:: history of singing

Cambridge History

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

I’ve been very fortunate to have been associated with Cambridge University Press since my first book Vocal Authority was published in 1998. It was followed by the Companion to Singing, and then a long while later by the History of Singing which I wrote jointly with Neil Sorrell. At one point there was a suggestion that the singing history would be a multi-authored  Cambridge History of Singing, but bearing in mind the impossibility of writing anything definitive about singing, we insisted that ours was only A History. In between I did contribute to two Cambridge histories the latest of which, The Cambridge History of Medieval Music, has just appeared. These huge multi-authored projects are an editorial nightmare and very rarely run to schedule. As it happens I got my chapter in pretty close to the deadline – I was still an academic so these things were important. Long after I’d left academia, and the inevitable and infuriating late submitters having finally come up with the goods, the handsome two-volume set is on the shelves. My chapter is called ‘Issues in the modern performance of medieval music’ and I got it done so long ago that it doesn’t mention the Conductus project that has in its small way revolutionised the performance of 12th century music in the present.  For the outcomes of that research project you have to get another Cambridge publication, Discovering Medieval Song (which I haven’t yet read but which I suspect also doesn’t have much to say about the performing experience which was such a major part of the research programme).

Last weekend I was in Worms with my fellow ‘Conductors’ Rogers Covey-Crump and Christopher O’Gorman for the Tage alter Musik und Literatur  and the first concert in the Via Mediaeval season.  Our performance was as close to 12th/13th century performance ideals as we could make it, and although the musicology will presumably last a bit longer, as is the way with performance the sound of it is now lost for ever. Next week I’ll be in Uppsala with Serikon’s St Bridget project. Unlike Conductus, which was a state funded research project designed to explore 12th century performance practice, the Serikon ensemble references history in a creative and pragmatic way, with musicology used as a starting point to make the music work in the present. Then next month I’ll be taking a further step away from the past with the Dowland Project’s visit to Murnau.  Our programme in the Grenzenlos festival reflects the agenda of the event: no boundaries, so we’re not constrained by musicology at all. The programme will probably open with a troubadour song, a lute improvising, acknowledging the past (though it will be Jacob Heringman’s renaissance instrument, some 500 years later than the song). Then maybe I’ll start on the song itself, or perhaps you’ll hear Milos Valent’s viola or John Surman’s saxophone.

I love exploring historical performance practice (and even once came out briefly as a musicologist) but writing about it is pretty well always going to be out of date before the ink is dry.  The more rigorous connection to the past provided by the Conductus project yielded many unique insights, but even if I had written about it in the Cambridge History I couldn’t have accounted for the evolution of the project over the last five years that culminates in its latest iteration in Worms on Sunday. The books, outdated though they mostly are, will survive in print whereas the performances they deal with disappear into the ether straight away. But that’s always been the problem with musicology: musicians do what they can with what they have,  then it’s gone and we’re off to the pub.


Jana Jocif Dowland Project

photo: Jana Jocif


History of Singing

Thursday, December 19th, 2013


History of Singing paperback

book cover

I know we’re not supposed to support Amazon because of the tax business, but I have to congratulate them on the Potter & Sorrell paperback. I always pre-order a copy of my own albums and publications on Amazon as it’s a good way to know if they’re really out. This time my Amazon copy reached me three days before an email from CUP telling me it would be published on February 13th. CUP helpfully included a link to the book’s CUP page but this turns out to be the one for the American hardback copy (125 US dollars, in case you’re interested).

Victoria in Avila

Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I have our first live performance since the ECM recording a while ago, in Victoria’s home town in August. We hope this will really kick start our alternative history of renaissance sacred vocal music as dynamic accompanied song rather than the usual bland a cappella polyphony.  We’re negotiating for more concerts in Spain around the same time; more details soon. There’s no news of the recording we did for ECM a couple of years ago yet, sadly.

Dowland Project Night Sessions Press

Night Sessions cover

It’s been good to see the reception for the final Dowland Project album. This ensemble was very much an ECM creation and couldn’t have happened on any other label. When the Night Sessions first came out there was a flurry of (mostly quite perceptive) press on the web but the UK print media were much slower to take it up. I recently caught up with the monthlies and was quite touched by reviewers who really seemed to get it. We have no plans for more albums, and it feels good to complete the set with a radical retrospective.  I gather that the University of York Music Department has the DP as one of its Impact case studies to be submitted to the government’s so-called Research Excellence Framework;  very gratifying, though somewhat ironic since we’ve never had any truck with ‘Excellence’ as the government understands the term.

International Record Review had it as one of five Outstanding recordings of the month. Ivan Moody even forgave my ‘extra-terrestrial’ Portuguese pronunciation, and I’m deeply flattered by the references to jazz and smokey night clubs.He concludes:

Barry Witherden enjoyed it in BBC Music Magazine too:

Dominic Clements in Music Web International had some reservations, but sort of got it:

You can find additional reviews, mostly online, in my previous post on the subject, and here’s a sample of thoughts from the blogosphere:





Hilliards at 40…

If you scroll down or go to here you can read my blog, written as the mini tour went along. I’ll be doing gigs with the group in Leeds (Howard Assembly Rooms) and Seville Cathedral in April. Details soon.








Conductus II and Singing History Paperback…

Friday, November 15th, 2013

Conductus 2

Conductus 2 cover

…was released by Hyperion on 25th November. It’s Christmas-free (though with the usual quotient of Virginbirth-related stuff). Perfect for those who are already bored by the seasonal offerings from the usual suspects, and who like a challenge. Prepare to be berated about corruption in the Catholic church, the joys of marriage and the wonders of the book, in music that was heard all over Europe 800 years ago and still resonates today.

Here’s the link to pre-order it on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/conductus-music-poetry-from/id714759316?ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Or on Hyperion http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA67998&vw=dc

We’ll be recording the third and final album in April but it doesn’t stop there – we’re looking forward to developing the three medieval tenor repertoire over the next couple of years, still with the aid of cutting edge musicology from Southampton. If you haven’t got Conductus 1 yet, you can find it here together with a selection of press quotes. I’ve updated the Conductus – Three Medieval Tenors page on this site and you can hear sound clips there from both albums.

A History of Singing – the paperback…


Book cover


If you have any change…the paperback of the phenomenally expensive Potter & Sorrell History of Singing will be published late December by Cambridge University Press. It’ll probably be too late for Christmas, but the price is likely to be under £18 – a snip compared with £75 or so for the hardback. There’s a comprehensive review (of the hardback) in Singing, the AOTOS journal, at the end of which Karen Sell nicely draws attention to the price and the possibility of an affordable paperback. The issue also has a review of the summer conference (complete with a rare pic of me propping up the bar).   

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concerts

Here are details of the three 40th birthday concerts. All feature Roger Marsh’s new work Yorick as well as some Byrd and Shepherd sung by the massed voices of the ensemble and four of its five previous members:

London 11th December:

Spitalfields Winter Festival, St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch High St, London E1 6JN

[sold out]

 Paris 12th December:

Oratoire du Louvre, 1 rue de l’Oratoire et 145 rue Saint Honoré, 75001 Paris



Munich 13th December:

Michaelskirche, Neuhauserstraße 52, 80331 München

(in the pedestrian zone between Karlsplatz/Stachus and Marienplatz)

tickets: https://www.bellarte-muenchen.de/programm.php?id=ddbe8bd8c7325a09cc3b3f91d65c8491&action=bestellen

or by phone: 0049 89 54 818181

Swingle Singers at 50…

By a weird coincidence the Swingle Singers will be celebrating their 50th anniversary at the Albert Hall’s Elgar Room on the same evening. I won’t be able to make that, though since there are now apparently over 100 ex-Swingle Singers I probably won’t be missed.

 Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Italy

But before that, Anna Friman and I will be singing with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at the All Frontiers Festival in Gradisca d’Isonzo near the Italian-Slovenian border on December 1st.  The programme will feature new versions of music from The Morrison Songbook.

Monday, April 15th, 2013


Cambridge Festival of the Voice

Chris O’Gorman and I unleashed our latest Conductus offering at the Cambridge Festival of the Voice. A big thankyou to John, Louise, Selene, Nick and the team for a terrific time. It’s not easy music to promote or to listen to, but promoters and audience were magnificent. And what a wonderfully creative festival it is. Sorry to miss Encantar and Joel Frederiksen.

The Why Factor

I did a long interview down the line from Radio York for the BBC World Service Why Factor and  my ramblings on why we sing were eventually edited to a couple of soundbites as is the way of these things. Interesting programme though.  It’s always a bit of an adventure navigating World Service schedules, but I caught up with the podcast.

Sounnd & Fury

The proposed Gombert concert in Venice, scheduled for late May, has been postponed till September. We’ll still be getting together in June for a week of recording. We also opted out of a Monteverdi Vespers at the Frari (where Claudio now hangs out). A few years ago I’d have lept at the chance to do it there, but I’m just all Vespered-out.

Tampere Vocal Festival

The full programme is now available. This year’s festival, curated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (who’s produced some of the most wonderful Finnish vocal music) promises to be the usual eclectic feast of inspired vocalism The ensemble contest features groups from the Nordic Countries, central Europe and Africa. Get on a plane and join us – Ryanair from Stansted is practically free! It’s one of the best things of the summer.

Spitalfields Festival

One of the other best things is in London the following week. Details of Ed Jessen’s REPLICA are up on the Spitalfields site. There will be two performances of this ‘visually sumptuous experimental music-theatre work for recorder quintet Consortium5 and the voices of tenor John Potter and soprano Peyee Chen’ on June 11th.

A History of Singing

CUP have confirmed that there will be a paperback, and it’s just a question of when. Neil and I were both staggered at the cover price of the hard back (our musings couldn’t possibly be worth that much…) and I can’t help thinking most of the target readership found better things to spend their money on. But hang onto your savings, there may be an almost-affordable paperback soon.

Aldeburgh postscript

I keep getting wonderfully supportive emails after the Aldeburgh/UKBA debacle, most recently from people who’ve just caught up with the Private Eye piece. Thanks again to everyone – I’ve been very touched. And Victor Lewis-Smith – if it was you who wrote that – thank you too.


I’m gradually getting the hang of it…@johnpottermusic

Biographical List of Tenors

Saturday, April 7th, 2012


Updating the tenorography is taking much longer than I expected. I told Yale they’d have it by Christmas (last Christmas, that is) but I’m still only half way through M. It’s partly laziness on my part – it’s a labour of love and I do have other things to do – but mostly that there’s a huge amount of new material to process. There are lots of new entries of course (and thanks again to those who contacted me with suggestions) but almost all of the existing entries have new info. At the very least this will usually consist of a website – often one of the many excellent Wikipedia entries. At the time of the print volume I was an academic, and like most of my colleagues was inclined to treat Wikipedia with considerable suspicion. How wrong we all were – it’s a fine resource, and for many of the more obscure singers it’s the only source of information, often researched and verified by dedicated enthusiasts who do just as good a job as an academic.  In fact, the transformation of the web as a whole since 2009 has been astonishing. Many of the original print sources (from newspapers to entire books) are now available online, and there are several sites devoted to discographies – much more useful than my original specimen discographies.  Soundfiles, video and pictures are readily available at the click of a mouse, not to mention a plethora of sites dedicated to tenordom. These sometimes fight among themselves, so users need to be a little bit careful.

My basic criteria for inclusion are still the same: reputation in the form of a serious recording, article or website, but if I do a new print edition I will organise it rather differently. There’s a risk of the whole thing looking like a list of urls as online sources replace print, so this needs some thought. Technology is now available to (in effect) convert print urls into electronic links (scanning QR codes, for example) and if print publishers want to keep pace with the web they will have to take this on board. If I were starting from scratch I’d certainly use a different model, something more like Ned’s book on library marketing (which I’ve just proof read). This has a fixed print core but an infinitely expandable interactive web presence so it will not only not date, but will continue to explore and expand. The future of publishing is actually incredibly exciting for publishers who can keep up.


A History of Singing: print and performance synergies

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Book cover


It’s out at last. A big thankyou to Neil Sorrell for joining me in our impossible task, to all at CUP who were so patient, to Liz Haddon who bravely read all of it in manuscript, and to family and friends who put up with the inevitable authorial absences for far too long.

The CUP site has a description of the contents etc, and there’s a page here which links aspects of the book to some of my recordings via a Prezi presentation (mostly YouTube clips). The book doesn’t have a discography. The reason for this is that we’re in a transitional phase where print books haven’t yet found a generally accepted way to deal with internet info that is continually updating itself (barcode scanners for urls?). Recordings are constantly appearing on new labels or in new formats as the age of the physical product nears its end, and it’s much easier to Google titles or works rather than copy URLs from a book. Of course, there’s lots of discographical information in the Sources and Reference chapter but it didn’t seem the place to refer to recordings or projects of my own even where these may have a direct bearing on topics in the book, so I’ve put them into the Prezi on this site instead. For me, writing, performing and recording are really just different manifestations of the same process, so I hope this makes sense.  And thanks to Ned for help with getting the Prezi together;  his are far more sophisticated than mine (and his own book is due from Facet later this year).

More of my stuff from CUP this year:

A couple of related chapters in new Cambridge Histories will also appear during the year:

‘Vocal performance in the long eigtheenth century’ The Cambridge History of Musical Performance     just out!

‘Issues in the modern performanceof medieval music’ The Cambridge History of Medieval Music         due but no date yet

and I can also be heard on the extraordinary Dufay Collective CD that accompanies Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England

Other publications due this year include

‘Almost as good as Presley: Caruso as pop idol’  Public Domain Review

Review of Elisabeth Belgrano’s ‘Lasciatemi morire’ o ‘faro la finta pazza’    Svensk  tidskrift för musikforskning

‘Beggar at the door: the rise and fall of portamento in singing’  reprinted in Classical and Romantic Music ed David Milsom (Ashgate 2011)


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).

Conductus CD & Singing History updates

Monday, December 5th, 2011

[updated 12.1.12]

Hyperion Conductus project


Cantum image

The first edit is done, so we’re on track to release the first album at the next York Early Music Festival. Mick Lynch has made a short video for  YouTube which can be seen here. It has shots from the recording sessions  and gives an idea of what his accompanying films will look like (it’s not an actual album track…). We’ve already had enquiries about future concerts, and if you would like information about the live version  please contact Robert White (rwhiteam@aol.com). There was  considerable debate about the titles of the CD series; we finally agreed on Conductus l, ll and lll, with subtitles for each one. The concerts are intended to be experimental – trying things out for future recordings but also using ideas that may only work live and not bear the inevitable repetition of a recording.

The next recording period will be in November, and the intention is to launch Conductus ll in the 2013 York Early Music Festival, at a Plainsong & Medieval Music Society event in the Chapter House of York Minster. There is a dedicateed page on this site; you can also see more details on Christopher O’Gorman’s site.  Southampton University’s Cantum Pulcriorem Invenire site has detailed informatio about the whole project, including its academic profile.


Dowland Project

DP Milan


ECM are now planning a spring release of the ‘Night Sessions’ album. Concerts are planned for late spring.


History of Singing


Potter & Sorrell  will be launched at an informal event in the CUP shop in King’s Parade, probably in March. There will be contributions from a section of the CUP choir and (hopefully) some ethnic singing introduced by Neil Sorrell. On February 4th I’ll be doing a recital of English and Italian music with Yair Avidor (lute) at Fitzwilliam College in the evening.

I’m working on a Prezi presentation for a History of Singing page which will link aspects of the book to some of my performing and recording activities.

More soon.

Vocal Authority lives!

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

I’ve begun the process of updating the web version of the Biographical List of Tenors in my tenor history book, and have been reading Ian Bostridge’s A Singer’s Notebook.  It was quite a shock to discover that it  reprints IB’s ancient critique of Vocal Authority.  The review sounded pretty patronising first time round back in 1998, and it hasn’t improved with age.  He doesn’t really get it and gets all sorts of things wrong – and he certainly doesn’t like it.

V A  was my first book. It was based on my PhD thesis, and like many first books it’s very much of its time (as is Bostridge’s review). It still figures on university reading lists, especially in the USA, and I sometimes get asked if I would write the same book today. The answer is ‘no’ (often to the dismay of the enquirer).   I’ve come close to attempting a successor, but disillusionment with academia set in a while ago and the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I have just finished is definitely my last foray into anything remotely academic. I suspect poor IB won’t like that either, should he happen to stumble across it, but he can take comfort from the fact that it’s my last in this particular genre.

But having said all that, I have been touched by the reception Vocal Authority had (and still gets) in certain quarters.  Converting the thesis into a book was a long and frustrating process. In the thesis I put the theory chapter last as it was generated by the main body of material and I didn’t want readers to be distracted by my Gramscian analysis if they weren’t that way inclined.  At my viva the examiners asked me to move the theory to the front (in keeping with more usual academic practice). This was in the days when cutting and pasting meant literally that, and it took forever to make the change.  Then having finally done it, I collected the copies from the binders on my way back from a gig, fell asleep on the tube and woke up to find my bag had been nicked. Poor thief – three copies of Vocal Authority, my concert gear and the previous day’s shirt and underwear.  The upside was that my examiners – having eventually taken delivery of a second set of copies –  kindly said they thought it publishable  and suggested I sent the thesis  to CUP, who liked it but said they’d much rather the theory chapter was at the back…

It was worth the agony though. Being a performer can be a humbling experience – people being moved by what you do – but performances die even as they’re born, so their effect is confined to the moment (or the immediate memory). Writing on the other hand stays with you, right or wrong. The Cambridge UL copy of VA has been somewhat cynically (and definitely illegally) annotated in pencil by a reader of the Bostridge persuasion who thinks it’s complete rubbish, and you expect disagreement (better that than readers falling asleep). But the compensation when someone tells you that you’ve changed their life is quite something. It’s happened to me on a number of occasions in different parts of the world with Vocal Authority (not with anything else I’ve written, sadly).  I wrote it to try to explain the world of singing as I saw it then, but it clearly touched a nerve with many singers. There won’t be many bookshelves where it sits side by side with A Singer’s Notebook but both books have in common a singer’s musings on aspects of history and the sometimes rather unworldly profession that we inhabit, and the fact that we can have such differing perspectives is not such a bad thing.

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.