:: Hilliard Ensemble

Not crossing over

Monday, September 17th, 2012

The voice of the music

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

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

Not performing Genesis or Led Zeppelin

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

John Paul Jones

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


Tony Banks

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

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


Faugues cover

Sound & Fury news…

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


HE album cover

Hilliard Ensemble news

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

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










The Limits of Musicology

Monday, September 26th, 2011


Having just proof-read my two Cambridge Music History chapters (both should be published next year) and being in the middle of proof-reading the History of Singing I’m more than usually conscious of whether or not I practice what I preach. All of my historical writing is generated as far as possible by the actuality of performance – in a nutshell what singers might actually have sung rather than what composers or theorists may have written (or expected, or hoped for…),  a historical perspective rather than a musicological one. It’s not always easy to incorporate elements of historical practice: the early music movement is very selective in what it chooses to recover from the past, and there are entire institutions dedicated to perpetuating a new and improved version of history.

Much of the time modern singers are at the mercy of conductors, directors of one sort or another, or simply the ideology of modern performance. The latter has its roots way back in the 20th century, when the composer’s word finally became law. Within the early music movement, despite welcome moves to the contrary in some quarters, there’s still a view that even the 15th or 16th century composer was the fount of all inspiration and that a musicologist who works on the surviving manuscripts is his representative here on earth. Unfortunately, many musicologists tend to privilege musical theory rather than performance practice, the rules rather than their application, and in their wish to preserve the integrity of the composer too often resort to what the text books of the time prescribe  rather than the less tidy but more creative flights of fancy that the singers might have enjoyed. You wouldn’t try  to reconstruct Impressionism from art teaching manuals of the period – you’d end up with view of what the teachers might have wanted rather than what their wayward pupils came up with, and a completely distorted view of the past.

There is a major conflict of interest here between musicologists and historians – the former are likely to want something faithful to what they see as the surviving remnants and reputation of the composer, while the latter are more interested in the performances he may have heard. The modern idea of a composer able to demand that performers do his bidding, or indeed that the score might represent a performance at all, is far too often imposed on historical periods when such concepts simply didn’t exist. There are few things more depressing for a singer than having a musicological policeman imposing his or her will ‘because the composer wanted it that way.’ Composition as we now understand it, the creative act of a single inspired mind, perfectly formed in order to be worshipped and interpreted by others, didn’t really exist until Wagner and only found its fully reductive form with Schoenberg and Stravinsky. By treating renaissance composers like their modern equivalents we do the music a huge disservice; we also misrepresent the past and make things much less fun for singers.

From a singer’s point of view, the task of the musicologist is simply to produce a readable score. The edition can have any amount of performance suggestions, but the decisions on what and how to sing should be left to the singers. That’s how it worked at the time.  In the case of renaissance music, there is now a living tradition – generations of singers have grown up knowing the rules of ficta and how to interpret proportion signs. We’ve also grown up with the performance practice sources (such as they are) and we know full well that if a source keeps insisting that singers do things in a certain way, it’s because the singers of the time were reluctant to stick to the rules. The single thread that runs through all my research into performance practice is that singers were (until the 20th century) a law unto themselves. If everybody had sung according to the rules there would have been no need for the frequent complaints about the tritone and other colourful indiscretions.

So…bring on the creative and spontaneous use of theoretical apparatus – let’s have a plurality of performance practice driven by what feels right to those who practice the performing. We rarely discussed ficta in the Hilliard Ensemble, and we had an understanding that the first voice to encounter a problem would set the mode for the rest of the piece. Next time it could be different – there are usually many possibilities (often no right answers) and we wouldn’t want to be stuck with the same solution for ever. On one early trip to the USA we sang at a conference and afterwards an eager PhD student came round to ask if we raised cadential leading notes in late medieval polyphony. ‘Sometimes,’ was our reply. The distaste and incomprehension on the face of the student, whose entire academic career was devoted to getting a definitive answer to this question one way or the other, was a wonder to behold.

Choirs as Ensembles

Saturday, June 18th, 2011


Some years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a choral yearbook in Finland. The project didn’t actually materialise and I came across an old draft of it a few days ago. It’s about choir singers taking more responsibility, rather than relying on the conductor too much.  Post-Tampere seems a good time to re-consider this sort of thing, so here are some edited bits of it…

Choirs and ensembles

As an ensemble singer I’m used to the subtle nuances that are possible when you work with the same people over a long period of time, or with musicians who have a similar background and experience: Red Byrd has always works on the principle of equal creative responsibility from everyone taking part, and the Sound & the Fury works in a similar way (as does the Dowland Project). For me it goes back to my time with the Hilliard Ensemble, which evolved an intuitive way of doing things and would make a point of singing even quite large-scale works such as Arvo Pärt’s Passio with no one out front. This was a liberating experience and while I sang with the Hilliards I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a conductor myself; ensemble singing had become so sophisticated that it was hard to imagine handing over creative responsibility to one person.   Over the years I began to put my thoughts together on how ensemble singing actually works, some of which found their way into the ‘Ensemble Singing’ chapter in my Cambridge Companion to Singing, and when I went to work at the University of York I began to apply some basic rules to student ensembles, trying to equip them with the means to work on their own without outside input. I ran an MA in Ensemble Singing and a number of excellent ensembles came to work with me over the twelve years I was there.  Eventually I also found myself conducting various chamber choirs, beginning with a small women’s choir (there was the usual excess of women singers at the university). I had done some coaching sessions with the Finnish Radio Choir in the past and more recently with the Latvian Radio Choir, and it was understood that my role then was to give them an idea of how to sing without a conductor or at least to encourage them to be more responsive and pro-active, to be active participants in the creative process in partnership with the conductor. My only experience of actual conducting was a very long time ago when I conducted a concert by the Worcester Police Male Voice Choir as a favour to a friend (Henry Sandon, he of the Antiques Road Show; we were both Lay Clerks at Worcester Cathedral at the time). I was able to agree to this because it was made clear to me by the police chief that whatever I did in the way of gestures, the choir would sing the pieces the same way they did them last time and the time before that; all I had to do was put on the uniform and wave (and a certain leniency with regard to future parking fines was hinted at). So when I (reluctantly) came to conduct at York, with virtually no experience of conducting and no recent experience of singing in a choir, my ensemble singing experience was all I had to fall back on; the logical approach was to make the choir as much like an ensemble as possible.

Channels of communication

From my perspective as a singer it has always seemed a bit odd that the choir seems to do all the work and the conductor gets all the credit, so one of my first concerns was to establish a way of working that made it quite clear that the choir was an organic entity, capable of performing by itself. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to take the credit for my part in the proceedings – I have a performer’s ego just like anyone else – but rather that my role was defined a little differently from that of a traditional conductor.  The first thing to do was to convince the choir that they didn’t need me standing out in front, provided we could agree on a number of basic performance conventions that would, in effect, replace some of the actions that they might expect a conductor to take. I have found that the way to do this is to go right back to basics and discuss the question of communication: who is communicating with whom and what is it that they are communicating. Of course, singers communicate with audiences; we all understand that. But perhaps even more important is the communication that singers have with their fellow performers. As an image, I’ve found it helpful to suggest to singers that these two types of communication are conceptualised in two directions. Their voices, faces and body language, communicate directly with the audience but their ears are operating at right angles to this, starting with the singers standing next to them and continuing along the line as far as they can hear. Once the idea of this two-element model of communication is established we can begin to analyse what actually happens in performance.

Communicative value

The dynamics of such a model are much more complicated than this simple strategy appears to imply. Communication with the audience is not usually a problem: choirs are used to looking up from the music and demonstrating their own enthusiasm or emotional commitment to the music. The listener constructs his or her interpretation of the performance and this is only partly determined by anything the performers might do: the meanings transmitted by the singers will be modified by the listeners in the light of their own knowledge and experience.  Communication between voices in the choir is a different matter and has to be learned. The first thing to demonstrate is that everything has communicative value, whether it is a gesture, a note or even a breath, and unlike the broader relationship with the audience, communicative acts between singers contain specific information.   This is the first and most important principle that will enable the choir to work as a thinking creative entity. Everything else flows from the understanding that everything a singer does contains information useful to his or her fellow singers.  We can elaborate on the basic model by thinking of audience communication as visual and vocal and essentially one-way, whereas internal choir communication involves a two-way channel that is both vocal and auditory. Essentially, singers transmit and receive information among themselves with every gesture they make, whether vocal or physical.

Auditory awareness: tempo and breath

Once we know that we can communicate with each other, we then have to think about what sort of information we are giving and receiving.  Much of the useful information is to do with tempo, and almost all communicative acts between singers contain information that either confirms the tempo or offers the possibility of modifying it. The process begins before a piece starts with the first breath that the singers take. If, for example, a piece starts on a downbeat, then the first breath will act as an upbeat.  Everyone will have an idea of what the tempo should be, and roughly when the piece is going to start. An alert choir should be able to negotiate a tempo within the space of that upbeat breath, leaving only one place where the downbeat will inevitably come. It may take a bit of getting used to in rehearsals if the choir has always relied on being brought in by the conductor, but I found with my York choirs that the singers very quickly got used to starting themselves and it became routine (I just told them where to start from and they would automatically set off in a unanimous tempo). Giving singers the responsibility for their own music causes a rise in energy level: they know they have to be awake and listening in order to make it work. In concert this frees their eyes to be looking directly at the audience, rather than focusing on the conductor. The effect of a large body of singers starting simultaneously and in tempo without any visible means of support can be breathtaking for audiences, especially those who have previously thought of the conductor as the prime source of inspiration. The whole process seems to happen by magic. The ‘magic’ element is an important part of ensemble singing, and it’s at this point that my previous witterings about note-giving come into play…

More ramblings to follow…

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…


Sunday, December 19th, 2010

If you survive long enough in the profession your past eventually comes back to haunt you in the form of the re-appearance of recordings you may well have forgotten about (there’s even a couple in my catalogue that I didn’t even  know I’d made). There’s a sliding scale of embarrassment – if you’re still aspirational when this starts to happen it can be pretty excruciating, but hang on in there and you eventually cross the pain threshold and just raise your eyes to heaven and nod knowingly.

Songs of England coverI had a good nod recently when I was alerted (thankyou John Kennedy Melling) to a CD called Songs of England, released last year on a label called Portrait Classics. You rarely have any control over old recordings, and this one is a conflation of one of mine and one by the folk singer Jo Freya. My bit is a re-issue of English National Songs, which I recorded on Saydisc in 1993 with Lucy Skeaping and Jeremy Barlow’s Broadside Band. I loved working with the Band – terrific improvisers –  we did lots of BBC work (and even found our way onto the cover of a Christmas issue of the World Service magazine). Broadside Band BBC cover So I was very excited when we got the chance to record some of the traditional repertoire. The CD (Portrait Classics PCL1009) has Dibdin’s lovely Tom Bowling on it, among other earlier material. Jeremy Barlow later devised a radio programme based on Dibdin’s own writings and songs called The Whim of the Moment, in which I played Didbin to Jeremy’s accompaniment (later still this was re-worked into a theatre piece with David Timson). The album also has me singing Rule Britannia and what became the National Anthem. I was rather more idealistic in those days (a legacy from refusing to go to South Africa under apartheid or to sing in countries with oppressive regimes) and at first baulked at being asked to sing these two pieces, albeit in their pristine 18th century versions. But then I decided that this would be the first recording of these pieces by a marxist (which I then, in the middle of doing my PhD, considered myself to be…) – which, of course, would make it OK… I began to put this on my concert biography and discovered that it was a good way to ensure you don’t get asked back for too many Messiahs.

Almost everything we did with small independent labels was subsequently sold on to bigger outfits. Larger companies have a much more rigorous attitude: ECM doesn’t delete anything, and Hyperion re-releases on its own budget line. The old Hilliard EMI catalogue was bought by Virgin and there’s been quite a lot of re-packaging there. The most satisfying recent re-release was the Hilliard Live Collection on The 16’s Coro label. Hilliard Live coverThis is a set of four live recordings (Perotin, Ockeghem, Brumel and Dufay) made between 1996 and 1998 at a time when the group felt it needed more of its favourite repertoire represented on disc. The original albums were in A5 sleeves, beautifully designed and packaged by Gordon Jones, and came with a copy of the legendary Hilliard Newsletter. We  mostly sold them at gigs, and they’re now collectors’ items and virtually unobtainable, so it’s great to have the actual music now available as a box set.  It’s the group at one of its many peaks.