:: Alternative History


Alternative History in Spain

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020

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

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

A selfie from 2014…the earliest I can find

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

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

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

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

Coaching in Portugal 

I’m doing various bits of coaching during the year and I’d like to flag up a week in May at the Marvao Academy for  which applications have just opened. It’s with my ex-Hilliard Ensemble colleagues David James and Gordon Jones, and is the brainchild of Christoph Poppen, with whom we recorded Morimur all those year ago.  We hope it will have something of the creative energy that characterised the Hilliard Summer Schools in Engers and Cambridge. The three of us haven’t coached together since those heady days and I’m greatly looking forward to some highly focused work. The workshops will take place at the Academy’s  beautiful residential site at Quinta dos Olhos d’Agua close to the medieval hill town of Marvao on the Spanish/Portuguese border.

 

…and in Germany

Later in the year I’ll be at the University of Mainz when Werner schüßler  and I will be coaching ensembles following the Dowland Project gig on September 6th. Werner and I have often coached together and enjoy sharing our complementary skill sets (which you can check out by reading both my chapter on Ensemble Singing in the Cambridge Companion to Singing, and Werner’s comprehensive new book My Voice)

Werner Schüßler coaching Ensemble Nobiles…

 

Alternative History…

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

 

Alternative History

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

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

The Dowland Project

DP in Murnau (photo Heribert Risenhuber)

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

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

Alternative Future…

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

Happy New Year everyone.

DP in Dobrss

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

JP      Milos Valent      Ariel Abramovich

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

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

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

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

 

Summer concerts

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

A Singer’s Guide to Britain

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

Dobrsska Brana

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

Trio Mediaeval quartet

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

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

 

The Book of Lost Lute Songs

Monday, July 1st, 2019

photo Guy Carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Amores Pasados

June/July concerts

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

Just back from another trip to the Trollhättan Festival in Sweden. A drone strike at Frankfurt airport where I had to change planes on the way out caused complete chaos and I ended up running the length of the airport and just made it before they shut the door. Post-Brexit and without freedom of movement I wouldn’t have made it (and doing the gig at all may even have been just too much hassle). I’m sure anyone reading this in the UK will vote Remain on the 23rd…

Tampere Vocal Festival

At the beginning of June I’ve been invited to the 30th Tampere Vocal Festival, where I’ll be saying a few words at the opening of the ensemble contest exhibition. I chaired the jury for more than 20 of those years and it’ll be great to revisit the Manchester of Finland (now famous for skateboarding as well as singing and its Scottish heritage).

Concerts in the UK

Even though Jacob Heringman and I live less than fifty miles from each other we most often meet somewhere on the European mainland at an Alternative History gig (often Spain) to which he has travelled by train and for which I have blown the carbon on a plane. This month we’re being a bit more carbon neutral, beginning with the screening of Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film for which we provided the music (and subsequently re-used for our own Brexit video). We then have four concerts in the UK: two with the Herschel Trio, one with Pellingman’s Saraband and a lutesong recital of our very own.

The first of these is on June 15th at the  Alwinton Summer Festival when we’ll be joined by Susanna Pell for a mix of old and new music including the winners of the Alwinton Composers’ Competition which we’ll workshop earlier in the afternoon.  Then on the 22nd we’re in Stanhope with the Herschel Trio:

and then on the 23rd we have a concert in York at St Olave’s church:

 

The programmes for these two concerts will feature a unique copy of the Queen Elisabeth Virginal. This exquisite instrument formed part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, and its decoration includes both the Royal Coat of Arms, and an image of a Crowned Falcon standing on a tree stump, hence our title.

A couple of weeks later, on July 6th we’ll be appearing in York again, this time in the Late Music series. This will be an all-20th/21st century programme and we’ll be repeating the winning piece from Alwinton as well as Jake’s transcriptions and arrangements of early twentieth songs by Warlock, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and others, together with some of the songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting.

…and Portugal

On July 21st I’ll be at the Marvao Festival  for a rare foray into Mozart. I’ll be singing the Missa Solemnis K 337 with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Juliana Banse conducted by Christoph Poppen (with whom I recorded Hilliard Morimur album many years ago).  The next day David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing an extended version of the programme we did in Sheffield cathedral last year, based on Dufay’s L’Homme Arme Mass (at the  Igreja de Santa Maria / Museu Municipal, starting at 4.00.

After that I have a break until the Dobrs Festival in the Czech Republic in August. It’ll be a unique one-off with Milos Valent and Ariel Abramovich. More details in a while.

 

Details of these and other ECM-related concerts can be found on my page on the ECM site.

 

In darkness – the making of…

Friday, March 1st, 2019

To commemorate our REMA performance on Brexit Eve (March 28) Jacob Heringman and I persuaded Guy Carpenter to create a video to go with our recent recording of Dowland’s In Darkness Let me Dwell (originally recorded for Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film).  The inspiration for the shoot was a session the three of us did last year at a ruined cottage high up in the Dales, and the plan this time was for us to walk along an appropriately Brexit-like cliff edge and arrive at the ruin where we would again burn our scores to keep warm in the post-Brexit landscape. The window of opportunity consisted of  a just a few hours of the one day we were all free, which miraculously turned out to be the hottest winter day ever with the most amazing light.

We walked for what seemed like hours through the heather, with spectacular views on all sides

as the sun got lower and more dazzling with each step

until Guy launched his drone.

We had to work quickly as the clock (Brexit-like…) ticked away, so  we set off on our cliff-edge trek into the sunset,

eventually arriving at our destination, where we lit the fire

and managed to get it all in the can before the sun sank out of sight

 

You can see the result on YouTube here

Projects for 2019

Friday, December 7th, 2018

In darkness…

My last event of 2018 was recording John Dowland’s In darkness let me Dwell with Jacob Heringman for Mark Burghagen’s film of the final soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II launched in February  on the anniversary of the King’s death in 1400.  Dowland’s most melancholic piece  seemed not only appropriate for the Shakespeare but also for most of the likely Brexit scenarios. This Guy Carpenter photo of Jake and me in a post-Brexit landscape (burning our scores to keep warm) is the inspiration for a video that we’re making to coincide with our private valedictory performance to European early music promoters on Brexit Eve, which will use In Darkness as the sound track.

Alternative History

On February 15 the Alternative History ensemble got back together for gigs in Madrid (Amores Pasados) and Barcelona (an all-Josquin programme). It was a great start to what promises to be another busy Alternative History year  and the press loved both events:

Rompiendo barreras con “Amores pasados: de Dowland a Sting”, de Alternative History

Desprez en la intimidad

http://revistamusical.cat/critica/ars-perfecta/

The various fractals of the Alternative History project will also be busy, and I’ll be doing recitals with both Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Jake and I have more UK gigs,including  John Casken’s Alwinton Summer Music, which will feature a composition competition for a new lute song. We’ll then repeat the winning entry in York’s Late Music series. John Casken wrote Sharp Thorne – one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s signature pieces – and it will be great to catch up with him again. Jake and I will also be doing concerts in York (including a special Brexit themed event on Brexit Eve for the REMA conference at the NCEM) and we’ll repeat our Dufay mass with countertenor David James in Portugal.

Bryars and Beyond

I’ll be doing Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun in Hull in April and returning to Trollhättan for the TrollhättansTidig Musik-dagar with Serikon in May, and there will be new collaborations in the summer. More soon…

Trio Mediaeval

Plans for the new project with Trio Mediaeval are coming on apace. The programme is called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus, and will celebrate the extraordinary connection between Reims and Nicosia at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th. The manuscript known to musicologists (but not to many performers or audiences) as Torino J.II.9 is an extraordinary collection of ars subtilior polyphony and chant by a single unknown author who clearly knew the music of Guillaume de Machaut. We will bring the two strands together in performances of the Machaut mass and a Cypriot mass of a generation or two later.  At the moment we have concerts lined up in Norway, Germany and the UK (details to follow when we’ve worked out a coherent schedule). 

 

Recent videos

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

Alternative History in Seville

Our York concert was live streamed, so (miraculously) Ariel Abramovich’s family in Argentina and Anna Maria Friman’s in Sweden were able to watch it in real time. It was great to see so many old friends at the university, and to welcome Tony Banks to our Blackheath gig where he heard two of his pieces for the first time. We’ll next all meet in Seville on 28th for a Murillo-themed programme of Victoria and Josquin (including the amazing Bovicelli version of Victoria’s Vadam et Circuibo).

Gavin Bryars’ Winestead

We’ll be doing Winestead again at Triskel in Cork on the 25th and at the National Concert Hall in  Dublin on the 26th. We made a video (in one take) in Andrew Marvel’s eponymous church while rehearsing for the premiere as part of the Hull City of Culture celebrations. It’s become one of my favourite pieces of Gavin’s (most of it is even in my range).

Serikon in Uppsala: The Travels of St Bridget

The Travels of St Bridget was also live streamed and the video is still available on the Kirkomusik Symposium website here (scroll down till you get to the right one). It’s an hour and twenty minutes long, but full of great stuff (for Swedish speakers Anna Maria Friman slaying the dragon is a tour de force, and you won’t find a more impressive cowhorn virtuoso than Daniel Stighall). About 55 minutes in there’s Gavin Bryars’ Lauda 47 in a new arrangement for this concert.

Alternative History at Musica Divina in Krakow

Musica Divina have produced a beautiful short video of highlights from the festival, which you can see here. Our bit starts around 1.55 but the whole thing is well worth watching.

 

October adventures

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

October means two things: ten days holiday in Italy working our way across from Lucca to Venice celebrating a significant anniversary, followed by the Dowland Project’s appearance at the Grenzenlos festival in Murnau on the 21st.

The Italian trip turned into yet more of an adventure than I was anticipating when we arrived at the car hire in Pisa to discover my driving license had expired.  After some frantic lateral thinking it became a trip by train, taxi and boat, with only one change of reservation (miraculously). Huge thanks to Trenitalia, all of whose trains ran absolutely on time (and were incredibly cheap), to countless helpful taxi drivers and Vaporetti crew who manhandled the luggage we thought was going to fit in a car – and special thanks to Erica who rescued us in Castell’Arquato and drove us to Fiorenzuola station so we could get to Sabbioneta. It was all total magic until we arrived back at Manchester airport to find the Trans Pennine Express had cancelled our train and the two we eventually caught both developed faults. Italy has a bonkers right-wing government which manages to make the trains work, why can’t ours?

On the Murnau blurb I’m billed, curiously, as a countertenor. I was once billed as a male soprano at a Purcell Room concert eons ago when I had to sing some pretty crotch-tightening arias but I’ve not yet dared to sing falsetto in public (it’s frightening enough in private) and I’m certainly not going to this time (I hope this is a cause for relief rather than disappointment). The evening is called Time Travel, and begins with readings by the actors Undine Brixner and Nicolaus Paryla, before we launch into a short tour of the DP repertoire from Troubadour song to Schubert, plus a digression via Placidus von Camerloher (1718-1782) and a folk song or two.

In November the Alternative History quartet has two concerts in the UK, at the University of York on the 7th and the Greenwich Early Music Festival on the 9th. I think this is the first time we’ve done two consecutive concerts in the country that two of us live in. I guess that post-Brexit our fellow band members won’t be allowed in so make sure you catch us while you can. Then at the end of the month we return to the mainland (our natural home) with a special programme for the Murillo festival in Seville. Sadly, the gigs we were hoping would follow this have been postponed till next year, and our next concerts in Spain will be in February.

In between the AH gigs I have an experimental concert with my former Hilliard Ensemble colleague David James at St Marie’s Cathedral Sheffield on November 10th. This will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 with a performance of Guillaume Dufay’s L’Homme Arme mass in a version for the two of us and Jacob Heringman (lute).  We’ll also be re-visiting some Byrd, Tallis and Arvo Part that we used to do with the Hilliards.  We’ll be repeating the programme in Marvao in July, and if all goes well we might expand our repertoire for future concerts.

On November 25th I’ll be returning to Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, this time with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble to celebrate Triskel’s 40th anniversary. We’ll be doing Jesus Blood, Winestead and a new Lauda composed for the occasion. The next day we repeat the programme at the National Concert Hall in Dublin as part of Gavin’s 75th birthday celebrations.