:: Manfred Eicher

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.


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.












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