria centenary; it ended up six years later as a single album and has become our contribution to the Josquin centenary. After the Dowland Project’s de-constructions it was great to connect with Ariel Abramovich who was deeply into Josquin intabulations. He proposed an album with two singers and two lutes, having collaborated in the past with Lee Santana. It brings together many of my favourite Josquin motets, and we hoped it would help to revolutionise Josquin performance, showing the longer performance history of the pieces. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t get it all done, eventually combining it with the proposed Victoria album. Together they make a slightly different point, that intabulations of both composers sit side by side in later manuscripts all over Europe. We’ve done many performances since of both composers, and I’ve done similar tab programmes with Jake and Ariel separately here in England as well as Spain and South America, so it generated some great music making.

 

Tu solus qui facis (Armonia Concertada, 2017)

My most recent recording is as a guest (with Jacob Heringman, who also has a magnificent new Josquin album) on Imaginario, a sumptuous recording by Maria Cristina Kiehr and Ariel Abramovich of an imaginary vihuela songbook. Unusually, it was recorded in England, in a tiny church on one of the coldest days of the year. It didn’t get down to the minus 12 that the Sound & Fury once had to cope with in Mauerbach, but it was so cold that Jake and I could barely function. It does, though, show something of what might have been done with the homophonic Josquin pieces. One of the joys of this motet is that it can take you by surprise as you continually seek to renew it. Jake and I are now so attuned to each other‘s idea of Josquin that on our first run we found ourselves sometimes doing the same spontaneous and quite complex ornamental flourishes simultaneously. You never know where the music’s going to take you. Jake and Ariel duet on this album, and they have a duo album of their own called Cifras Imaginarias. Their duo is the other great result of the Alternative History project.

  Cifras Imaginarias - Musica Para Taner A Dos Vihuelas      Josquin Des Prez: Inviolata [Jacob Heringman] [Resonus Classics: INV1004]   Fantasia sobre el madrigal "Anchor che col partire"

Modern performances of a cappella Josquin can be ravishing to listen to, and they have a rich history from the nineteen seventies onwards. I relished being inside the texture of the Hilliard and Sound & Fury Franco-Flemish polyphony but I love the way my experience of  this music has evolved in much the same way as would have happened in the 16th/17th centuries, beginning with a cappella polyphony based on the composer’s manuscript, then nearly half a century later still cannibalising it for whatever forces are available. It’s what Josquin and his contemporaries would have expected, and it puts us in touch not only with him, but those who kept his music alive for generations after his death. If you want to get close to Josquin the living breathing musician, reach for your lute or reach out to your lutenist friends.

 

 

 

Eastern adventures

November 25th, 2020

There is real optimism in the air at last, and with the prospect of a vaccine some of us may soon be able to chart a way back to performing reality. Alternative History has invitations on the stocks to perform Polish and other music from central Europe, so I’ve been re-visiting repertoires that I haven’t sung since Hilliard days. Our forays into the old East began when Graham Dixon asked us to take part in a short series for Radio Three. Along with Jacob Heringman (one of the first times we played together) and aided by Peter Hellyer at the British Library, we recorded our first Polish music (in Latin, needless to say). We subsequently did memorable concerts in Bratislava, Krakow and Prague, and these were literally labours of love as we were paid in local currency which wasn’t convertible. The last person to see us off at the airport usually got to go home with whatever we hadn’t been able to spend, and we took off with armfuls of music, local produce and (in my case) ice skates, glove puppets and once even a complete sledge. On one trip we went by hire car from Austria to Hungary and had an exciting moment on the border when the Hungarian guard asked us to get out of the car and open the bonnet, which initially we declined to do since he was already outside and could easily do it himself. There was a brief moment when we realised no one had ever refused this request and a gun poked through the window, after which we changed our minds.

The first recording we did for ECM after we left EMI was of music by the almost unknown and rarely performed Walter Frye. It was a hugely significant moment, when we realised that Manfred Eicher wanted only the music that we wanted to record, regardless of how saleable the composer might be. It cemented our artistic collaboration which went from strength to strength and would eventually include a million selling album. Walter still hasn’t come into profit decades later – though it’s getting close and a few Christmas purchases might finally push it over the line.  It also cemented our relationship with legendary Tonmeister Peter Laenger from Tritonus, who went on to engineer Officium and albums by the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval and Alternative History.

It was his ‘Ave Regina’ that first put us on to Frye. This exquisite motet appears in manuscripts all over Europe (and even on the ceiling of a French chateau). One of the sources was the mysterious Codex Speciálník, and on one of our music-buying trips to Prague I’d picked up a copy of an edition of some of the motets, and another volume of Czech medieval music which also included older pieces from Spec. After the success of Officium we wanted to do something completely different yet distinctively Hilliard, and the mixture of medieval and early renaissance music from all over Europe in a single source was perfect. It not only had Josquin and Agricola as well as Frye and fellow Englishman John Plummer, but the extraordinary Petrus de Grudencz (he of the acrostic clues to his authorship). We tracked down Jaromir Czerny at the Charles University, and with input from Charles Brewer,  Graham Melville-Mason and Peter Hellyer ended up with more music than we could get on to one album. Codex Speciálník is still one of my favourite Hilliard recordings. I also love Barbara Wojirsch’s elegantly minimal design, the cover printed on matt paper and the booklet pages almost transparent. It just has the three things you need to know printed on a white background: artists (in black), music (in red) – and ECM New Series (smaller but even blacker).

Many of the Hilliard albums were recorded at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian Alps. For much of that time we were hosted by its one remaining monk, Pater Nathanael. He was a person whose deep spirituality never obscured his genial hospitality and encyclopaedic knowledge of Austrian wines. A friendly smile was never far away, and nor was a corkscrew. We loved him. He retired to the mother house of St Einsiedeln, and last week died of the cancer that he could no longer fight.  St Gerold was a kind of spiritual and musical home for us,  and for those of us privileged to know him Pater Nathanael was its heart.

Gordon Jones   JP   Manfred Eicher   Pater Nathanael

photo Peter Laenger

Postponements…

November 11th, 2020

It seems a very long time ago that I (or any of my friends) got on a plane or a train and did a concert.  In the old universe I’d be coming home from Madrid about now after an Alternative History gig at the Spanish National Concert Hall, having premiered a lovely new piece composed for us by Peter Erskine. We’d also have recorded it, together with new songs by John Paul Jones and Sting for our new album, River God Songs. There’d have been Peter Warlock, C W Orr and E J Moeran too.

Fortunately we should be able to re-schedule both the gig and the recording, as soon as the virus allows us to put things in the diary. We’re also re-scheduling the Swaledale Festival performance of new work by John Paul Jones and Sting, the Dowland Project’s aborted Mainz gig and the Alternative History concerts in Ireland.  More details in due course. I’m now so optimistic that I’ve invested in  a 2021 diary. Fingers crossed…

In the meantime, Jacob Heringman’s fantastic album of Josquin transcriptions has been released to great acclaim. Alongside his earlier landmark recording, this makes him king of the Josquin tabs. If you’ve already got our Amores Pasados and Secret History, treat yourself to Jake’s Inviolata or Ariel Abramovich’s Imaginario  for Christmas.

I’m not being completely idle during lockdown, and I’ll do a proper post in a bit about new writing projects which I hope will keep me busy until real life returns.

 

Moving on

September 18th, 2020

The late Ward Swingle would remind us from time to time that he always had a suitcase packed. It wasn’t a threat exactly, but perhaps a more optimistic symptom of a mindset that always allowed for the possibility that change might be inevitable and for the better. After four years with his group it turned out that several of us had suitcases packed and we moved on. I repeated the process several times with other ensembles, and when I joined the Hilliard Ensemble I felt obliged to tell the guys that I had a reputation for leaving things. I stayed for 18 years so that mostly went right. Each of my departures was triggered by musical frustrations, and every time I risked impoverishment as I reverted to surviving on my wits while I searched for the next musical grail. It was never easy but ultimately always exciting. The truism that musicians don’t do it for the money is for most of us absolutely true. Though there are limits. On one occasion the Hilliards were involved in a big recording project in Germany and the producer suddenly announced an additional performance and broadcast with no fee attached. The instrumental band with us readily agreed without telling us and we got a bit exercised and said no.  ‘I guess the Hilliards only do it for the money’ said our collaborators. To which our response was it’s not that we only do it for the money, it’s just that we don’t do it for not the money.

So what are we all to do post-Covid? Well, first of all there may be no post-Covid, so we may have to get used to staring at an empty diary. Those of us who’ve been around for decades may find our musical hearts torn out (or perhaps transplanted) but we will survive because we always have, and if you survive long enough you get a pension. At the other end of the spectrum those starting out may be panicking at the prospect of no career and no income. And then there are those who might or might not have been able to get government assistance.  Those of us lucky enough to be able to should be wary of doing it for not the money: let the work (such as it is) go to those who really need it.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that universities and conservatoires have successfully oversold a profession to the extent that it was already full to bursting before the pandemic hit. Full, that is, with excellent musicians competing for the same gigs with the same repertoire. Look at the audition requirements for music colleges, and compare them with half a century ago. Look at the categories for musical competitions. There have been amazing exceptions, but ‘classical’ singing mostly remains just that: classical. Which is fine as long as audiences and opportunities increase to match the staggering numbers of fantastic musicians who graduate each year. That hasn’t happened for some time, and is very unlikely to happen in the present circumstances.

A re-think is long overdue. As a university lecturer the one piece of advice I was able to give students based on my own experience as a performer was that their future career might well not have anything to do with what they had studied, and they should be open to anything that came along.  Of course, it’s very easy to be open to anything when there isn’t anything to be open to, but after a bit you have to make serious decisions about what happens next. My guess is that in a severely shrunken profession very few young musicians can expect a full time career. One effect of the over production of singers was the continual undercutting of successful careers by the succeeding generation who would do the same job just as well but for lower fees. This affected many of my contemporaries who followed the traditional route and eventually priced themselves out of the market. So expect to need another source of income, and don’t do the same as everyone else, otherwise you may have a very short career.

Pop musicians have been coping with this problem for years, and are used to turning uncertainty and risk into creative opportunity. Streaming gigs from home via Facebook or Instagram isn’t the recital experience you may be used to, but it gives you a much more intimate connection with your audience (comments instead of clapping). You might discover that your audience, engaged by the new reciprocity, is up for all sorts of challenges, and you should be too.

Having said that, I’m not…or not yet anyway.  But I do have some sort of structure and direction and am no longer in mourning for gigs that I can’t do. Sitting in the garden listening to bird song is actually better than listening to disembodied flight announcements. It’s time to move on (even without a suitcase) and I’ve always eventually managed that successfully in the past. I miss  Alternative History and the Dowland Project, and I miss bringing to life the 16th & 17th century musicians whose future we inhabit. But in the meantime for me it’s reading and writing which I hope will bear metaphorical fruit in the future, and gardening which is bearing actual fruit in the present. You have to think in the longterm…

 

Those who can, sing; those who can’t, write…

July 1st, 2020

 

Gardening is all very well, but it has its limits. It’s almost been worth being locked down to have grown Padron peppers…

…but not quite,

so when I’ve shut the greenhouse for the day I open the laptop. The Observer re-published part of a Guardian comment of mine about Covid revealing fissures that already existed in the music profession, and CUP have told us that A History of Singing is being translated into Polish (the first time any of my stuff has had a formal translation).  This time last year (remember that?) I wrote the liner notes for Arve Henriksen’s fantastic Timeless Nowhere vinyl box set and I’ve now finished  a note for Jacob Heringman’s forthcoming Josquin album. It’s been a huge pleasure to write for such friends who are also amazing musicians. There is no trumpet player like Arve (he SINGS!) and Jake’s first CD of Josquin intabulations is one of my favourite renaissance recordings.

Lockdown and the constraints of Coronavirus have forced me into a proper writing routine. I’m in the process of finishing the book that began as an update to Vocal Authority eons ago and has at last morphed into its final (and much more readable) form.  My decade or so in  academia began to acquire a slightly more rosy glow as it faded into obscurity; my thoughts on the frustrations and missed opportunities mellowed to such an extent that my old day job  doesn’t really feature in the new book at all. I’ve abandoned the Gramscian theory that underpinned VA (it started life as a PhD thesis…) and replaced it with real life.  It’s called From Leonin to Led Zeppelin: Adventures in Old and New Music, and  it’s basically a fairly upbeat account of how performance has worked for me, with three interludes salvaged from a lost Hilliard travel diary. The final chapter touches on performance in a post-Covid world and will obviously be out of date as soon as the ink is dry, but if the old mainstream is coming to an end I hope my experience (which has been mostly outside it) might be reassuring to those who now find themselves having to survive on their wits.

So…I’ve written the book and grown the veg, so what’s next? Well there’s still no singing yet, even though singing quietly (which is what I do) is now thought to be less dangerous than going to the pub.  Alternative History is still hoping to reconvene for a concert and recording in Madrid in November, so we’ve got our fingers crossed for that one. All of my gigs that were in the dairy before lockdown have been re-scheduled for next year, which is very gratifying (and still a long way off, which is good). I still can’t face the thought of Zoom performances as the whole point for me is sharing the physical, acoustic, musical creative space with my fellow musicians. Friends have done some streaming and I speculate a bit about this in the book; I’d hoped to be able to give advice about streaming licences and so on, but I met with a very curt and unhelpful response the PRS.

I may be running out of things to do. I could re-visit one of my shelved novel attempts, but I guess everyone’s doing that. It may come down to re-doing the double-glazing.

 

Higher notes from a singer’s greenhouse

May 18th, 2020

Greetings all! Concerts and recordings are being optimistically re-booked for next year and even the odd PhD defence is on the distant horizon, so there’s a hint of a new normality one day. I’ve started writing again and have returned to Vocal Authority: the Sequel. Or maybe it’s Vocal Authority Has Risen from the Grave.  Haven’t quite decided on the title yet. I still don’t feel like actually singing anything but at least my brain has started to function again, very much aided by the stuff below…

If you’re a proper gardener look away now… With a big thankyou to all those internet gardeners whose advice I’ve accepted or ignored, here’s an update from the greenhouse. Lockdown teaches you patience, and I’m slowly discovering that that’s also what gardeners understand. Unfortunately what this actually means didn’t dawn on me till way too late, so I’ve done everything far too soon. In my defence, I’ve only lost one cucumber and a tomato so far, though there are others starting to complain. I now have a sort of triage system where things start on the windowsill, progress to the greenhouse, are hardened off, and then planted out. That’s the theory, but it doesn’t always work in that order and some plants have had a very mixed itinerary.

Outside, I’ve been guilty of planting things out when there’s still a risk of frost, and of not letting young plants spend enough time getting used to the jungle out there. So the courgettes which grew so well in stages one and two suddenly found life pretty tough in the real word and had to be reassured with cloches (a new experience for all of us). They seem to have survived; this one hasn’t complained too much:

On the other hand the broad beans and fruit which have only known the rigours of outdoors are doing very well. The strawberries are suppose to be a trailing variety, though they obviously don’t start the trailing until they’re as high as potatoes.

Talking of which, here they are in their buckets:

They grew so rapidly I’ve tried to extend the process by wrapping some tarpaulin round a couple of them. We’ll see…

The greenhouse is now relatively empty. The potted tomatoes (now enormous and fully hard, I hope) are outside

– I know, much too big and straggly. I’ve got a more sensible sized lot in a grow bag in the greenhouse.

Everything else is either aubergine, cucumber or pepper in several varieties, and I’ll be hardening some of these off and keeping the rest inside.

Last summer the family brought us an iron firepit that they no longer have room for. We don’t have room for a firepit either, but we it turns out we can accommodate a small pond.

More notes from a singer’s greenhouse

April 21st, 2020

Well, the lockdown persists and I’m still unable to do this online performing stuff. I admire those who can, and despite Jacob Heringman’s very insightful blog post analysing his approach to the question and Helena Daffern’s wonderful York Talk on virtual reality singing, I still can’t do it. There was a time, eons ago, when I thought that being in total control of my own sound system was greatly to be desired, but these days I need to be communing with my mates in real time in real space. I’m getting better at the tech though: we watch films simultaneously with the family while watching each other on Zoom or Facetime (hilarious) and I managed a Zoom seminar in Gothenburg this afternoon. The good news on the singing front is that several events are being tentatively re-scheduled including the Swaledale Festival (with its Sting and John Paul Jones premieres) now early June next year, and the Alternative History Madrid gig (Peter Erskine premiere) on November 10th. Fingers crossed – and apologies to those who had tickets for Madrid last week. And if you happened to catch the BBC2 scifi Devs, you’ll have heard Regnantem Sempiterna from the Officium album in the first and last episodes. It’s a much more frightening piece than I remembered (especially in this context) but I look forward to treating myself to a cappuccino on the proceeds when I get out of here.

So…it’s back to the garden. It’s all change on the windowsills: the tomatoes and aubergines are now all in the greenhouse, and most of the peppers. That leaves the windowsills free for bringing on Cosmos, nicotiana and various vegetal stragglers.

Upstairs we have a regiment of cucumbers (2 divisions, one being those spherical ones you can eat like apples).

The other side still has a couple of Padrons and  more tiny nicotiana. The gherkins are also getting bigger. And the first rose has appeared outside the bedroom window:

In the attic there’s fairly slow progress on the cleomes and verbenas but they’re doing better than the other cleomes and centranthus in the kitchen which aren’t trying at all.

The greenhouse welcomes me with its damp warmth every morning and as you can see, the tomatoes (in pots ready to go outside post-last-frost) are doing very well. Three Padron peppers (I have more on the way) have found a permanent home in a big pot (back left), and the aubergines and bell peppers and various herbs are all coming along nicely as well as the Cosmos army, which I’m hoping won’t be there too much longer.

Outside I’ve started hardening off calibrachoas and they’ll go into big pots at the end of the week. The potatoes are earthed up in their buckets (they don’t all grow at the same rate so that was a bit tricky). I’ve actually risked planting out several courgettes (it’s too early really but I have spares). And I’ve prepared the ground for the aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that will eventually be divided between the garden and the greenhouse.  There are beans and peas secreted among the flower beds, and I’ve found the perfect place for shiso (I hope). The wild Alpine strawberry just visible in my past post is now planted out, and its tamer relatives are going well on the edge of the veg bed. The back wall may dry out the ground but it warms the air, and the fruit is doing well so far.

All this plant life takes two or three hours a day, which is a lot longer than I would spend practising in my previous life. But of course I know bugger nothing about gardening whereas I know bugger all about singing, to paraphrase  a notorious conductor.