:: Sound & Fury

Sound & Fury, 3 Medieval Tenors…

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013


Caron cover

Sound & Fury Caron review

Long review of the Caron box set in the US mag Fanfare (http://www.fanfaremag.com/content/view/52971/10262/). The reviewer comments on the fact that we don’t do concerts but just focus on recording. He then adds that we must do a great deal of rehearsal as such recordings would impossible without it. Hmmm…which just goes to show you can’t tell anything about the rehearsal quotient just by listening to the results. When we’re all competent sight readers and have been singing the same texts since childhood, and have literally decades of experience singing 15th/16th century polyphony what would rehearsal achieve? If anything we’re more in need of a reverse-engineered concept that would enable us to unlearn what we know all too well: risk-taking not reinforcement, negotiation on the hoof, not sanitized pre-planned effects. In practice, the S&F recordings are mostly not the first takes so the music does evolve during the recording process, but what evolves is the musical conversation we have with each other, not some over-reaching concept of how the music should go.

The obsession with rehearsal is basically a 20th century phenomenon. Perfection is a very Modernist concept and there’s not much evidence of anyone doing very much of it before Wagner. Coincidentally, I learned at the weekend that the King’s Singers do a two hour rehearsal before every concert. That must surely make it more likely that a performance will just sound like another version of the rehearsal.  I have fond memories of early Hilliard concerts with Jan Garbarek, where TV crews would sometimes ask to come and film us. We’d say no, and they’d say well let’s film the rehearsal then. We’d  tell them we didn’t rehearse but might sing a chord to test the acoustic and that would be it. They’d never believe us, and would be mightily exercised when we turned up, sang a chord and then went for a cup of tea while they removed the gear they’d spent hours setting up.

Rehearsal, if you must do it, is more like Qualifying or Practice in Formula 1: it’s about making sure everything works – it has nothing to do with the race itself, where if you’re not absolutely in the moment you might lose everything.

The reviewer didn’t like the cover, incidentally, but he wouldn’t be the only one there. We’ve had some great feedback though, just people emailing to say how much these recordings mean to them – which is hugely gratifying.


Conductus 2…3 Medieval Tenors

Bernhard Jung 0420 resized

Hyperion will release the second volume in the first week of December, for anyone looking for an antidote to Christmas recordings. We’re now planning for the 2015 season, by which time all three CDs will be out and we’ll have a huge repertoire to choose from. We’ve also been debating whether or not to give ourselves a name. The recordings are Conductus 1, 2 & 3, and we refer to the whole process as the Conductus project (the full name of the research project that the live concept has been developed from is the rather cumbersome Cantum pucriorum invenire: finding a finer song). From its initial focus on recording the two-tenor repertoire the project is gradually morphing into a three-tenor performance platform, a process which will be complete when Rogers Covey-Crump becomes more available from the end of next year. We plan to focus specifically on the extraordinary Conductus repertoire for the foreseeable future but may eventually diversify into slightly earlier or later music (or possibly something slightly more radical one day). The term Conductus isn’t (yet) on everyone’s lips, so we’ve started to use the sub-title ‘three medieval tenors’ to give more of an idea of what we’re about. For the record, we do rehearse this music – but that’s because we read from facsimiles as far as possible and they not only take a bit of figuring out but the notation actually shapes the music. But as the pieces become more familiar we rehearse them less, so we can reinvent them each time.


Ambrose Field in Rumania


It’s been a while since Ambrose and I worked together on Being Dufay, and I’m very much looking forward to his new commission for tenor and amplified strings to be premiered at the Jazz in Church Festival in Bucharest next April.Here’s a reminder of our Leipzig gig: http://vimeo.com/41348327


The Dowland Project

There’s been lots of press interest in the Night Sessions on the web, but relatively little in print media. I wonder if it’s that the new media appreciate the risk-taking, whereas the papers look at the date and consider it past its sell-by date (which, for some of it, was indeed a while ago). I’m still very proud of it, even though I sometimes can’t help thinking about what we might have achieved had it come out even four or five years ago.

Here’s a few recent samples from the blogosphere:






Coaching Swedish speaking Finns

I love coaching ensembles. It doesn’t matter if groups are newly-formed amateurs or experienced professionals – there’s always a creative conversation to be had. I had a great time in Helsinki at the weekend, though it was very weird to hear almost no Finnish as I was a guest of the oldest Swedish-speaking male voice choir.   They still have that mordant Finnish sense of humour though:

me: What’s this next piece about?

tenor: We sing it at parties.

bass: Yes, it’s a funeral song.

me: ?

bass: At midnight we turn the lights out, sing it and then carry on partying.


me (on seeing a poster saying FAN in big letters): Does this mean what I think it means?

tenor: Probably not.

me: We get a lot of Swedish TV cop shows in the UK…

tenor: Ah, well it probably does then.

me: How do you manage with just the one swear word?

tenor: We swear in Finnish.

Sadly, I got home to discover that my lovely A3 had been wrecked (together with the four cars parked next to it) by a builder’s van, so I’m entering a period of mourning while the insurers sort it out. The one crumb of comfort was that West Yorkshire Police and LV Insurance have been terrific – efficient and courteous all the way.



De la Rue at Mauerbach

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013


Quite by chance I took with me to Mauerbach Don Greig’s Time will Tell. It’s essential reading for anyone in our business – written by someone who’s lived the life (unlike so many authors who’ve ventured into music but merely observed it). The dreadful banality of the touring life is there in all (or some) of its grisly detail, but it’s tempered with acute observations about performers, musicologists and the relationship between the two. He makes the point that we all invent a fantasy version of the past, and he does it himself with Josquin and Ockeghem (the former a prick, as he puts it, the latter almost a saint).  If you like Josquin you have to wait till the end before reclaiming your equilibrium, but his Ockeghem is the treasure we’d all like him to have been. I’m not going to reveal the plot, but it’s exquisitely put together and it was the perfect accompaniment to the Sound & Fury recordings even though rather than Ockeghem we were doing Pierre de la Rue this time.


85 percent


The second recording day at Mauerbach, followed by the usual late evening concert, was his Requiem (you can see it on YouTube here). The basses are required to go down to a notated B more than two octaves below middle C. We did it a half step higher but mainly for my benefit to make the line just singable within notated extremes. With Wilhelm Schwinghammer (fresh from Bayreuth) on the bottom we could probably have transposed it down. The other three masses – Ista est speciosa, Pascale and L’homme arme were all new to me. As with every mass of the period they all have stunning Agnus Dei’s. I’m not sure why this is: they often add an extra voice or go way beyond the cantus firmus; it’s as though the key bits of text (‘miserere mei’ and ‘dona nobis pacem’) really meant something to the musicians, having spent most of the rest of the mass just being very clever. It’s particularly characteristic of the L’homme arme masses – perhaps they were into irony as well – and the De la Rue is no exception. The Requiem though must rank as one of the most heart-rending of them all.  The Agnus is always the last movement to be recorded, and comes at a point where you know the music inside out but are also very tired after a day’s intense concentration, and that final effort always brings with it a sense of completeness and release.



80 percent


Mauerbach seems to exist in a different reality altogether. I find myself writing the same thing each time and taking the same photos over again. It’s partly that time seems to stop once we enter the cloister. In our monastic cells it’s not only totally quiet, but when you turn the light out at night it’s pitch black. There’s the forest to walk in during the breaks – beautiful tall beeches now golden in the autumn sun, and the five minute walk to breakfast if you get up in time (which I mostly didn’t). But we see no one else – no tv or internet. The focus is totally on the music, and the rest is a kind of recharging of the soul.

Something else Don Greig gets right is the singers’ reluctance to refer to the music after a concert. The American musicologist is baffled by the fact that they just go to the pub and seem to be unaware of what they’ve just done. This is a hard thing to explain but it’s universally true. We’ve all been singing this music or something like it since childhood and it’s in our blood. The strange public intimacy of ensemble performance is the one thing we all have in common, and if you haven’t been there you can’t really get it; if you have, the last thing you want to do is talk about it.


50 percent

Sound & Fury, Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday

Monday, October 7th, 2013


Conductus Vol 2 is due in December – the perfect antidote to Christmas!




The Forum podcast (on the subject of Breath, plus my 60 Second rant) is available for downloading here for the next three weeks or so.  I have to confess that my proposal to abandon music storage and reproduction wasn’t entirely serious. We’re two thirds of the way through a six months stay in an apartment with no music playing facilities and I thought it would be refreshing to experience only live music, making a virtue of necessity. And it was to start with, but now I really miss it. I’ve had to do the odd bit of clandestine listening in the car, but I’ve resisted the temptation to download stuff I already have.  And of course, you can’t really go even a day without hearing background music of one sort or another.


This is what the diary looks like till the end of the year. I’m taking November off in the hope that we can get our new house finished, decorated and moved into before Christmas. I know everyone says they’ll be in for Christmas…At the moment the back garden looks like this:




October 10 – 13 Sound & Fury at Kloster Mauerbach, Vienna

We’ll be recording Ockeghem’s L’homme arme mass and the Requiem (a tribute to Fra Bernardo’s Bernhard Drobig who sadly died early this year) and the  Missa Ista est speciosa & Missa Pascale of Pierre de la Rue. There’s been something of a revolution in S&F distribution – the most recent recordings are on Fra Bernardo and these are available worldwide. A website is under construction and it should be much easier to get hold of the recordings in future. More soon.

October 25 – 27

Weekend course for ensembles in Helsinki

This is a course celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Akademiska Sångföreningen (the male voice choir of Helsinki), whose conductor Kari Turunen will be known to ensemble singers as the director of Lumen Valo.  Ex-Kings Singer Philip Lawson and I will be coaching vocal groups including ensemble Norma who made such an impression in Leipzig and Tampere this year.


December 1

Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Monfalcone

Programme to include pieces from the Morrison Songbook plus Ramble on Cortona (my favourite piano piece of Gavin’s).

December 11

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday party Spitalfields

This is the first of three anniversary concerts which will bring together the current line-up with four former members: Paul Eliott, John (Lee) Nixon, Errol Girdlestone and me. Roger Marsh has written Poor Yorick for us all to sing. It’s in three sections: one for the existing group, one for the former members and one for all of us together. I hope we old lags will be able to hold our own against the regulars.

December 12

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concert Paris

December 13

Hilliard Ensemble 40th birthday concert Munich


Missing info on venues etc for the above coming soon.


The sound & the Fury

Friday, June 28th, 2013





Last week we recorded four masses by Pipelare. He was just a name in a history book to me, and the experience was a reminder of how many extraordinary composers remain to be brought back to life. Pipelare’s music is very distinctive – rich textures with the occasional bizarre harmonic twist – and recalls that of Ockeghem, whose genius is stamped on the whole period (but who has overshadowed the work of many other fine Franco-Flemish musicians).

The Sound & the Fury have been getting together to explore 15th (and some early 16th) century  polyphony since 2006. Over the years there has been some fine-tuning of the personnel, and the sound is a good deal more furious than when we first started. It’s sometimes a bit of challenge to match my wimpy English sound to that of the more robust Germans, but it seems to work and it’s great fun trying. I know of no other group that sings this repertoire with such forthrightness. It’s a totally ‘unEnglish’ approach, with highly characterised voices somehow melding together and producing incredibly dynamic performances.  If you want an analogy, it’s like painting a medieval  building in its brilliant original colours rather than the anaemic whitewash that modern ‘restorers’ prefer…

Until recently the CDs appeared on ORF and were only available from the ORF shop, to the great frustration of many buyers. The most recent albums are on Bernhard Drobig’s FraBernardo label, which as worldwide distribution. The first few recordings were done in Brixen (Bressanone) but the vast majority have been at Mauerbach, the huge Carthusian monastery in the Vienna woods. The discography is now well into double figures with plenty more to come. Apart from the odd plane and midsummer festivities at the local  fire station it’s completely quiet, so we have very few  interruptions. It’s a perfect acoustic, possibly helped by the fact that the church is divided into the monks’ choir and the lay brothers’ section, with the cloister in effect bisecting the building and creating a screen which doesn’t disturb the acoustic:


church shot


We stay in the original monks’ cells, very simple but with modern bathrooms, waking up to bird song each morning before walking to the nearby Schlosspark hotel for breakfast. Then we just immerse ourselves in the music. It takes less than a day to record a mass (‘live’ in the sense of very long takes and no fiddly edits), and we sometimes then do a concert of the mass we’ve worked on that day (sometimes, frighteningly, broadcast live). This time the church was miraculously cool with a scorching 35 degrees outside.

Being isolated from the real world and focusing on the music of a – usually unknown – single composer (almost always mass settings) for up to a week is an exhilarating experience. You get the adrenaline-fuelled close-to-sight-reading experience while at the same time getting to know the composer’s style and technique in increasing depth. What makes it yet more fulfilling is that the project is driven by a couple of remarkable visionaries who are not only the production team but our primary audience.

On top of all that is the mystery and magic of the place itself. It takes getting on for 15 minutes to walk all the way round the cloisters. The central garden was an orchard in the 18th  century:




The smaller courtyard to the right of the church in the print above has a single tree growing in it. Its successor is still there today. You see it first, and as you get closer you smell it, and then miraculously you hear it. It’s a linden tree bursting with blossoms and buzzing with bees. The tree is silent after dark, but the scent of lime still hangs there in the moonlight.




The latest S&F release, a double CD set of the Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum and 3 versions of the Missa Cuius Vis Toni,  is available here.

It includes electronic copies of Jaap Van Bentham’s editions prepared especially for this recording.


THE NIGHT SESSIONS – nearly there…

Sunday, June 16th, 2013


Night Sessions cover

It’s very nearly here. If you have Twitter you may have come across the first German review (‘erstaunlich…) and I’m eagerly awaiting my Amazon pre-order (I always do this – it’s the only way I can be sure it’s for real). I’m working on a dedicated reflective blog post, partly to give some background to the sessions and partly to try and explain it to myself. I can’t help wondering how the band might have developed had this album come out, say, five years ago. Anyway, there it is. We have no plans to promote it; it’s just a record of a couple days from earlier in the century. We do still do gigs, but we’re into Schubert now.

Terje Rypdal

I see the Hilliards have their Terje Rypdal piece out on disc at last. When I was putting our stuff into store a few weeks ago I came across Terje’s reply to my sounding him out about a joint project. I should have checked the date – it must have been a couple of years after the group began working with Jan Garbarek and I was thinking about other possible collaborations. So the genesis of that goes back even longer than the Night Sessions (which happened after I’d left the group).


I had a lot of fun doing Ed Jessen’s Minghella-inspired theatre piece at Rich Mix last week. This has also been germinating for almost as long as the Night Sessions (well, not quite) and it was great to see it finally flowering.  It was like an opera in miniature – with three intensive days instead of three weeks to put it on. Couldn’t have been a nicer or more creative team to work with: Ed himself, Dominic Murcott and Hannah Bruce, and of course Peyee Chen and Consortium 5. Great troupers and lovely people all. Good to see lots of old friends at the performances too. We hope there will be more performances in the future.


Before that I was in Tampere. Wonderful experience as always. Also as always, we were asked why there are almost no classical groups these days. In the nineties we tried out separate categories for classical and pop, amplified and acoustic and so on. This year there were only two acoustic groups in the final. What’s changed? Well, the brutal truth is that the rock and jazz-orientated groups have become seriously creative, constantly producing new material of their own and exploring innovative ways to perform it.  That’s something that doesn’t happen with the old sit-up-and-beg renaissance masses and madrigals, a more or less fixed repertoire which always seemed to look backwards or to some other abstract point of reference (such as the early music movement).  It’s hardly surprising that the old stuff is withering away. It’s hanging on in England though; Twitterland seems to be populated by journalists and broadcasters naively  enthusing about music they must have heard countless times before. How much longer will they be able to keep it up, I wonder?

Sound and Fury

Maybe the answer to the classical music problem is the Sound and Fury solution: just record, don’t perform (or if you do, do it on the radio). The recordings are ‘live’ (sort of) so they have many of the characteristics of a performance and you can enjoy them on your own sofa without sitting in a draughty church. How post-modern is that? We meet in Mauerbach for Pipelare later this week and I’m really looking forward to it.

Wistreich and Potter

Richard and I have often said we’d like to write something together but we’ve never managed to get it together…until we crafted this conversation for Early Music. It’s about singing, the early music movement and higher education…

A little jaundiced, some may feel (and I had to change the last line when reminded by the editor that it’s supposed to be a celebratory issue), though I’m not half as exercised by early music as I am by Orange, who still haven’t reconnected my broadband. The call centre people are unfailingly polite (unlike the last time I moved house when an Orange operative called me a racist), but always begin by asking if you’ve plugged it in etc, and then refer you to someone else who asks exactly the same questions and gives you the same answer. In my case this is variations on it’s not our fault, but BT (or whoever) will fix it within 24 hours and then to save you waiting the usual ten days as a special favour you’ll have expedited broadband only a day later.  Someone will ring again tomorrow to confirm this. And they do – so every two days I’m told it will only be two more days. My file is now so big it takes at least six people up to an hour to repeat this mantra, and between each one I get the waiting music. I know it all off by heart now and have started to sing along. If you sing loud enough you can’t actually hear it, though you do risk giving the Orange man a bit of shock if he interrupts you mid-shout.

So this comes to you from my office in a York branch of Costa, if I’ve managed to get there.

Tampere – the winners!

Thursday, June 6th, 2013


We have four winners: Ommm from  France, JazzIn Sisters from Estonia, Vocal Motion 6 from Namibia and Taiga from Finland! Congratulations to all! It was an inspirational final concert, ending with another electric performance from Postyr Project (the 2011 winners).

It’s all happened so quickly – hard to believe that the ensemble event is all done and dusted in a couple of  days. For the jury it was even more difficult than usual this year. The overall standard was very high and although we were pretty clear on most of the groups to make the final cut, it was very hard to decide who to eliminate and who would actually win.  As always, we agonised over those that didn’t make it – all were terrific ensembles in their way and in another year might have made it – and we know only too well how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting this kind of thing together.

Unlike Postyr Project last time, there was no single group that stood out as the obvious winner on grounds of originality, but there were many that excelled within their chosen genre. We were impressed by the large number of Finnish girl groups (men, where are you??)  and also by the fact that some groups were brave enough to enter after being together for quite a short time (the members of 2Loud from Estonia are still at school). Most ensembles did their own arrangements or compositions, which was a huge and exciting change from some years ago. Sometimes the material didn’t quite do the job, but producing your own music is the biggest single factor that makes each group unique, and sometimes the arrangements were startlingly effective – such as 2Loud’s take on a Tormis Lullaby and Ommm’s hard-hitting ‘Wonderful World’, both of which were extraordinarily creative transformations of the original pieces. Put them together with Nambians singing in Chinese and you have the perfect Tampere experience.

Our deliberations went on so long that we missed the interview with Penderecki and the concert by Key, so you can see how difficult it was. Finally four groups emerged as possible winners, and most of the time was then spent arguing what order to rank them in. As last time, we didn’t set the result in stone until after the concert itself, and we were still debating during the interval.

Once again, the organisation was spot on – everyone so thoughtful and efficient. And in these dark times for arts and culture in Europe a big thankyou to Tampere City Council and the other sponsors who make such a magical event possible. We ran a bit late and I forgot to thank three key individuals in my little speech: festival director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, producer Eija Koivusalo and our impossibly hard-working secretary Kaisa Kelloniemi. And I even practiced the pronunciation… Thanks to all three – you amazed us all as usual.  Thanks once more to my fellow jury members: Anna Maria Friman, Anders Jalkeus (happy Swedish National Day guys),  Jenny Wilhelms, and Jussi Chydenius. We’re getting quite good at this now.



Here it is, emerging from the dark,  The Night Sessions cover…

Night Sessions cover


It doesn’t get more ECM than that. I was hoping it would be out in time for Tampere and Spitalfields, but at least you can pre-order it on Amazon for June 24th.



The Sound & Fury Ockeghem multiple Cuius Vis Toni is now available here. The music has arrived for our Pipelare recordings later this month. Let’s hope Vienna isn’t under water.


So now it’s off to London to do this on Tuesday:

Jessen flyer


The music for that has arrived too…



Richard Wistreich and I bang on about the state of early music in Early Music (2013) 41 (1): 22-26.  You can download a pdf here.


Unobtainable Recordings…

Sunday, November 25th, 2012


Red Byrd

Every so often I get an enquiry about how to get hold of Red Byrd’s Songs of Love and Death album, usually after there’s been a broadcast of either the John Paul Jones Amores Pasados (which there was last week) or the Monteverdi duets with electric instruments (often when Claudio is composer of the week and they get a bit desperate playing the same old stuff). More recently the Sound & Fury Charon box set has generated a number of emails from frustrated potential buyers who want the physical product rather than the download.

The Red Byrd album is sometimes to be found on eBay. The details are on the Factory history site here. We’ve tried hard over the years to get hold of the rights so that we can get it re-released, but have now given up the struggle. But the good news is that the John Paul Jones pieces will get a new lease of life (with the composer’s blessing) in versions for Anna Maria Friman and me, with Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on lutes. Anna will also play the lirone part on her hardanger fiddle. They’ll be in our Amores Pasados programme available next year, and we hope to record them on the same album as the new material we have by Sting and Tony Banks.  If you’re desperate for a copy of the RB album and all else fails, get in touch and I’ll think of something.

Sound & Fury

The latest news from producer Bernhard Trebuch is that the Fra Bernardo albums (of which the Charon is one) will be distributed by Note 1 and their partners from January. Until then you have to email  office@frabernardo.com. The earlier S&F recordings are still available from the ORF online store (typing Sound & Fury in the Suchbegriff eingeben box will bring up at least 10 of them) but for the Charon box set you need Fra Bernardo. It does exist – I had a copy until very recently…

Jesus Blood

didn’t fail me in Vilnius. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever taken part in. Since my time in teenage bands I’d only played keyboards in public twice: one accompanying Linda Hirst in Cage’s Forever and Sun Smell (for closed keyboard) and once accompanying Nicky Losseff in Neil Sorrell’s ironic role reversal piece (where I just made it up). So this third time was pretty nerve wracking even though I’ve got Grade III (which is about the level of the Jesus Blood organ part). A friend of mine once was so moved during a performance of some Shropshire Lad songs that he was quite overcome. Trouble was, it was his own performance and he had to leave the stage to recover. I was worried not only about the concentration needed for the dozens of repetitions but also whether I could get through it without weeping, making it impossible to see the dots. Fortunately we did a complete run in the afternoon so I could get all the emotional stuff dealt with in advance, and the performance was just plain magical. Sadly, sound man Chris Ekers (he of Olympic Games fame) didn’t record it (though he did explain the Paul McCartney doppelganger effect during the closing ceremony).

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 Sound and the Fury

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

[apologies for the problems with some of the videos on the other pages on this site – these will be updated shortly]

Two new albums are out: Ockeghem 2 ORF 3130 (Missae Ancilla Domine & Mi MI) and a three volume set of Firminus Caron FB1207302).  The Caron set is also available on iTunes.  Both include digital scores of Jaap van Bentham’s editions, and the Caron includes a big thankyou to Jaap from all of us. He and I haven’t always seen eye to eye on questions of musica ficta, text declamation and so on (he’s very much into modal purity and the significance of the text, while I’m pretty sure Ockeghem worried a lot more about getting his fugues to come out right, and I’m absolutely positive that as a singer himself  he’d have enjoyed the expressive possibilities of ficta sabotage rather than sticking to the rules).

We’ve just recorded three versions of the Cuius Vis Toni and re-recorded the Prolationem mass, so there was no argument there: they’re all about the ficta, and it was great to have Jaap’s enthusiastic guidance. I’d always thought the Cuius Vis Toni (roughly translated as ‘any mode you fancy’) was among Ockeghem’s curiosities rather than a great piece to sing. In fact, the three version we did (in re, mi and fa-ut were quite revelatory – the piece changed shape and colour, each version having its own very distinctive flavour. I used to dread doing the Prolationem  with the Hilliards as it never really fitted our ranges even when we had extra voices. To do the whole mass with the same four voices, three of them need a range of over two octaves.   As it turned out, we managed it with only the minimum of cheating. Interesting implications there for historical vocal technique.

Mauerbach ceilingWe did two concerts, with a different version of Cuius Vis Toni  in each one. The first one was a live broadcast that started after midnight, after we’d spent most of the day recording.  I just about managed it, but my voice doesn’t really work after midnight so it took me a while to get going. The second one was better, and one of the most wonderfully mad I’ve experienced for a long time. During the Sanctus we suddenly found ourselves competing with a deafening firework display from the fire station down the road. It was decided that since the audience had no choice but to listen to the explosions as well as the music, they should also be able to see the fireworks reflected on the chapel ceiling, and at the end of the Sanctus the lights went out. We sang the Agnus Dei with each of us holding our music in one hand and a large candle in the other. Then after lots of appreciative applause from those still awake Bernhard Trebuch asked us to sing the Kyrie in a different mode by way of an encore. He’d ambushed us with this the night before and after a scramble for scores we’d managed it OK. It didn’t occur to us that he might try it again and this time we had only one score between us, and we forgot to make sure we all knew what mode it was in before we started. Of course, there’s no evidence that Ockeghem’s singers didn’t sing in four modes simultaneously…though if you’d heard our accidental attempt you’d probably think we were perversely trying to make the case for modal purity.  I’m sure the great man would have been amused by our bizarre effort though – which ground to a halt in a fit of the giggles during the Christe. It’s not often you get to do some of the most serious music ever written and feel comfortable collapsing with laughter, but that’s the Sound and the Fury for you…

MauersteineStrange that the S&F only records and never does gigs (apart from the terrifying live broadcasts that go with the recordings) and the Dowland Poject doesn’t make records any more so only does concerts. The really difficult bit with the S&F sessions is the concerts. It’s not just that we’ve usually been recording all day and they always seem to take place either in the middle of the night or sub-zero temperatures (or both). The conceptual differences between recording and performing become hugely magnified. When you record you’re ultimately dependent on the producer (and in this case, the musicologist), and although you can negotiate to a certain extent, you’re not really in the driving seat.  You’re also trying to arrive at a version of the music that will stand repeated listening so there are limits to what you can get up to. When you perform in a concert the whole thing becomes your responsibility – it’s a time for experiment and risk-taking, and it’ll only happen once.  The S&F concerts are a strange kind of hybrid; we’re still somehow doing it for the ‘the project’ and more or less repeating what we’ve done in the recording. I love the seat-of-the-pants aspect of live broadcasting, but the S&F concerts can be a bit unsettling and slightly frightening. I wonder how many people hear them.  It used to be said of the late night News broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that it would be cheaper to ring up any listeners still awake and read it to them down the phone rather than keep the transmitters going, but maybe the Austrians like their early music very late.

This is the complete S&F discography so far:

Gombert 1  ORF 463

Gombert 2  ORF 3006

Ockeghem 1 ORF 3024

Guillaume Faugues  ORF 3025

Obrecht 1 ORF 3048 (2 CDs)

Firminus Caron 1 ORF 3057

Gombert 3 ORF 3077

Pierre de La Rue 1  ORF 3094

Guillaume Faugues 2  ORF 3115 (2 CDs)

Johannes Ockeghem 2  ORF 3130

Firminus Caron: Masses & Chansons  FB 1207302 (3 CDs)


Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Red Byrd

NMC has released a CD of Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter, which she composed for us in 1993. The recording is taken from the Radio 3 broadcast of the first performance in Lichfield Cathedral in the 1993 Lichfield Festival. I’d almost forgotten all about it, and was surprised by how energised it sounds. The other singers in addition to me and Richard Wistreich are a very lively Ian Honeyman (currently doing a charity walk the length of the country singing for his supper) and Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc. We’re accompanied by the supremely elegant Fretwork (including the much missed Richard Campbell, whose memorial service is at St Martin in the Fields on November 28th). The title of the album is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge NMC D167.

The Sound and the Fury

…have just finished recording the complete works of Firminus Caron. We already have one Caron CD out, and it’s rumoured that the complete set of masses and chansons will be out before the end of the year. Next year we’ll be re-recording Ockeghem’s Prolationum mass and several versions of the Cuius Vis Toni.

Cantum Puchriorum Invenire

The first recording of this research programme is about to happen, and we hope the release will coincide with the first live outing of the programme in next year’s York Early Music Festival, which will be in the Harewood House church, featuring a newly commissioned video from Michael Lynch. Chris O’Gorman and I have been rehearsing from beautiful facsimiles of the Florence manuscript, and we’re about to find out if our de-rhythmicised efforts actually work.

Dowland Project

We hope the CD will appear early in the new year, but we’re still waiting for a date from ECM.


…and the History of Singing


…is finally done, with the page proofs back with Cambridge University Press. When the book appears (January if we stick to the schedule) I’ll make a dedicated page on this site linking aspects of the book with some of my recordings and concert projects. The Cambridge History of Musical Performance (to which I contributed a chapter on the long 18th century) is due in February, with the Cambridge History of Medieval Music (my chapter is on modern performance thereof) following later in the year. That’s an awful lot of academic stuff for a lapsed academic – it must be time to write a novel…