:: Being Dufay

ECM from the Hilliard Ensemble to Alternative History

Wednesday, 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.


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.


Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

The South Bound Blues Train c1963

In my first school band I played guitar, as I was the proud owner of a rather unwieldy but incredibly exciting left-handed Hayman. I had an amplifier (10 watts or thereabouts) built from a kit, housed in a beautiful box made by the carpenter husband of my mum’s hair dresser. We chose the singer partly because he owned a microphone. I got to sing sometimes but I never became the singer because he had the gear.  I got into microphone singing proper when the close-harmony group I sang in at university (the legendary Fab Cab that morphed into the semi-mythical ‘sixties freakbeat’ Gentle Power of Song) got to record pop songs for Polydor. So by the time I joined the Swingles I knew quite a bit about how to do it, and was totally seduced by Ward Swingle’s interest in what he called ‘microphone experiments’,  one of the main reasons he decided to re-found his group with English singers. We all learned a lot from Ward, and I still rate singing the Berio vocal pieces as among the most exciting thing I’ve done. It was so inspiring that some of us eventually left the group in order to start Electric Phoenix, an ensemble dedicated to amplified vocal music.  That was when I wrote my very first published article, a piece for The Composer – about microphonic singing, which I believed to be the future of singing, so liberating compared with what I’d been taught at the Guildhall and and elsewhere by a series of famous teachers. Then the Arts Council gave me a grant to fund what I like to think of as the first vocal synthesiser. Electric Phoenix had used individual custom-made effects boxes but I wanted something more elaborate that would also function as a mixer so I could control the whole shebang. It was very clever, but a nightmare to use. The effects –  harmoniser, ring modulator, filters and so on, were all linked by a 10×10 patchboard, so if I wanted to change anything I had to re-patch into one of a hundred holes, singing the while. It mostly worked, but hitting the wrong hole could produce either silence or the loudest fart you ever heard (both equally frightening).

At around the same time I was lucky enough to do backing vocals for all sorts of pop bands, and it coincided with the start of Electronic Vocal Theatre, my duo with the legendary polymath John Whiting (legendary also for his unique blend of coffee, the smell of which permeated everything in his studio and has forever been associated in my memory with Bose speakers).  John had an octophonic sound system – you could move the sound up and down as well as round and round (those were the days!) – and we had some very labour-intensive sets which eventually proved too much for two blokes to put up and take down either side of quite complex performances.    Then I joined the Hilliard Ensemble and forgot about all things tech for a couple of decades.

The Hilliards never used amplification, and more often than not sang in wonderfully resonant churches – very large ones when we started to work with Jan Garbarek. Negotiating with the acoustic was very much what the group up was all about (and I’m sure our ability to engage with the acoustic environment was a key ingredient in our relationship with ECM’s Manfred Eicher). The singing itself wasn’t really of any consequence – it was what came back to you from the building that enabled you to micro-manage the sound and create the performance. In retrospect all those years of singing with a mic seemed rather crude and analogue compared with the organic process of using the building itself as your amplifier.

I still feel that, and at its best I think that amplification basically reproduces the perfection of a CD rather than the uniqueness of the building. But increasingly I find myself at venues where amplification is the norm and I’m expected to provide a technical rider. It reminds me a bit of touring the USA with the Hilliards, arriving at the venue and being asked where we’d like the mics (and worse still, the piano…).  I can remember how to do it, but it seems incredibly unsubtle compared with responding to a building that’s been made for sound.  And yet…as I discovered in Cork last week, with the right sound man and the right repertoire it can work. Once you take away the need to project, much of your classical technique is redundant. It means you can sing more like your speech (something I banged on about a lot in my first book Vocal Authority). You can be far more nuanced, conversational even. Best of all, it meant we could do Finisterre without me sounding like some  cross-over cretin.  My project for early next year when I have a bit of free time, is going to be to develop a repertoire specifically to be done with a sound system.  In the meantime, if you’d like to hear Finisterre, come to Murnau next month and see what John Surman, Milos Valent and Jacob Heringman make of it.

Juno, new writing & releases

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Apologies to those looking for the gig list (there’s a provisional one below).  I’m taking three months off to finish a book. I’ve promised myself a first draft by Easter so work starts again in April (writing, being pure self-indulgence and hardly profitable, doesn’t count as work). It’s going quite well so far – that early rush where you get everything down in a very raw form before you realise it probably has to be a bit more tactful (and possibly better researched).  Later in the year three other odd bits of writing will finally appear: ‘Voice, Genre, Species? How the tenor voice has been defined since the first recordings’ will be published by Schott Mainz in Der Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte und Gegenwart (in my original English after all rather than a German translation); my piece on Pier Francesco Tosi for the Max Planck Institute’s music aesthetics encyclopedia project will be published (in German) by Bärenreiter, and the long delayed Cambridge History of  Medieval Music for which I contributed on modern performance of medieval music is now with CUP.

Responsio nominated for a Juno

album cover

In the meantime… our recording of Peter-Anthony Togni’s Responsio (with Jeff Reilly, bass clarinet) has been nominated for a JUNO award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammies). The list also includes Adele and Justin Bieber (though they needn’t worry about the competition as they’re in different categories). We’ll be performing the piece in Montreal and Halifax in April. There’s a great review of the recording here.

Conductus 3 released February 26

Details in my two previous posts., together with info on concerts & workshops in the UK and Spain later this year. There will be a review in the April Gramophone. 

Amores Pasados reviews, future plans

Two interesting reviews from critics who really understand what we’re all about: the autumn issue of the Journal of the Lute Society of America has just reached us, and Nick Lea writes for Jazz Views here. There’s also a long interview on the Jazz Views site with info about the genesis of the Dowland Project, Conductus, Being Dufay,  Amores Pasados and much more.  Gramophone decided not to review the album, incidentally  – the first ECM release of mine that they’ve ignored. I guess they just don’t like rock musicians. Our next one’s going to be even worse…

The Amores Pasados season kicks off in Seville at the Teatro Centrale in April – details to follow. Gigs in the UK and Germany later in the year and a possible South American tour in 2017. New recording some time after the summer – be prepared for some unique engagements with Shakespeare from some very distinguished rock musicians.


The provisional gig list for the spring and early summer looks like this:

April 2/3

Helsinki Sibelius Academy

April 6

Amores Pasados, Teatro Centrale, Sevilla

April 16

Responsio Halifax (Canada)

April 17

Responsio (Montreal)

May 3

Gavin Bryars Laude dance project, Winchester Cathedral

May 14

Conductus Cambridge Festival of the Voice

June 9

Amores Pasados National Centre for Early Music, York (Festival of Ideas)

(the next Amores Pasados gigs will be in Germany in September & October)

July 16-18

Conductus Besalu (International Course on Medieval Music Performance)

July 26

Conductus Gloucester (Three Choirs Festival)

Responsio wins in Nova Scotia

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Very excited to hear Peter Togni’s extrapolation on the Machaut Mass Responsio has won the Nova Scotia Masterworks Award.  He wrote it for Jeff Reilly’s bass clarinet plus a quartet of voices (Suzie LeBlanc, Andrea Ludwig, Charles Daniels and me). I love composers working with other composers’ music – something that medieval composers did all the time.  It’s been great to be involved with both Responsio and Ambrose Field’s Being Dufay. Both composers got inside the heads of their illustrious predecessors and came out refreshed and inspired.  I had a great time in Canada last summer doing the first performances of Responsio. The recording we made will be released next autumn on Naxos, and we’ll be touring Canada and the US in April 2016. I hope we  might also be be able to do it here in Europe too. We need a festival that takes composers working with dead forebears as its theme!

Here’s a bit of Togni’s Agnus Dei with Jeff Reilly in full flow:


Sound & Fury, Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday

Monday, October 7th, 2013


Conductus Vol 2 is due in December – the perfect antidote to Christmas!




The Forum podcast (on the subject of Breath, plus my 60 Second rant) is available for downloading here for the next three weeks or so.  I have to confess that my proposal to abandon music storage and reproduction wasn’t entirely serious. We’re two thirds of the way through a six months stay in an apartment with no music playing facilities and I thought it would be refreshing to experience only live music, making a virtue of necessity. And it was to start with, but now I really miss it. I’ve had to do the odd bit of clandestine listening in the car, but I’ve resisted the temptation to download stuff I already have.  And of course, you can’t really go even a day without hearing background music of one sort or another.


This is what the diary looks like till the end of the year. I’m taking November off in the hope that we can get our new house finished, decorated and moved into before Christmas. I know everyone says they’ll be in for Christmas…At the moment the back garden looks like this:




October 10 – 13 Sound & Fury at Kloster Mauerbach, Vienna

We’ll be recording Ockeghem’s L’homme arme mass and the Requiem (a tribute to Fra Bernardo’s Bernhard Drobig who sadly died early this year) and the  Missa Ista est speciosa & Missa Pascale of Pierre de la Rue. There’s been something of a revolution in S&F distribution – the most recent recordings are on Fra Bernardo and these are available worldwide. A website is under construction and it should be much easier to get hold of the recordings in future. More soon.

October 25 – 27

Weekend course for ensembles in Helsinki

This is a course celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Akademiska Sångföreningen (the male voice choir of Helsinki), whose conductor Kari Turunen will be known to ensemble singers as the director of Lumen Valo.  Ex-Kings Singer Philip Lawson and I will be coaching vocal groups including ensemble Norma who made such an impression in Leipzig and Tampere this year.


December 1

Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Monfalcone

Programme to include pieces from the Morrison Songbook plus Ramble on Cortona (my favourite piano piece of Gavin’s).

December 11

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday party Spitalfields

This is the first of three anniversary concerts which will bring together the current line-up with four former members: Paul Eliott, John (Lee) Nixon, Errol Girdlestone and me. Roger Marsh has written Poor Yorick for us all to sing. It’s in three sections: one for the existing group, one for the former members and one for all of us together. I hope we old lags will be able to hold our own against the regulars.

December 12

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concert Paris

December 13

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concert Munich


Missing info on venues etc for the above coming soon.


June concerts, worshops, recordings

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

[updated 11 July]


June 3 BBC Radio 3 (17.00): The Choir (discussing chant with Aled Jones)

The interview took place down the line from Radio York, with me sweltering in the tiny studio having run most of the way there. But great as always to talk to Aled Jones – and he’ll play tracks from Red Byrd and the Hilliard Ensemble among others.

June 4 Bratislava: Dowland Project at St Martin’s Cathedral (Convergence Festiva)

These two Slovakian gigs will feature our first forays into Schubert Lieder, following the experimental performance on BBC3’s Schubert Remix.  John Surman, Milos Valent and I are doing an interview at 11.00 at the Artforum bookshop if you want to come along and chat.

June 5 Kosice: Dowland Project at Premonštrátsky kostol (Convergence Festival)

DP Convergience

Is it possible to get closer to musical heaven than being on stage with Milos Valent, Jake Heringman and John Surman roaring away at full throttle? It’s like falling off a precipice and discovering you can fly. These were great gigs – and a big thankyou to Josef Luptak and his team for giving us the opportunity. The Schubert worked really well, and we’re going to try some more in Slovenia.  There’s some video of the Bratislava concert here, and an intervew (in Slovak) with Milos). There’s also a video and a bit of an interview with me (in English!) from our Prague concert last year (courtesy of The Times of India). Latest hint from ECM suggests the Night Sessions album will appear early next year…

June 7-11 Rhineland ensemble coaching sessions

This was a magical time too:  I had a wonderful time with Werner Schüssler’s two ensembles.  The youthful Vocal T and the multi-instrumental Four Reasons were a delight: creative and intelligent musicians who really understood how to collaborate.

June 14 Goldmark Gallery Uppingham: Gavin Bryars Ensemble

Programme to include Laude, Irish Madrigals and extracts from the Morrison Songbook.

This was very atmospheric – very intimate space and very high-powered audience. Lovely people – it makes such a difference when everyone appreciates that this is something more than just a job for us.

June 15 York: Workshop with Ensemble Norma (York)

Norma were really fired up after their success in the Leipzig competition. It was great to work with them (I still feel guilty about their not making the final at Tampere last time). They’re hugely versatile, and we had a very creative time. Keep an ear out – they write or arrange all their own stuff (some of which you can hear here).

June 17 : Alcalá de Henares  (Clásicos en Alcalá) : Dowland recital with Ariel Abramovich (lute)

Alcalá is the birthplace of Cervantes. As a coda to our Dowland recital we’ll perform Robert Johnson’s ‘Woods and Rocks and Mountains’ (thanks to  a bit of detective work by Robert White).  Thomas Shelton’s translation of Don Quixote was published in 1612, as was the play Cardenio which drew on it (and which may have been co-authored  by Shakespeare). The Johnson song is believed to have been composed for this production.

Ariel Abramovich and I have done a lot of Dowland over the last four years or so, but this must have been the most appropriate venue ever: the Corral de Comedias is an exquisite 17th century theatre, perfect for our Pilgrim’s Solace programme.  And it was great to do the Johnson ‘Don Quixote’ piece just yards from where Cervantes was born.

June 20-25 Vienna: Sound & Fury recordings

This will be an Ockeghemfest…, with multiple versions of the Missa Cuius Vis Toni.

Our last Ockeghem effort was greatly appreciated by Todd McComb. He seems particularly gratified by our musica ficta – for wich we have to thank Jaap van Bentham. The Cuius Vis Toni will be a field day for ficta...

See the next post above…

July 10 Harewood House:  Conductus Project concert and CD launch

A late night event in the medieval church in the grounds of Harewood House as part of the York Early Music Festival, this will be the first live concert following the research and recording sessions for Southampton University’s Cantum Pulcriorum Invenire project. It will be by candle light, and feature the first showing of a specially commissioned film by Michael Lynch.

We enjoyed this a lot, especially the gasps from the audience when Mick Lynch’s horses seemed to go for Chris O’Gorman’s head… Another very atmospheric gig (very efficiently organised by the York Early Music Festival team. For details of the CD see the Hyperion website.


Diary updates

Friday, March 16th, 2012


March 23  RNCM seminar, Manchester

This is the second of two for RNCM postgrads, and it will focus on Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s ebook The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performances

March 25  BBC Play Schubert for me

The original invitation for this was for the Dowland Project but getting the band together from four countries for one song wasn’t feasible, so Jacob Heringman and I are going to busk a ‘remix’  of ‘Pause’ from Die schöne Müllerin. It’ll be an interesting challenge, and if it works we may do extended versions in the DP gigs this summer in Slovakia (Bratislava, June 4; Kosice June 5) and Slovenia (Radovljica August 19). We were asked to do it live at 11.00, but that’s way past our bedtime so we’re recording it earlier in the day.

I’ve given up expecting ECM to tell us a release date for the DP Night Sessions. We’ve done three CDs in thirteen years so we’re used to waiting. But the new album is our most radical and innovative yet, so it should be well worth waiting for.

April 14 BBC Music Matters (interview with Neil Sorrell)


This will be an interview with Suzy Klein in London and us down the line in BBC Radio York, discussing issues in A History of Singing. It’s always a bit odd with two of you in a booth not talking to each other but to someone else who isn’t there, but we hope it will be entertaining (and possibly even informative). Neil and I are currently writing a blog post for CUP New York to coincide with the American publication next month.

April 26 Leipzig A Cappella Festival (Being Dufay)

Really looking forward to this one, and to catching up with old Leipzig friends. It’s been a while since we’ve done Being Dufay. This is a great festival, run by one of the legendary German a cappella ensembles Amarcord, whom I coached at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge many years ago.

April 27-8 Sibelius Academy (examining, coaching, seminars)

The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki has one of the most creative performance doctoral programmes in the world, and I’m delighted to be joining a team of examiners. I’ll also be doing a day of seminars and consultations on a range of subjects and  a day’s ensemble coaching. This is the first of three annual visits.

May 1 Vale of Glamorgan Festival (Gavin Bryars Ensemble)

This will be the first time Anna Maria Friman and I have performed together for some time. The programe will include two new Laude. The band will be touring the Baltic states in the autumn, doing Jesus Blood in a slimmed down version which will include Anna  playing the violin and I’ll get to play keyboards. You have been warned…

May 27 Melk Abbey: Vesper Colomani

This is part of the Barocktage Stift Melk. The programme is called Vesper Colomani and if I’ve understood it correctly will be me and and an actor alternating readings and chant connected with St Koloman, sometime spy, pilgrim and sad victim of mistaken identity whose much-travelled bones have rested at Melk for several hundred years.

In  June I’ll be in Slovakia with the Dowland Project, and have workshops in Germany and the UK as well as recordings in Austria with the Sound & the Fury. July will see the launch of the Hyperion Conductus Project at the York Early Music Festival. Details soon.


Friday, January 13th, 2012



I’ve replaced the rather rambling Ensemble, Being Dufay and Lutesongs pages with a much simpler Programmes page, which gives basic details of my main performing projects for this year and next, which are (in alphabetical order): Being Dufay (and its successor), the Conductus Project,  the Dowland Project, and lute songs. The Red Byrd discography has been updated to include the two latest releases. RB isn’t offering specific programmes but we have a number of special requests in the pipeline and are working on these. The Dowland Project also has concerts later in the year, and we’re still waiting for a definite release date from ECM which we hope will generate some more.  The album will be the group’s most radical (and possibly its last), focusing on medieval music and improvisation. There are  also  more succinct Biography and Coaching pages and a slightly edited entry page.

There are Amazon Stores for both the Dowland Project and Red Byrd, with a complete discography and biography on each. I also have a writer’s page, though you may get a primary school teacher of the same name or the magical Harry (the CD page is pretty basic at the moment, but will eventually have a representative selection).


A History of Singing

The book is due any day now, and the dedicated page here is intended to link bits of it with recordings and concerts. The book doesn’t have a formal discography (redundant in the age of Google) so I  thought I’d take the opportunity to track down various YouTube examples of my own stuff and match them up with references in the book. It does this by means of  a Prezi presentation which I hope will be a bit more fun than just a list of stuff. If this works I may expand the concept to include other bits of writing (such as my chapters in the two forthcoming Cambridge Histories).

History of Singing/History of the Dowland Project

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

book cover

We must have written it because you can pre-order it on Amazon…It’s ridiculously expensive, but I imagine there’ll be an affordable paperback eventually.

We’re now into copy editing and indexing, the latter now a week ovedue. It’s a bit different from my first effort for CUP, where I was just left to get on with it. The Press’ production and marketing operation is impressively rigorous. Negotiating with a copy editor is a bit like working with a record producer – they represent the innocent  consumer (what lawyers call the vicious bystander…) and see/hear things that you yourself might never be aware of. I generally go with what the editor suggests if I possibly can, and so it is with producers – I very rarely listen to what I’ve recorded between the sound check and getting the first edit. If the producer’s happy, then I’m likely to be too. You have to trust them, and ultimately you have to let go.

Indexing is computerised so that electronic formats aren’t dependent on print pagination. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this  (and I’ve already managed to lose a whole day’s work, which was absolutely maddening);  it’s incredibly tedious until you’ve accumulated a sufficiently huge number of entries to make yourself seem quite clever, and even then you eventually lose the will to live. With Vocal Authority and the tenor book I was left to my own devices; mindful of how thin the VA one is I tried really hard with the tenor index but did it all by hand. I have to say that so far I’m not convinced by the  electronic indexing process – it’s very labour-intensive (there can be  a dozen keystrokes per entry in addition to the term itself). Because it’s electronic you  don’t have to wait for the page proofs (with the real page numbers), but this places a huge burden on authors, just to gain  a few weeks production time. If we could do it with the real page numbers it would take a fraction of the time.  It will have taken me about three weeks, as opposed to about a week if done in the old fashioned analogue way.

A History of the Dowland Project

The book is supposed to be in the warehouse  in January and in  the shops sometime after that, so it will roughly coincide with the new album from the Dowland Project. Not sure if this is good or bad (it’s entirely coincidental).  The DP album is also a history of a kind: it’s material that we didn’t manage to fit onto Romaria plus the ‘night sessions’ that followed Care Charming Sleep. More details later.  There should be live gigs to coincide with the new album, so watch this space.

Being Dufay

Thanks to Mick Lynch for this link to  John Schaefer’s WNYC podcast, in which he plays music by living composers who use renaissance models  – John’s usual imaginative mix including a couple of bits of BD and some nice Nico Muhly. There is a new bit of video from Tampere on the Being page, featuring an extract from Ambrose Field’s new piece.


Most of July is given over to sorting the book so I’m really looking forward to my next musical event, which is being a guest at the Stimmwercktage (near Regensburg) with Paul O’dette.  Details to follow in a bit, but the Stimmwerck site will give you an idea.




Tampere Retrospect

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Jussi Chydenius, who’s the artistic director of this year’s Tampere Vocal Music Festival, said yesterday how strange it felt not to be on the ensemble jury this year. I felt exactly the same at the last festival two years ago when I was in Jussi’s position, and it was great to be back in the jury once again. This year’s finalists were all of a very high standard, and if we’d had enough time we’d have liked to put all of them into the final concert. It’s always so hard on those who don’t go through. Groups came from as far away as Mexico and Namibia, and the music ranged from dynamic Finnish folk to renaissance polyphony and beatboxing. And the sun shone all day (and most of the night). The organisation is almost miraculous, a heart-warming balance of friendliness and efficiency, and it’s one of the events I most look forward to.

Being Dufay

The first day was a long one, judging ensembles from after breakfast till the evening, then Ambrose and I did Being Dufay in the Customs House. I’ve always wanted to do a gig in there. Wonderfully atmospheric venue. We had a great time, and put in a bit of the new album (on no rehearsal, perforce) but with only a small (but very enthusiastic) audience as the previous concert up in Tampere Hall overran by miles. There are some atmospheric pics by Maarit Kytöharju here and here’s one taken by Anders Jalkeus:


Classical vs non-classical

I did a short in interview for Radio Three’s Michael Surcombe, who was here doing an edition of The Choir for transmission in a few weeks time (it’ll be a 90 minute celebration of the Festival, so keep an ear out). He asked if it would be possible for a completely classical group to win the competition. Interesting question. When the contest started over twenty years ago we sometimes even had a classical category, and groups still in a post-King’s Singers phase often did very well. The models changed over the years and the scene became heavily influenced by The Real Group, and then by groups (such as Rajaton) who’d themselves been inspired by TRG but taken the music on a slightly different track. I think we may have made a mistake in not sending the English Vocal Consort of Helsinkii through to the final round: they’re an excellent young ensemble and (as I confessed in my speech) gave the best performance of Lassus’ ‘Chi chiri chi’ that I’d ever heard. They tried really hard to get round the problem of how to present music that large parts of the audience are probably going to find rather dull. The trouble is, even the best performance of any piece of Lassus isn’t going to leave the audience gasping in admiration: it’s classical repertoire, therefore by definition not exactly in the moment. Difficult.  I went to see the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir who sang to a packed cathedral. Their solution to this sort of problem is a conventional one, a rather clinical  professionalism –  and with rather a lot of  pieces that I’d heard before, but beautifully done. I first met the founder and first conductor Tonu Kaljuste with Veljo Tormis  on one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s first visits to Finland eons ago. After the concert two impressively strange men came up to us and gave us LPs. We had no idea who they were, but when I got home and played the records I became totally hooked on Tormis, and the choir (which had only just acquired its name) were something visceral, one of the most exciting choral sounds I’d ever heard (and not at all like western choirs). The CD they made later of the same repertoire is still exciting but by then they were on the way to becoming a generic western professional choir. They’re still a terrific choir, but  they sound not unlike the BBC Singers or a rather sophisticated opera chorus. It was a bit of a contrast to a choir like  the extraordinary Anglo-Chinese Junior College Alumni Choir the previous day. Maybe that’s where the future of choral music is to be found.

Beating the beatbox

One of the biggest influences on vocal ensembles has been Bobby McFerrin, and vocal percussion has become almost axiomatic for many groups. There were no live players at all this year for the first time (they’re allowed up to five). Signs of evolution here though: those who use it routinely can sound pretty naff and clichéd, whereas the ones who explore some of the infinite creative possibilities are beginning to take it somewhere else. There’s something pretty impressive about a true virtuoso like  Indra Tedjasukmana, whose group Sonic Suite came second in the competition.  Maybe the genre needs to progress beyond pastiching bass and drums (try Beardy Man to see what can be done) and one way of doing this is through technology. Last time’s winners, the German group Klangbezirk were very skilful with footpedals, and this year’s winners, the Danish Postyr Project, also had a cool tech set-up that complemented the singers and was well-integrated into the ensemble. They also sang impressively acappella, and one the members said to me afterwards they were very surprised we’d chosen the looping/beat box numbers for the final concert. But it was those that gave them the edge, enabling them to be really creative with their own material. Both these groups write their own stuff, another huge plus. The days of sub-RTG arrangements seem to be behind us at last (long live the real TRG!).


We don’t often get groups from Africa, so it was a real treat to have the extraordinary Vocal Motion 6 from Namibia. Hannu Lepola, the Real Group’s tenor, told us that in a coaching session TRG had with them one of them said he’d noticed all these professional groups using pitch pipes and so on to get the note, and should they do that too if they wanted to be really professional. It brought a lump to the throat; the pitch giving business often completely breaks whatever atmosphere has been built up – we want pieces to start by magic not by fiddling with a fork (those I’ve coached will have heard this many times…). Hannu rightly told them to carry on with the way they do it – just start! They had atmosphere and heart to spare, and we were so amazed at their performance in the final concert that we created a special prize for them. In the heats there’d been an electrifying moment when the last piece seemed to fall apart, and they did several re-starts in different keys till they got one they were happy with, all with riotous good humour (quick-fire repartee about taking medicine). It was so fast and hilarious – they’re genuinely funny guys (which most singers aren’t) that we couldn’t tell if it was pre-planned. We asked them to do it again in the final so we could find out. What happened was completely different. They must either have had a number of possible options or have been confident they could sing their way out of any situation. Whichever way, it was hugely exciting. They don’t read music, but they certainly live it.

Anna-Mari Kähärä

All that was before the last event I went to, the AnnaMari Kähärä Orchestra. I want to be her in my next life, or failing that either of her two guitarists or the drummer. Though I’d hope for a name that was a bit easier for English people to pronounce  –  when you hear Finns say her name it just sounds as though they’re clearing their throats. I couldn’t begin to describe the gig. Jazz-rock? Sort of.  She is a phenomenon; the whole band is (Marzi Nyman & Jarmo Saari guitars, Zarkus Poussa drums). They all sing at the same time as playing, and Zarkus Poussa even played the drums with his vocal mic. You just had to be there. I Googled them all but couldn’t find anything remotely like they did in the Customs Hall Club, and hardly anything in English. Anna-Mari Kähärä, who actually sat on the jury some years ago, is also a composer among a huge number of other things (she produced the first Rajaton album) and earlier in the day the Helsinki University Choir workshopped her Robert Louis Stephenson setting Requiem. By way of an encore the band started on their version of the piece (there’s a relatively restrained version on her self-titled album).  As soon as they recognised it, the choir members in the audience started to join in, singing the polyphony.  Absolutely amazing. If you get a chance to hear them or her live, don’t pass it up.

Heavy Metal

Sadly, I had to go home before the mega event of the Saturday night. I had a couple of hours to spare after I’d checked out of my hotel so I went and sat by the water and promptly fell asleep. I was woken by someone apparently talking in my ear. It turned out to be the PA of the Heavy Metal Festival which was just starting up a couple of kilometres across the water. The volume was about right, as I’d have it at home if I didn’t want to annoy the neighbours. I don’t know what the band was – they sang in English but did their announcements in Finnish. They obviously knew their Led Zep and Genesis so it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to. The singer would have made a Wagnerian Heldentenor with only small adjustments to his technique. But unconstrained by composery craft he could soar to stratospheric heights with an intensity of expression that Wagner himself surely would have admired.