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Not crossing over

The voice of the music

Many of the singers I know don’t listen for pleasure to the same sort of music as they perform. It would be a bit like a plumber coming home from a hard day’s piping and setting about his own sink for fun. And no one listens to their own albums, of course. My tastes include Puccini and Mahler, neither of which anyone would ever ask me to sing, but most of all I listen to various sorts of pop music, jazz and world music, also closed books for a classical singer. All trained singers are inevitably constrained by their technique – there are certain things you just can’t do without compromising your identity as a certain sort of performer – and I really envy singers who can do whatever it takes to get the music across rather than have to express it within the parameters of a generic voice.  I’ve most recently heard a fantastic gig here in York by Everything Everything, whose lead singer Jonathan Higgs can do literally everything a singer could possibly want to do. Of course there are classical sub-genres which have a wider definition of what singing is – the Roy Hart Theatre or the extended vocal techniques of the old avant-garde – and some opera singers can’t resist having a go at pop music – but you immediately risk your credibility and integrity the moment you step into someone else’s music. The late Henry Pleasants captured the problem precisely in the preface to his Classical Music and all that Jazz: ‘I too would like to fly, but my wings were clipped long ago by a conventional musical pedagogy, concentrating vocally on the German Lied…’.

So, much as I’d like to be able to sing the kinds of stuff I used to do as a teenager, or depart very far from my conventional technique, it’s just not an option. In fact, singing pop songs is out of the question on linguistic grounds alone – you can’t sing vernacular texts using the Received Pronunciation that goes with trained singing: it just sounds daft. What you hear is pronunciation rather than poetry, just as you do when singers of renaissance music attempt to recreate old pronunciation. To get straight to the nexus of poetry and text you have to be able to articulate the words so that listeners don’t hear them as pronunciation (a means to an end) but as musical meaning (the point of the whole process).

Not performing Genesis or Led Zeppelin

But…I do see many parallels between 17th century song composers and contemporary song writers, Lute songs have an obvious connection: composed at the instrument just as a modern songwriter will pick up a keyboard or a guitar. And musicians like Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and countless others surely stand comparison with Dowland and his contemporaries. Dowland would have sung his songs with his own regional accent, and they would have been appreciated as much by the man in the street (should he have heard them) as his courtly employers. For a long time I’ve been interested in getting songwriters from popular music to write pieces I could sing, and Ariel Abramovich and I, with our expanded line-up including Anna Maria Friman and Jacob Heringman, are about to take a step in that direction.

John Paul Jones

For our new programme Amores Pasados we will perform the  eponymous John Paul Jones pieces and a new setting of Thomas Campion by Tony Banks. These two musicians were not just members of two of the greatest rock bands the world has ever seen but they both have a history that includes encounters with ‘classical’ music of various sorts, so they understand the potential pitfalls. The Led Zeppelin bassist wrote the original set of three Spanish songs for Red Byrd  back in 1987, and with John Paul’s blessing we’re creating a version for two voices and two vihuelas (with Anna Maria Friman doubling on Hardanger fiddle ).   These are exquisitely lyrical pieces and don’t sound remotely like Zeppelin numbers (to the bewilderment of some JPP fans who turned up to the first performance in Bremen).


Tony Banks

As some readers of this blog will know, there are two Genesis albums in my collection that will be rescued first if all my CDs are washed away when the sea claims North Yorkshire. Even  before Mahler and Puccini.  The core of the band’s wonderfully lyrical music was the songwriting of Tony Banks, either on his own or in collaboration with other band members. He composed an orchestral suite Seven which is available on Naxos, but his real genius is as a songwriter. John Paul Jones solved the vernacular/RP problem by writing in Spanish; I suggested to Tony that he might like to set some 17th century poetry and he’s currently working on a setting of Thomas Campion’s ‘Follow thy fair sun’, which I hope will be the first of several settings of 17th century poems.

The Amores Pasados programme will consist of an English half, setting Tony Banks alongside Dowland and Campion, and a Spanish half with villancicos providing a context for John Paul Jones’ pieces, all on the subject of lost love. The old and the new will come together in the  two voice/2 vihuela lineup, an ensemble that would have been heard frequently in the 17th century but not often since. There’s dedicated page here, and I’ll expand this as the project develops.


Faugues cover

Sound & Fury news…

The Faugues album (Missae L’Homme armé & Vinus vina vinum) is now out, and there’s a preview of all three new releases on German iTunes here.


HE album cover

Hilliard Ensemble news

Virgin have re-released a box set of 8 CDS recorded 1983-1990 on the old EMI Reflexe label. This is the music that made the group’s reputation, Franco-Flemish polyphony, pre-Arvo Pärt, pre-Officium (before we moved to ECM).  Many are with the legendary one-armed German producer Gerd Berg, and they often feature an expanded group. The tenor lines are manned in the earliest recordings by the original pair of Paul Elliott and Leigh Nixon, morphing into me and Rogers Covey-Crump (with visits from Charles Daniels and Mark Padmore on the way). Interesting to compare these with the current S&F versions of similar repertoire.

With other former members, I’ll be joining the group for its farewell concerts in London and Cologne in December next year. There’ll be a new commission for the massed members and former members. More details anon.










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