:: Gentle Power of Song


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.

Singing Book, Syd Barrett & Braunschweig Blues

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

The Book

…is finished…sort of.  As with all books, you don’t ever actually finish – you just get to a point where it seems OK to stop. Neil Sorrell and I have finally got there and it’s on its way to Cambridge University Press and we now await editorial fall-out from some of the fireworks we may have set off, and a publication date.


The Plainsong & Medieval Music Society  symposium

I gave a paper entitled ‘Finding a Voice: the medieval singer in the 21st Century’ at the Birmingham University PMMS symposium hosted by Mary O’Neill.  I was focusing on the early 13th century repertoire that Jan Walters and I did in Braunschweig last season, so to get an idea of the difficulty of being anywhere near right when you perform music from 800 years ago I played an old demo of my blues band in 1964, then fast-forwarded the conference to 2811 and tried to reconstruct the song from the scrap of paper on which I’d written the words and chords… distressing some German musicologists in the process (and they weren’t even alive in 1964).  But I think it made the point – that worrying over the niceties of pronunciation, syllable counts, mode and the like are as nothing when you have no idea what the singers actually sounded like. After all, music is for listening to, and it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

The Sound & the Fury


We recorded five new masses at Karthause Mauerbach (2 by Caron and 2 by de Prioris – who was new to me – and one by Pierre de la Rue). These sessions are always inspirational (though sometimes a bit awkward, with our wonderful resident musicologist sitting in like a member of the politburo representing the dead composers). We also did the usual live broadcast – this time preceded by a spontaneous performance of ‘Flow my Tears’ with Evangelina Mascardi.

John Potter & Evangelina Mascardi

The two of us were caught by Bernhard Trebuch having a quick run-through in the corridor 2 minutes before we went on air.


Constant Penelope & Syd Barrett: unlikely contemporaries…

David Sloan played the legendary Gentle Power single at his daughter’s wedding (having thoughtfully rejected the idea of asking us to do it live…), and we hear that the album Circus is in real  danger of being re-released.  Sixties freak beat (as it’s apparently called now) is  commercially viable in a way that it obviously wasn’t in the sixties. There won’t be any reunion tours though since we only get together when one of us dies, and hopefully that won’t be for a while yet. Cambridge memories came flooding back with the new Syd Barrett book by Rob Chapman. I didn’t know the Floyd members, though my wife Penny was at Cambridge Art  School (the famous Tech) with Syd Barrett and actually introduced me to the then unknown Dave Gilmour whom we encountered on our way to the Arts Theatre for one of my very rare opera gigs. Syd Barrett: a Very Irregular Head mentions Syd and Dave swapping Chuck Berry licks in the Cambridge Tech canteen, which is exactly what Penny remembers (the Chuck Berry bit, that is) and which none of the other Floyd histories mention). ‘Memphis Tennessee’ was a favourite, apparently. Penny’s folio contains at least one  fascinating sketch of an arty guitarist  but we don’t think it’s Syd, sadly.  This is one, though, is unmistakably the Barrett head:

When I taught at the University of York several of my postgrad students were Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd fans, but unfortunately none of them wanted to do a  PhD in Prog Rock.

Tenor updates/obits

Now that the history book is finished I have time to update the tenorography for the Yale tenor book web page. Very sad to hear of the death of Robert Tear, who was a choral scholar at King’s Cambridge when I was a treble there. It was hearing him (and fellow tenor Brian Head) sing day after day that convinced lots of us that we’d be tenors when we grew up. Robert Ponsonby’s Guardian obit perfectly captures the man.

Videos with Harp

Jan Walters

Back in January Jan Walters came up to York and Mick Lynch filmed the two of us in St Denys church (which has some of the oldest and finest stained glass in the country). It was very cold and one of the cameras packed up, but Mick did a great job, aided by  Ambrose Field as sound man. Jan did a solo Cantiga and we did spontaneous performances of an anonymous Minnelied and song by the troubadour Bernhard de Ventadorn.   There’s clip from our 2009 Braunschweig performance here, but the acoustic was a bit much for one singer and a tiny harp.


April Diary/site updates

I will be updating the  other pages when I have a minute.  There have been interesting developments in my ECM vihuela project and all sorts of things are bubbling away for later in the year. There are two interesting projects this month. The practical experimental sessions for the SouthamptonUniversity  Conductus Project finally start.  Chris O’Gorman and I will begin looking at facsimiles and finding out how to declaim 13th century Latin, and we’ll be joined for some of the sessions by Rogers Covey-Crump.  Ambrose Field and I will be be doing an interview down the line for RTE Lyric FM’s  The John Kelly Ensemble on Thursday 14th April ahead of our gig on the 16th at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. The interview goes out on the 15th in the afternoon. This is an exciting new venue – a  converted and restored church – and it’ll be the Opening Weekend. Tickets are free and expected to be in short supply, so grab one while you can.

Much of May will be spent exploring France, Italy and Germany, ending up with PhD viva-ing in Gothenborg and a conference on the Tenor in Schwerte. That’s followed in rapid succession by coaching the vocal ensemble Versio in  Helsinki and returning to chair the ensemble contest at the Tampere International Vocal Festival.

There’s an internet radio festival of the music of Gavin Bryars on the New York based radio station Q2 from April 14 to April 20.



Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

I don’t really know if event is the right word, but I thought it would be interesting to get down a few thoughts in advance and then report back after the…event.  Cecil Sharp House is the venue, 1.30 on October 3rd.  It promises to be  an extraordinary gathering, bringing together so many people whose lives were touched by Robert, but many of whom haven’t seen each other for decades.

I first met Robert Kirby when we were both trebles singing at the Wellington Festival in Somerset. This was an annual event where boys and men from various cathedral and college choirs got together for a week of unfettered vocal polyphony. Must have been 1960. He was at Bishop’s Stortford College and I would have been in my last year as a treble at Kings Cambridge. I remember that particular festival because as we were being driven to the station to catch the train home the car skidded and overturned and I had to crawl out through the windscreen. It was my 13th birthday.   Robert and I didn’t meet again till the glory days of FabCab.

FabCab and the Gentle Power of Song

Fabcab long

This needs a bit of explaining.  I was an undergraduate at Caius Cambridge (briefly) and several of us got together (as choral scholars have done since time immemorial) to sing what we called close harmony arrangements. Our particular group (pre-Kings Singers, who were still coagulating) was called FabCab: the Cabaret from Caius (our theme tune was the Batman music with the word Batman replaced by FabCab. Maybe I should stop now…). The original line-up (it was a bit flexible) was as in the pic above: Dave Sloan, Alan Fairs, Hugh Dibley, Chris Johns, me and Marcus Bicknell. The group’s ‘career’ (and career we quite often did)  was masterminded by Marcus Bicknell, who later went on to manage the nascent Genesis and run A&M records’ outfit in Paris before going into the equally nascent worldwide web, TV and almost anything else commercially creative you can think of. After singing at a May Ball in 1967/8 (with Sandie Shaw, Aretha Franklin and others too famous to mention)  we were invited to record for Polydor  by composer Richard Hill, who’d just had a huge success with his musical of Neville Coghill’s translation of the  Canterbury Tales. Richard’s plans for the group included a change of name (can’t think why…) and for recording purposes we became The Gentle Power of SongFabcab2The first album, Circus, featured pop songs (lots of  Beatles and Beach Boys covers) and some of Richard’s own wonderfully whimsical songs (with a session band that included the legendary Big Jim Sullivan on guitar and the even bigger John Wilbraham on piccolo trumpet).  It sank into dignified obscurity as the publicists put it, but one of the singles, Richard’s Constant Penelope, can be heard (and seen revolving) on YouTube.  We went on to make a Christmas album (Peace) with the London Gabrieli Brass, which was re-released on CD fairly recently (though unless you have a generous tolerance of bizarre tuning you might want to give it a miss).

Fabcab3They were heady times. We sang with Dudley Moore on TV (he memorably refused to mime playing a dummy keyboard) and we even did the Simon Dee show;  Paul McCartney  dropped by the studio (‘Here There and Everywhere’ was one of our signature tunes). Robert (2nd from right in this photo) took my place in the group when I forsook Cambridge for the Guildhall. For him, and for all of us, the Gentle Power (in all its brash naivety) was one of those great student formative experiences that none of us would ever forget. He went on to play with the Strawbs, before almost single handedly recovering the posthumous career of  Nick Drake.  We all went our separate ways till earlier this year, when we had a FabCab reunion at Marcus’ place. I couldn’t make it, sadly, and it was the last time any of the group saw Robert, who died a few weeks later. There are some very moving tributes on the Strawbs website.

The concert is being organised Robert’s family, and coordinated and MD’d by Harvey Brough, who is also something of a legend. With his group The Wallbangers he made a series of amazing doo-wop albums that have never been surpassed. I keep a cassette player just to play their farewell concert.   There’s a wonderful story on Harvey’s site, where after singing to Charles & Di, HRH tells Harvey he has a dog called Harvey; Harvey replies ‘Oh really? I’ve got a brother called Rex…’. Which indeed he has.

Harvey also sang from time to time with Red Byrd, most famously in the proto RB Wigmore Hall concert where he came dressed as a mafioso, nonchalantly depositing his saxophone case on the front of the stage at the beginning and carrying it off unopened at the end. He also co-wrote (with his then girl friend Emma Freud)  the eponymous Red Bird for our Songs of Love & Death album (for which he provided the drum machine, then a thing of wonder), and he can be heard singing street cries on New Fashions, an album we did with Nancy Hadden’s Circa 1500 in 1991 (and which has a version of the five of us singing Ravenscroft’s ‘Come follow me’ that absolutely rocks). But mostly Harvey is now famous for being composer of Requiem in Blue, and for his work with Clara Sanabras,  Natacha Atlas and many other luminaries in that fantastically creative world where  rock, folk,  jazz and world music cohabit.

So the plan is for FabCab and friends to sing a few numbers that Robert enjoyed and/or arranged. We’ll be in quite illustrious company from later in Robert’s career, including   Teddy Thompson, Vashti Bunyan, Steve Ashley, Luke Jackson, Ben & Jason (re-formed specially for this show), Harvey Brough & Clara Sanabras and Paul Weller, and we’re going to give the first (and last) live performance of our legendary ‘freakbeat’  single, Constant Penelope in a new arrangement by Harvey Brough. There’s more info about Robert, and the other artists taking part here.

We’ve just had a rehearsal, some of us seeing each other for the first time in 40 years. Strange and wonderful. We can still do it, after our fashion, though the repertoire is as old as we are. The really bad news is that we have to wear black bow ties…

Tickets are available from   http://www.wegottickets.com/event/92859