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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.

Notes from a Singer’s Greenhouse

April 13th, 2020

I’ve got huge admiration for those performers who are re-inventing performance in the ether. But I discovered (when offered the opportunity by the wonderful Jacob Heringman) that I just can’t do it: I can’t perform in my living room. It’s not the lack of a physical  audience (I’ve spent years of my life recording to an audience of one) – it’s the absence of fellow musicians. It was quite a shock to discover that the music itself might be less important than sharing it with like-minded people in the same physical space. But it’s not all bad news: in a strange way I’m enjoying this global performance of Cage’s 4’33” that we’re all perforce involved in, and my main contribution is the sound of plants growing.

Last autumn I wrote a blog post about my greenhouse, constructed  over several months between gigs  using windows that we’d recently replaced. It was finished in time to grow cucumbers and tomatoes which I’d bought as seedlings. I’d already decided to grow almost everything from seed this year, and suddenly having a lot of time on my hands has meant that I can do it properly (though I should say that I know nothing about gardening, greenhouses or seeds, so it’s all a bit of an experiment).

We’re lucky to have five south-facing windowsills (with newly double-glazed glass) and that’s where most things start at the moment.  These are tomatoes and aubergines and a courgette growing in our sitting room last week:

Our bedroom has two windows. Here are shiso (L) and more tomatoes with a Padron pepper (R):

The other window had another tiny tomato, more shiso, courgettes and a tray of gherkins:

In the attic we have a dormer which conveniently holds two seed trays, here  bell peppers and Bonariensis:

In the kitchen we have a deep recessed window with a radiator beneath, so we can bring on anything that needs heat. These are Padron peppers and aubergines with three tiny cosmos that I pricked out too early.

 

The greenhouse itself  (half greenhouse really) is a riot of seedlings, mostly annuals: pot marigolds, nasturtiums, echinacea and several dozen cosmos and nicotiana, not to mention dill, chives, basil and more shiso.

And of course there’s the garden, where much of what survives my pricking out and potting on should end up. We have an ancient apple tree, dating back maybe a couple of hundred years or so when the land our house was built on was an orchard. After years of frustration we’ve just given up trying to grow a lawn beneath it, and replacing our efforts with paving has meant we can extend our little veg patch to meet it. It’s mostly empty at the moment apart from some fruit along the back wall (an Asian blueberry, Japanese wineberry,  some raspberries and a gooseberry, and a row of early broad beans and peas). And there’s a row of spuds in buckets along the outside of the greenhouse. Oh, and there are the Jerusalem artichokes which might one day shield the compost heap.  So far, everything I’ve put in a seed tray has miraculously germinated a week or so later. The next challenge is to wait for the last frost before planting out. It’s a bit of a change from singing, which is over as soon as it’s begun; the life of even the tiniest plant is positively Wagnerian in comparison.

 

 

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.