:: News & Comment


Reflections on theRobert Kirby Memorial Concert


I didn’t know Robert Kirby well (even though we’d sung together as children) but I felt I got to know much more of him in a wonderful afternoon at Cecil Sharp House. It was a wonderfully warm occasion with some inspirational music making from musicians whose lives he had touched, and a tear or two as we remembered him and, for the Gentle Power singers at least, those extraordinary times at the very end of the Sixties. The whole event was held together with cool affection by Harvey Brough, whose own arrangement of Nick Drake’s ‘Fruit Tree’, powerfully delivered by Clara Sanabras was for me the hit of the afternoon. The FabCab experience was quite an emotional one for all of us. Our tuning definitely continued the curve that began in 1967 but you couldn’t fault our commitment, and that window on Robert’s student life clearly touched a chord with the packed hall. We did the first ever live performance of our single (it got to No 74…), Richard Hill’s Constant Penelope, in a new arrangement by Harvey (thanks Harve!). That was quite something… Marcus, Alan, Dave, Martin, Edward, Julian – it was fantastic to see you all and to sing together again.

Fabcab 1967Marcus Bicknell, Hugh Dibley, John Potter, Chris Johns, Dave Sloan, Alan Fairs

Fabcab 2010

JP, Edward Bailey, Julian Bicknell, Dave Sloan, Marcus Bicknell, Martin Nelson, Alan Fairs

No more academia?

I was going to whinge on about why I left academia, but having such a great experience only 3 days after leaving the day job has made me realise that life’s much too short to go back over all that.  So here’s a paragraph or two about my plans for the immediate future…

I won’t actually be losing touch with the academic world completely, and I’ll be doing the occasional keynote at conferences with creative agendas. The first of these will be at the  Katholische Akademie Schwerte next year for the Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte, Gegewart congress.   I’ve also been invited to participate in the 25th anniversary events at the Bremen Akademie für alte Musik (I taught there in its early days,  when we lived in Great Dunmow and  Air Bremen did a daily return flight from Stansted until it went out of business). More on these in due course.

Cantum pulcriorum invenire

Cantum imageI also now have part-time research fellowship at the University of Southampton. The ink was barely dry on my resignation letter  when I was invited by Mark Everist to take part in his Cantum Pulcriorum Invenire project. This is the result of  Southampton’s success in getting a huge AHRC grant to look at the 13th century Conductus repertoire, and will involve me and Chris O’Gorman experimenting with the research findings and recording the results for Hyperion over the next three years. There is also an Australian dimension to this: much of the 13th century material was originally edited by Gordon Anderson at the University of New England (the volumes of music are known in the trade as Anderson Conductus), and the University of Sydney will explore his legacy as a partner on the project. This is a hugely exciting project, and we’re looking forward to performances in both hemispheres.


The Dowland Project

Actually, most of what I’ll be doing immediately is developing existing projects, which I now have much more time to devote to . The Dowland Project still has the famous night sessions from St Gerold awaiting release. These were completely improvised (and featured a rare performance by John Surman on lecturn). We don’t have a release date from ECM yet, but we’re working on it. It’s not easy to get the band together (Steve lives in Seattle, JS in Oslo and Milos in Bratislava) so we try to make sure that every gig is groundbreaking in some way. Our visit to the Prague Strings of Autumn Festival next month will have several surprises.

Beyond Being…

Being Dufay FolignoAmbrose Field’s new and as yet untitled project is nearly ready to roll. The first performances will happen from June next year onwards. Like Being Dufay, it will be a multimedia presentation with a video response from Michael Lynch. The source material is 15th and 16th century pieces where composers tribute their fellow composers, so it’s really a trope of a trope of a trope.

…and beyond the lutesong

Potter & Abramovich in SloveniaAriel Abramovich and I are moving into radically different repertoire from our lutesong comfort zone. We will continue to explore the more eccentric byways of the early 17th century (notably Danyel and Morley as well as Campion and Dowland), but we’ll also look at the parallel ‘division’ repertoire, which works in similar ways to jazz some 300 years ahead of its time. We’ll be doing surviving examples by Rognoni and others as well as creating new versions of our own.


But the main difference from next year onwards will be doing programmes with vihuela, and where possible with two of them (or vihuela and bass lute). The first opportunity for this is the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria in 2011. We’re preparing several programmes of masses and motets, adding Jacob Heringman to Ariel’s vihuela. After that we’ll be returning to Josquin with a similar ensemble including Lee Santana and soprano Anna Maria Friman, so that we can explore the canonic part writing with two voices. We hope to record both these projects for ECM in February.

I won’t be neglecting acappella performances of Josquin and his contemporaries though. The Sound & the Fury will continue to record Franco-Flemish at Kloster Mauerbach, and the Ciconia Ensemble is beginning to plan new programmes for the 600th anniversary of the composer in 2012. Red Byrd will also fly from time to time: NMC is planning to release the live BBC Lichfield Festival recording of Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter. More on all of these later.


Vocal Authority coverI completed two chapters for new Cambridgetenor book pic Histories over the summer. The immediate writing task is for Neil Sorrell and I to finish our singing history, which we’ve promised to  CUP by the end of the year. I also have a chapter to write with Liz Haddon for the book of the IMP project. After that I’ll be taking my time updating the tenor book and writing a sequel to Vocal Authority. Neither of these will be conventionally ‘academic’. The paperback corrected reissue of the tenor book has had a good reception, being  listed in the Financial Times Hottest Holiday Reading and a Sunday Telegraph paperback of the week.

What I won’t be doing…

I’m not intending to do any more academic writing of the sort that has tiny print runs and goes mainly to libraries where three people read it (and in the case of the Cambridge UL  copy of Vocal Authority, scribble oh-so-clever glosses in the margins).

No one-to-one teaching either – the old master-apprentice model needs completely re-vamping for the 21st century, especially in higher education.

Nor am I going to sing any of the mainstream tenor repertoire. I’ve never understood why people want to sing the same old stuff year after year. It’s been a while since I sung Bach Passions, Handel oratorios and the like, and as far as  possible I won’t be doing anything I’ve done before. None of  my performing projects is actually repeatable: programmes have an evolutionary shelf life, and if anything gets to sound the same as last time then it’s time to stop. It’s risky of course, but I like to think that avoiding the bland  predictability of the mainstream is partly why I’m still in business when so many of my contemporaries who took a safer route are now finding life difficult. That’s something  that our all-centralising university education factories don’t really get.

and best  of all, I’ll now have plenty of time for this…

Mybeautiful granddaughter Emily, born to Alice and Ned on August 7th

Emily asleep

Life is good!

Leave a Reply