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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.

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


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). 


Death of the CD?

Sunday, April 29th, 2018


I stopped keeping a tally of the number of recordings I’ve made when the total got to 150 or so. Some of them I’ve never owned or heard, some get re-issued and re-packaged, some even continue to sell; I suppose they represent  the story of a musical life – from fantastic highs that you want to remember for ever and some you’d rather forget. They’re also a history of the technology, from acetate demos of my more or less embarrassing teenage bands to my first LP (Handel, would you believe, but closely followed by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London),  lots more  vinyl, cassettes and finally CDs. Finally, because in my musical neck of the woods we’ve been around too long to get a grip on streaming and video.

Brigid Delaney’s recent piece on the death of the CD in the Guardian, provocative, simplistic and inaccurate, stimulated a fascinating discussion below the by-line from lovers and loathers of the format.  For consumers there’s no argument – if you’re younger than me you go with whatever the current technology is, if you’re of a certain age you’re probably keeping the CD industry going. It’s a curious thing about the niche world that I inhabit that the performance side tends to be age-blind (I may be flattering myself here) whereas the audiences we mostly perform to tend to be of CD-buying age. Decades ago I used to worry that the demographic we performed to would all be dead in twenty years, but it doesn’t work quite like that: there seems to be a threshold at which people start to go to concerts so the same demographic is still there. I can’t see music-lovers of my son’s generation returning to CDs though – streaming is just too comprehensive and convenient (not to mention somehow magical).

As the various formats have changed, so has the relationship between record companies and their artists. In the classical world it used to be the case that the company would pay you a fee (known as a buy-out, which meant you had no residual rights) or give you a non-repayable royalty advance (which is what being ‘signed’ means in the pop world).  The companies that I have had most to do with over the years have been Hyperion, ORF, EMI and ECM; the first two worked on a fee basis and the second two on royalty advances. The Hilliards left EMI still owing many thousands in non-repayable advances (that were spent on, among other things, extravagant post session dinners that we didn’t know we were paying for). Almost all the ECM recordings repaid their advances within a year or so. As far as I know ECM is the only company that still works in this way, giving its artists a stake in their own music, and it can do this partly because the CDs still sell – either through one of the online distributors or by artists selling them at gigs. The numbers are small compared with even a few years ago, and the company has recently embraced streaming, though everything is available on CD or vinyl, but ECM will always be identified with a physical product – the Gesamtkunstwerk, every aspect of which has the imprint of Manfred Eicher.

If you’re not lucky enough to record for a major label (or if you’re a new jazz or pop band) there are plenty of smaller labels who will consider taking you on. These are often run by audiophile entrepreneurs who produce excellent recording, but they work to a very different economic model. You pay for the recording, and may agree to buy a certain number of CDs. The company may have a distributor or you might decide to create your own label and sell at gigs. Either way, you are very unlikely to get your money back unless you do a lot of gigs. If it costs, say, £5000 to make an album you’ll need to sell 50 albums at 100 gigs to break even. Many of us would be lucky to sell half that at most gigs, so call it 200 gigs. Average 25 gigs a year? 8 years before you break even – probably longer as you won’t still be doing the same repertoire in 8 years’ time, and you might well have more recent recordings to compete with it.

Like most of my fellow performers I’ve never considered recording as an economic activity – it’s primarily a musical thing which may or may not earn something (some of mine have). As Manfred Eicher put it in his Royal Academy talk recently, you go somewhere, meet people, make music then go home. It’s always a wonderfully intense experience but it’s a one-off and you then forget all about it. That’s fine if the production and distribution are in the hands of the record company of course, but if you’re funding your own recordings you can’t avoid engaging with the whole process. I’ve never done that, and I continue to have a wonderfully creative relationship with ECM after some twenty-five years, but there is a musical elephant in the room in connection with the Alternative History project. The quartet is an ECM band, but increasingly various fractals (as Robert Fripp would put it) perform music that taps in to the project agenda but which there is no chance ECM would want to record. It’s the even niche-er end of a very niche market. Do we go down the self-funding route? Will I still be performing in 8 years’ time? Quite possibly, but almost certainly very different repertoire (my plan to sing until I drop involves doing much older music as I get much older). A YouTube channel maybe?  That might be the way forward – no profit but relatively little outlay, and the music will be there for people to enjoy. We’ll see.

Reflections on the ECM Weekend at Triskel

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015


I’ve taken part in several ECM festivals over the years but none as friendly, inspirational and simply joyous as the Triskel ECM Weekend in Cork.  From start to finish the ECM community was infused with an Irish generosity of spirit which touched us all.


The weekend began with Amores Pasados (rather poignantly, exactly a year since Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I recorded the album with Manfred Eicher at Rainbow Studios in Oslo). Triskel Christchurch is a lovely venue and we’d probably have done an acoustic set if ours had been the only event, but since Arve Henriksen, Food and Quercus would be using PA later we decided to give ourselves a bit of a boost.  Soundman Dara got it absolutely right – very discreet and with a little extra for the lutes. We tried Jake Heringman’s new arrangements of Peter Warlock’s The Bayly and Corpus Christi (the latter featuring Anna on fiddle), part of our evolving repertoire of early 20th century song. As usual, we enjoyed ourselves hugely.


The next day there was a showing of Sounds and Silence, the ECM ‘road movie’ and essential viewing for its key insights into the work of Manfred Eicher. This was followed later by a couple of fringe events: an introduction to Ergodos Records (Triskel has its own record shop) and a concert by composer/performers Seán Mac Erlaine, Linda Buckley,  Michelle O’Rourke and the two founders of Ergodos  Garrett Sholdice and  Benedict Schlepper-Connolly. It was an inspired idea to put the young and dynamic record company/performing ensemble alongside the ECM events (and great to hear some Dowland too). Then in the evening came the double bill of Arve Henriksen and Food (Ian Ballamy and Thomas Strønen). I’ve admired Ian Ballamy’s sax playing for ages and it was great to hear him live (and his sitting in at the festival club afterwards was awesome).   Strønen’s playing was as detailed and impressive as ever, but the evening really came alive when Arve Henriksen joined them for the first time in many years. Arve is famous for making his trumpet sound like a flute (and for being Mr Anna Maria Friman, of course) but he’s much, much more than that. His trumpet playing is exquisite (and having brought up a trumpet player myself I know a little about it) but his singing is revelatory. His voice often negotiates with the trumpet or uses invented language, but the final piece morphed into All I want is a Fried Egg Sandwich (don’t try and Google it…). This was so unexpected and surreal that we sat there literally open mouthed (desperate for fried egg too, obviously). It was absolutely stunning.

The next day we had a Banter panel session, where Jim Carroll of the Irish Times interrogated  composer Linda Buckley, Ergodos record label director Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Triskel’s artistic director Tony Sheehan and me about ‘the cultural connections which ensue when someone decides to act on their vision’. The IT had run a very perceptive piece by Cormac Larkin about Manfred Eicher a few days earlier, and the discussion ranged widely over the cultural reach and vision of Manfred, the state of the record making and music listening communities, and the future of recording and performing in an age of diminishing public funding and fragmented artistic endeavour. I tried to make a point (still rather half-formed in my head) that recording and live performance are essentially the same thing, especially as Manfred Eicher’s recordings are a kind of hyper-live process which capture a moment of creation which then defines what the music is. I’d got into a bit of trouble with Cormac Larkin in the bar the night before when stumbling my way through this idea, comparing the academic view of ‘great music’ residing in the score, as opposed to its performance. I shouldn’t have used the  vacuous term ‘great music’ – and I’ll have more to say about this when I get going on my next book in the new year.


The final concert was Qercus (Ian Ballamy, Huw Warren and June Tabor). Huw Warren must be one of the most lyrical pianists around and his playing  was the most delicate and subtle imaginable. Ian Ballamy was in full lyrical flow too, and they both supported June Tabor like family members. June herself showed us what real singing is about – how it’s a direct line to the emotional side of the brain (as Meredith Monk once put it). Bob Dylan’s Don’t think Twice It’s Alright was one of the most moving performances I’ve heard for a long time. Butterworth’s The Lads in their Hundreds similarly. No ‘classical’ singer could possibly have found such pathos in a hundred years of singing lessons. The spoken encomium at the end was followed by Huw Warren’s barely audible start to Teares, his elegiac Dowland tribute. It was heart-stopping.

Organising any sort of festival takes a huge amount of hard work over a long period of time. Dedicating it to that unique and visionary enterprise that is so much more than a record company takes a very special kind of application and patience that few people are capable of. Thank you Tony Sheehan – you absolutely nailed it. Thanks too, to the rest of the team, especially Robert and Tina who made our stay both problem-free and a lot of fun. It was a wonderful way to end the first year of our Amores Pasados adventure –  what a year it’s been.

Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek: the final concert

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

King's chapel smallRob Cowan plays Hilliard tracks 10.30 – 11.00 on BBC Radio 3 every day this week

The audience were so quiet if we hadn’t been able to see (and even touch them) we wouldn’t have known they were there. After the last chord of Parce Mihi had drifted up into the chapel vaulting and disappeared the silence enveloped us all. Time seemed to stop. Then the audience erupted like a football crowd.




In the afternoon we did the longest sound check ever – nearly an hour. Mostly because the guys were reluctant to decide the actual programme. It was all a bit subdued. I was excited to see a copy of the programme booklet which reminded us of the start of it all twenty years ago. Tickets hadn’t been going well until the BBC played a short clip from the Morales, after which their switchboard was jammed with callers wanting to know what it was. The concert immediately sold out and there was such a scrum for CDs at Heffers Sound afterwards that the police were called. That’s when we knew…


HE prog small


Not much talk in the dressing room in Gibbs Building before the start. It must have been so much harder for David, Rogers, Steven and Gordon than for me, and I was wondering how we’d be able to get through it. It was extraordinary to be back – although until Ely a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t done this programme for 15 years in many respects it was as though I’d never been away.

But then we’re off, and it’s business as usual, dispersing to all parts of the building as the first notes begin to occupy the space. I sat on the organ loft stairs for the pieces I wasn’t involved in, so heard a lot of the concert from the shadows just behind the guys. There were many great moments – and some staggering sax playing of course, with Jan playing the building like a giant amplifier. We all had moments when we nearly lost it – when that part of the brain that deals with real emotion got the better of our professional cool. Finally the last piece in the programme arrived – the Brumel Agnus Dei. I stood up in the shadows waiting to join the guys to process through the choir for the last time. Hearing them singing their hearts out I found myself smiling rather than crying, and filled with a huge sense of relief and of a job well done. I thought back to twenty years before, looking through all the Brumel masses, then trying that particular Agnus on the piano, hearing Jan in my head floating over that amazing descending sequence (so modern!), and there it was, sailing on into the dark twenty years later having touched millions of people across the world along the way. Then it was just Remember me my Dear and Parce mihi to survive, and the final walk down the antechapel and out into the moonlight. We’d done it. The last time I walked down the packed antechapel was a wet Christmas Eve in 1960 on my way to the West door to sing the treble solo in Once in Royal David’s City.


Kings small


Amores Pasados


Avila selfie


There will never be another project like the Hilliards’ partnership with Jan Garbarek but the creative life goes on, and by a serendipitous coincidence the end of one ECM project coincides with the genesis of another. Last week at Rainbow Studios in Oslo Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I recorded Amores Pasados, our album of lute songs by Campion, Sting, Tony Banks and John Paul Jones. It was our attempt to confound the difference between art song and pop song, and was another of those gloriously unforgettable ECM experiences. We’d arranged and rehearsed the pieces so we knew it was going to be something special, but as happened with the Hilliards and the Dowland Project, Manfred Eicher sculpted the music into something that none of us could possibly have imagined. We all feel that something extraordinary happened over those three days (two to record and one to mix). The chemistry between the four of us as people and musicians, the rich and rare texture of two lutes and two voices, the direct emotional appeal of music unconstrained by classical convention: mix together with one of the world’s most creative producers at the height of his powers and you have Amores Pasados. We’re hoping for a spring release while we’re still heady with the Oslo momentum, and I’ll put a dedicated page on this site with new photos by CF Wesenberg and details of upcoming gigs.

Trio Mediaeval – Aquilonis


The mixing day for Amores Pasados coincided with Trio Mediaeval’s launch event for Aquilonis, which we recorded in St Gerold earlier this year (a very quick turn around!). If there’s a successor to the Hilliard Ensemble perhaps the Trio are it. They first appeared at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge 16 years ago, and went on to make 5 (and counting) stunning albums for ECM, four of which I’ve had a hand in producing. Like the Hilliard Ensemble, they don’t claim to be a dedicated early music group (despite the name…) but have established a unique persona that transcends conventional categories, a synthesis developed from their backgrounds in early music, folk music and the Scandinavian music education system. Their Oslo concert was exquisite – beautiful singing (and with a surprise appearance of the next generation of wonderful young girl singers). Like the Hilliards at their best, they can transform the simplest chord into something magical.


Three Medieval Tenors – Conductus


Conductus 2 cover

So what is Rogers Covey-Crump going to be doing post-Hilliard Ensemble? Joining Christopher O’Gorman and me for concerts of the colourful 12th century Conductus repertoire. Our third CD will be released by Hyperion in the spring and at the moment we have concerts and workshops booked in the UK, Germany, Slovenia and Spain. This will be the culmination of several years’ research led by Mark Everist at the University of Southampton.  In 2016 we hope to tackle later medieval music as far as Machaut, and maybe commission some new pieces for the three of us.


PAPH2725 smaller yellowphoto: Paul Arthur


The Hilliard Legacy


I hope the Hilliards will find a home for the unique collection of scores that they’ve built up over the years, and perhaps one of the members will create some sort of archive. The records of course speak for themselves, and there will presumably be an album or two still come as a result of their live recordings during this final year. In January, when we’ve got over the trauma of December 20th at the Wigmore, I might put up a couple of chapters from my aborted travel diaries of the nineties featuring our adventures in Russia (the Hermitage concert) and Latvia (mostly plumbing…). At the moment they only exist as paper drafts, so they’ll take a bit of typing.

None of the other ensembles that I’ve mentioned above would exist if I hadn’t joined (and then left) the Hilliard Ensemble. The common factor in all of them is ECM, which took the risk with the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval, and now the Amores Pasados quartet. And two of the Three Medieval Tenors were the Hilliard tenor section for 17 years, so life goes on… What a great privilege it is to be associated with such musicians and such a record label.

ECM News

Friday, April 18th, 2014

ECM News – Secret History

Great news on the ECM front.  We’ve agreed the final version of Secret History and are awaiting confirmation of the release date. We’ll be doing the first live version of the programme in Ávila  on August 29th (Anna Maria Friman and me singing, with Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman lutes) and we hope it will appear in time for this festival in Victoria’s birthplace. The programme will consist of the Surge propera mass and motets by Josquin Desprez, giving an idea of how this fantastic  music was performed after its brief incarnation as acappella polyphony.

Amores Pasados

ECM has also agreed recording dates for Amores Pasados. This is hugely exciting – we’ll be doing a new version of John Paul Jones’ eponymous pieces (with Anna Maria Friman doubling on Hardanger fiddle) and Sting has sent me an exquisite song he originally wrote for Russell Crowe to sing in Robin Hood (for whom it proved  far too delicate…). I’ve been an admirer of Genesis’ Tony Banks for longer than I can remember, and he has composed three beautiful songs to poems by Campion which we will do alongside Campion’s originals and some Dowland. We’re also contemplating at least one Schubert song (‘Pause’ from Die schöne Müllerin that Jake and I did for the BBC Schubert remix) and a Schumann duet or two.  There may be other surprises (a song is a song is a song…).

There are more details about both these projects here.

Dowland project news

We’ve been invited to take part in the Enjoy Jazz festival in Heidelberg in October. More news soon.

Conductus project

The final recording is now being edited and we expect a release date in the autumn. We’ve collected enough letters of intent for the AHRC grant application and hope to be doing lots of concerts and workshops next year both in the UK and on the mainland. This will be the Three Medieval Tenors version with me, Christopher O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump (who will by then have finished his grand Hilliard Ensemble farewell tour).


Apologies…we think the reason you haven’t been getting updates is that somewhere along the line the program became incompatible with a WordPress update. I’ve now had Mailchimp installed. It’s much simpler – just give it your email address and the rest will happen by magic.



Conferences, Concerts & Workshops

Sunday, February 24th, 2013


At the Chains of Gold event in Cambridge next weekend I’ll be doing a talk on Friday 1st March entitled Historical singing style: can it be done? What’s the point? followed by three verse anthem workshops the next day (with Bill Hunt and Fretwork). Conference registration is now closed but it’s still possible to attend the workshops.

I’ve now decided on a title for my Association of Teachers of Singing conference keynote in Bristol on July 19th; it’s called Singing interpreted: the silent language of historical pedagogy. More info when I’ve wriiten the abstract…


The next performance is on April 13th at the Cambridge Festival of the Voice in the Emmanual United Reform Church (a bit later than the music but a lovely acoustic). I’ll be doing a short talk first and the programme (with Mick Lynch’s film) will be similar to the one we did in the York Early Music Festival but with a couple of additions from the forthcoming CD. Chris and I will be doing a short performance also of new material (without film) at the PMMS conference in York on July 10th, and a more detailed exploration with Rogers Covey-Crump (and film) at the Cantum conference in Southampton on September 9th. That will be followed by our first full-length trio performance in Otterberg on September 22nd.

Aldeburgh residency

I had a bit of a fright when I saw that this seemed to be billed as Concerto Caldonia John Potter Singers but I think this is just a web cock up. My illustrious colleagues are billed in full here. Still no idea how this will work, though it will be fun if YouTube clips of previous CC Aldeburgh residencies are anything to go by. The concert is on Easter Saturday, and we’ll be joined by James Bowman (whom I haven’t seen since David Munrow days). I haven’t sung at Snape since sharing Handel’s L’Allegro with Peter Pears. He’d just been knighted and we weren’t sure if we could still call him just plain Peter. The concert was exciting: the conductor fell off the podium in the rehearsal and conducted the whole thing with one arm in a sling. Half a conductor…

Finland visits

My next Finland visits are April 27-29, June 4-8, September 13-16 and October 25-28, so if anyone wants any coaching while I’m there, let me know.

ECM  lute projects

Progress is being made on both the Josquin/Victoria edit and the proposal to record the Sting, John Paul Jones and Tony Banks songs (though there’s no sign yet of the Dowland Project Night Sessions). There’s a new lute songs page here, and Ariel, Jake and I will be doing some of the new material in Navarra in September.



Thursday, July 21st, 2011


New Release early 2012


ECM have confirmed that the new Dowland Project album will be released next year.  We won’t know the actual date till September, but it’s likely to be sometime before April. This is particularly exciting news as it will bring together all the musicians who’ve played for the band, Stephen Stubbs, John Surman, Barry Guy,  Maya Homburger and Milos Valent.  It means we’ll be able to  perform in various permutations, depending on players’ availability (and promoters’ budgets), and we’re hoping that everyone will be in Europe in September 2012 so we can do concerts then (if you’re a promoter reading this, please contact Robert White Artist Management: RWhiteAM@aol.com).


This will be our fourth album, and as it’s so difficult to get everyone together, possibly our last. Unfortunately, we all now live in different countries (Steve Stubbs in the USA, John Surman in Norway, Milos Valent in Slovakia,  Barry Guy & Maya Homburger in Switzerland and I’m in York).  It’s been a wonderfully inspiring adventure, which began twelve years ago with Manfred Eicher’s famous response to my original suggestion of Dowland….’ah, but you don’t want to use any of those boring early music players, do you?’. To which I replied after only a nano-second’s hesitation ‘…er, no of course not.’ The first album didn’t have the name, we just called it Dowland. The original plan was to put my name on the front but I couldn’t agree to the other players not being there too, so I joined them on the back. We always referred to it as ‘the Dowland project’, so when the second album ‘ Care Charming Sleep’ came round, the name chose itself. But there’s no Dowland on it, some people pointed out. It’s as in the Monteverdi Choir doing Bach, I’d reply, not entirely accurately.

This is what we looked like at our launch gig in Bremen back in the twentieth century:


DP original lineup


Steve Stubbs has always been the engine room of the band, and having played with everyone from Chuck Berry to William Christie there’s nothing he can’t cope with or be inspired by.

Dowland Project at St Gerold

Steve and I have worked together for years, since we first met soon after I joined the Hilliard Ensemble. Barry Guy I’d known even longer, and I’ve been involved in some iconic Guy works over the years. He wrote Hold Hands and Sing for Electric Phoenix back in the seventies – a Dada-based riot of a piece featuring the Magical Movement Machine –  and then the multi-instrumental Waiata for me and Philip Pickett (bits of which Richard Wistreich and I still perform); he wrote Un Coup de Des for the Hilliard Composition Competition and I used to do it regularly with students at York. John Surman I only knew as a jazz legend, but I very quickly got to know and enjoy his wonderfully quirky playing across that creative borderline where we operate (not to mention his sense of humour – he could literally dumbfound me mid-piece). Maya Homburger and Milos Valent came, like me, from the world of early music, but from that end of it which, like jazz, knows few constraints. We work very closely with producer Manfred Eicher, whose input into the recording sessions has always been transformative and inspirational.

Manfred Eicher and the Dowland Project



The ‘Night Sessions’


The working title is ‘Night Sessions’. It’s been very hard to keep quiet  about this,  as I think it’s by far the best thing we’ve done. Most of the tracks  date from 2002 after we recorded  Care Charming Sleep. In fact it’s just a single session which we recorded having finished the album and spent the evening celebrating. Way past my bed time Manfred suggested we go back in the church and record some more. We didn’t have any more music so we used medieval poems as a basis for improvisation. The result was  radically different from anything we’d done  before  (Barry, Maya, Steve and JS all at their brilliant best). We didn’t even think of releasing it as it was so  different from anything else we’d done , and we thought that people would be completely baffled by it.  So time passed and in 2006  we recorded Romaria as a step t0wards this  new direction. The Romaria sessions included the  bizarre 14th century Fumeurs Fumee (with its impenetrable text about smoking dope of some sort), one of several medieval pieces that didn’t fit with the rest of the material, and we decided to  put these with the Night Sessions music to make a complete album. It’s certainly the most extraordinary record we’ve ever made: medieval music in the usual Dowland Project style, plus medieval-inspired improvisation that transcends all of the usual parameters by about a million miles.  All the improv pieces are single takes so it has a fantastically live feel to it.


More details on the release and tour dates as we get them.











writing singing writing coaching writing listening writing

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

February was a great month, though CUP called our bluff with the singing history book and want it by about now, so I’ve been too busy to update the diary and have been frantically writing between gigs. I did a lovely concert in Orleans with Gavin Bryars, with Anna Friman doing her first gig with the group since giving birth to Max and Filip (and getting her doctorate). Ambrose Field and I had a terrific time in Rome, and even managed an improvised encore which the audience insisted on when we came out to take down the gear after the show had finished. There are reviews from Online Jazz and Giornale della Musica here and  here. Ambrose has some sound clips on his blog, in front of the mother ship(including our encore) and the pic shows us standing in front of the mother ship before it left for Mars. I also recorded Josquin and Victoria at St Gerold for ECM with my lovely vihuela players. Fabulous musicans. There was no snow, but it was great to see the horses enjoying the sun.

Liz Haddon and I have finished our IMP chapter. Or rather Liz has. My contribution didn’t extend to much more than writing my name. And I had a lovely time coaching Enkelit. No English singers ever sounded more like Finns.  There was a strange historical conjunction when the Hilliard Ensemble did a concert in the York university concert series. Two slices of history that I’ve left behind. And FabCab had another purely social reunion in Bewdley. More history. Now back to the book – the next post will triumphantly  announce its completion…


Friday, October 8th, 2010

Romaria at St Gerold

Dowland and the ECM factor

It’s twelve years since the first Dowland Project album (the only one with music by Dowland himself). It began life as only ECM projects can –  an invitation from Manfred Eicher, an exchange of ideas completely free of musicological (or any other) constraints, and a result that no one could have predicted. For me it was as important as the Hilliards’ Officium, and for very similar reasons – one of the the key features of both albums is that everyone is pushing beyond the comfort zones of what’s on the page and whatever they might have done before.  We didn’t have a name for it to start with. As it was my band the usual thing would be to put my name on the front and the other guys on the back, but I couldn’t agree to anything quite so undemocratic (and anyway they were much more famous than I was) which is why it’s just called John Dowland, with the full title and all our names together on the back.  We’d kept referring to it as the Dowland project, so that’s eventually what it became for the subsequent releases.  Manfred Eicher & John SurmanI’m not sure that Manfred liked recording in England much but it didn’t dampen his inspiration, and every track has the Eicher signature on it. It’s not just the sound – he can alter the musical logic with a suggestion that seems to come from nowhere, and it almost always involves creating new space for the musicians to explore. There is no producer on the planet who is quite so attuned to the musicians and the moment.

The original line-up was largely Manfred’s idea. My first thoughts were to build on the Dowland work that Steve Stubbs and I had done over many years. Manfred was very happy with Dowland and Steve but he would never consider the use of conventional early music players just for its own sake. He immediately suggested Maya Homburger (baroque violin) and Barry Guy (bass) as being musicians that we could have a dialogue with. At that moment the landscape changed completely. I went way and mulled over the musical possibilities and went back to Manfred to sound him out about another melody instrument, possibly a bass flute. What you need, he said, is John Surman. How right he was. So that’s how we ended up with lute, violin, bass, and bass clarinet doubling saxophone & recorder.

original lineup

Composing , performing, improvising…

I knew from a very young age that I would be a singer when I grew up. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and was fortunate enough to have the voice and the opportunity to realise some of my ambitions early on. I’d been programmed from childhood to sing Bach and Handel, Mozart and Schubert,  and envisaged a life on what we then called the Oratorio circuit doing just that. But what do you do when you’ve sung your twentieth Bach Passion, or your fiftieth Messiah? How much more can you bring to the same notes after years of repeating them? I just couldn’t do it, and drifted into all sorts of other stuff – whatever seemed interesting and wasn’t what I’d done before. With the Hilliard Ensemble I discovered a passion for Franco-Flemish polyphony (I knew nothing of music before Tallis and Byrd till I joined the group). As the early music movement developed I began to be aware that the written notes were only the starting point, and by the time I’d written a couple of books I realised that my preconceived notions of history were entirely wrong: up until Wagner (roughly) the composer was just the the catalyst that generated the music; the music itself was actually the product of the creative relationship between composer and performer.  Recording for ECM, with its unique  chemistry between performer, composer and producer,  takes this web of  relationships into yet more sophisticated territory,  adding a third dimension of creativity where the result is always greater than the sum of the parts.

The Hilliards’ great strength was their mutual and  instinctive understanding of what it was like to be an ensemble. The group never felt it necessary to do  much in the way of ornamentation, and it was only with Officium we really learned to go beyond the written notes. Jan Garbarek didn’t need any dots at all, and I think we all felt quite  jealous. We obviously couldn’t become jazz musicians but we could try to rediscover those creative impulses that were common to both jazz and classical music until the 20th century got its hands on the process.  Revolutionary moments in a performing career are rare and beyond value, and you have to use them to propel you somewhere else. It’s happened to me at least twice – with Electric Phoenix and the Hilliard Ensemble, when the creative impetus took me out of the both groups altogether. They continued on their own very successful paths, but they both set me off in a completely different direction.

…and not crossing over…

That’s how the Dowland Project came to be what it now is, a freewheeling band of improvisers from different necks of the musical woods who respect each other’s territory and never ‘cross over’. It’s like a Venn diagram – the two overlapping circles with the shared area the place where our creative juices intermingle. And it is a band, not a group or an ensemble. It works in a very similar way to the blues bands I used to play in as a teenager.  In fact, the English R&B movement of the late sixties – that gave birth to the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and countless other British interpreters of what was quintessentially American music – has a lot in common with aspects of the early music movement. A lot of the Hilliard/Garbarek material consists of pre-existing chord sequences plus improvisation, a lot of the Dowland Project music is 17th century bass lines and tunes, with chords in between and improv over the top. Steve Stubbs plays off bass lines for us just as he did with Chuck Berry and still does in Tragicomedia and his various opera projects.

We were quite surprised at the interest from promoters and festivals, and the band really took off when we began to do gigs. Unfortunately, with such fantastic players it was never going to be easy to get them together in the same place at the same time. Barry and Maya were incredibly busy, and lived in Ireland at the time, and it soon became obvious we’d always find it difficult to go on the road for any length of time. Milos ValentFor the third album, Romaria,  I was determined to have a group that could tour, so we slimmed down to four, with Milos Valent taking over from Barry and Maya.  As it turned out, things didn’t get any easier as Steve moved from Bremen to Seattle and John moved from Kent to Oslo. The fourth album, which includes the famous St Gerold night session (no release date yet) has all six players, so when we eventually tour that particular programme we may be able to be a bit more flexible.

Music in the moment

Another thing the Dowland Project has in common with the Hilliard/Garbarek project is that the music happens in the moment. There’s no conventional rehearsing, and certainly no attempt to reproduce something we’ve done before – the key thing is mutual exploration, a journey which begins the moment we set foot on the stage and doesn’t stop till we’ve left it. I’ve just drawn up a rough set list for our upcoming gig in Prague. It’s not set in stone, but one of the things I want to try is Tarquinio Merula‘s ‘Hor ch’e tempo di dormire’. This is Merula’s most famous piece, an extraordinarily moving lullably/lament by Mary for her infant son. It has only two chords, but an amazing series of melodic variations. I’m going to bring it to the sound check and we may try a few bars, but the piece will only be there for real in the performance and it will happen only once (you have to be there!).  I’ve edited it so that it makes sense when sung by a man as a lullaby to his daughter. Or in my case, his granddaughter…



There’s more info and  a discography (with some audio) on my Dowland Project page.  There’s a conversation between me and Manfred Eicher about the genesis of the project here, and info about Romaria (the current album) here.

Our next concert is in Prague on November 3rd at the Church of our Lady before Tyn,  part of the Strings of Autumn Festival.Church of our lady befor Tyn