:: Sound & Fury

Singing Book, Syd Barrett & Braunschweig Blues

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

The Book

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


The Plainsong & Medieval Music Society  symposium

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

The Sound & the Fury


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

John Potter & Evangelina Mascardi

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


Constant Penelope & Syd Barrett: unlikely contemporaries…

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

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

Tenor updates/obits

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

Videos with Harp

Jan Walters

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


April Diary/site updates

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

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

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


Early Music’s Lost Generation?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Bernhard Trebuch is Mr Austria Early Music, a broadcaster and producer, and early music entrepreneur extraordinaire whose energy, enthusiasm and scholarship are legendary throughout Europe,  especially in the Alpine countries. Only Bernhard would record a 24 CD box set of Richard Wistreich reading  Mainwaring’s Life of Handel (complete with footnotes) or  the prose writings of Erasmus in Latin, not to mention the 100 or so complete works of the Tyrol’s greatest composer, the one-eyed Oswald von Wolkenstein. A while ago, after a grappa or two, we got on to the present state of early music, and Bernard handed over a copy of his new Messiah recording. It’s a typical Trebuch/ORF production: you don’t just get the music, but a couple of supplementary discs as well, this time a conversation with the 93 year old Handel scholar Winton Dean interspersed with historic Handel recordings going back to Malcolm Sargent and beyond. What draws all these elements together is Bernhard’s passion for the music. It’s a live recording, with young musicians who play and sing their hearts out. As he says in his liner note:

We are familiar with all the treatises, know how to play the trills, have complete mastery over the whole range of historic instruments. We have almost limitless possibilities to edit, rework and technically enhance recordings. Yet often the most important factor of the music seems to be missing: the ability to feel and communicate emotion, to live this passion.

Bernhard’s interest in early music was fired by, among other things, the LPs of  David Munrow which he discovered when he was a teenager. Munrow, like his near contemporaries Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood,  Emma Kirkby, the Hilliard Ensemble, Gothic Voices –  everyone before early music entered the mainstream in fact –  managed to do what they did without benefit of institutional instruction. The fact is, we all made it up. The next generation or two complained that it wasn’t possible to study early music at conservatoires or universities, and gradually it found its way into higher education syllabuses where it got stuck, eventually becoming part of the mainstream, just one of a number of centrally administered modules.

The effect of this revolution was to rejuvenate much of the canonic repertoire, which had the varnish scraped off it, and to introduce a few new candidates for composerly sainthood. All well and good. The downside is that the music also became rule-bound, driven by the ideology of academia which is obsessed with assessment and abstract excellence.  We made sure you know how to play the trills the way the composer wanted them, and ignore the stupid people who did it differently (those idiots the treatises complain about, and who were sadly all too often in the majority).  The early music movement became like a property of the National Trust – beautifully restored to the condition it was in before anyone lived in it.

Many of my contemporaries went into teaching. They had to make that up too, but inevitably went on to become part of the establishment that their own success had helped to create. There is now an entire industry of early music pedagogy, with its own teaching and performing logic that often has only a tenuous connection to the awkward, dirty, unpredictable world of professional performance. It’s moved a very long way from the charismatic musical pirates who started the movement, and in the process has moved even further from the past, presenting the music in its sanitised 21st century perfection, ignoring all the bits we didn’t want to reclaim from history. The stuff we leave behind – effects such as portamento, rubato, the para-linguistic rhetoric and so on – are what made it human and individual. They’re the bits that aren’t really amenable to teaching or measurement.  If you sing your conservatoire Purcell following Tosi’s Opinioni in all their bizarre detail you will fail. Don’t try singing Bach and Mozart following Agricola or Hiller, or people will think you’re mad. After all, we all know that portamento has no place in Bach. It’s just that Bach and his contemporaries didn’t realise it at the time.

Bernhard’s right to point to the lack of passion. The two of us whinged away about the black hole in early music performance, the perfect but predictable excellence of the properly certificated early musician, the lost generations of inspired risk-takers who do it because they love it.  But if you don’t give students the tools to create  their own performing persona they can only fall back on what they know, and it’s not enough to know only that which is easy to teach. The most important task of the teacher is surely to liberate students from the pedagogy so they can discover the real music for themselves. Singers in particular tend to be way too dependent on their singing teacher prop. As I’ve mentioned before, some of the most successful singers of all time acknowledged no teacher at all. I found that one of the hardest things at the university I used to work at was to persuade students to trust their own instincts rather than those of their teacher. It seemed like a kind of trick really – the more dependent on the teacher they were, the less likely they ever were to make a success of singing as a career. It might get them kudos on their course, but their short-term success rarely prepared them for the shock of the real world they hoped to enter.

For the second year running, one of Bernhard’s Sound & Fury recordings has been CD of the Year on the Medieval Music & Arts Foundation website. This time it’s Pierre de la Rue.  Todd McComb appreciates the passion too. We’ll be recording masses by Caron and Prioris (new to me) next month.


Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

This is my first autumn back in the real world…and November has an unprecedented 5 gigs in England, including new works by Gavin Bryars at King’s Place and the first London performance of Being Dufay…

October 3

Robert Kirby memorial event

Cecil Sharp House, London

October 15

Sound & Fury live broadcast from Mauerbach ORF 22.00

October 15- 19

Kloster pic
Sound & Fury recordings (Vienna)

Josquin Desprez: Missa Gaudeamus & Missa Sine Nomine

Marbrianus De Orto: Missa Mi mi & Missa L’homme armé

November 3

Dowland Project (Prague)

Strings of Autumn Festival

November 6

Gavin Bryars Ensemble

King’s Place (London)

to include new versions of Madrigals by Gavin Bryars to poems by

Blake Morrison

November 11

A Musicall Banquet (Birmingham) with Ariel Abramovich

Birmingham Early Music Festival

November 18

Being Dufay

The Albany, Lewisham

part of the Sampler Festival

November 24

Roger Marsh 60th birthday concert (York)

to include new works by Ed Jessen and Morag Galloway

November 25

Launch of UYMP Songbook (compiled by John Potter & David Blake)

Birmingham Conservatoire


Saturday, June 19th, 2010

The Dancity Fesival, where Ambrose Field and I present the next Being Dufay  on June 26, is a riot of multi-media events with a siginificant ECM flavour. We were all asked to provide some footballing thoughts, the festival presumably thinking that if you can’t beat them, join them (Ambrose being the Field of play, of course).

These were mine:

“Ho conosciuto mia moglie nel 1966 quindi non potevo a quel tempo interessarmi di calcio.
Nel 1994 la canzone per i mondiali dei ‘Tre Tenori’ era numero 1 in tutto il globo dunque l’album ‘Officium’ dell’Hilliard Ensemble era fermo al Numero 2.
Quest’anno però ‘Being Dufay’ ha avuto un successo inaspettato, come Totò Schillaci in Italia 90…”

(with thanks to Ned for the Schillaci reference…)

We have performances in Germany and Slovakia over the summer, and we will soon be scheduling performances of the new programme (once we’ve thought of a title) for 2011.  Ambrose’ new piece will be a stunning audio experience (the extracts I’ve heard are like nothing I’ve heard before). It still has the old/new agenda, but this time he tributes fifteenth century composers who are tributing their own predecessors.  I’ve always found composers working with other composers’ music very moving (even just thinking about singing the three note ‘Ockghem’ motif in Busnois’ In Hydraulis can bring a lump to the throat), and this album and its associated multi-media event will do that in excelsis.

The Sound & The Fury in Vienna

The Sound & The Fury get together twice a year to record Franco-Flemish polyphony. The line-up varies at top and bottom depending on the music, but normally consists of David Erler (countertenor), Klaus Wenk and me (tenors),Thomas Bauer (bass) – whose idea the whole thing was – and Richard Wistreich (bass).

Kloster MauerbachThe recording project is a collaboration between Bernhard Trebuch of ORF and the artists Markus Muntean & Adi Rosenblum. We’ve made 10 albums to date, all on ORF’s label, and this July we will return to Kloster Mauerbach just outside Vienna to sing more music by Ockeghem and Caron. There will be a live broadcast on ORF at midnight on July 9th (probably including the Ecce Ancilla mass). The eccentric timing is at least an improvement on the last live brooadcast,  when the temperature in the church was minus 12 with all of us wearing all the clothes we had with us and the audience covered in blankets.

It is, of course, a bunch of (mostly) old (-ish) blokes getting together to do the music we love and have been doing for longer than most of us can remember, and our sessions locked away in the monastery (we sleep in the cells) are among the most enjoyable things I do.  There is an added frisson provided by the fact that although we ‘know’ how the music goes, it’s nearly always new material that none of us knew existed, and there’s always lots of it so little time for re-takes. It’s a high-risk process…

Tampere Vocal Music Festival 2011

Details of how to apply for the ensembles and choir competitions have just been announced. You can download entry forms here. Tampere Concert HallThe Tampere Festival is one of the great vocal music weeks of the year anywhere, and I’m delighted to be back chairing the ensemble jury after doing my year as artistic advisor last time. For vocal ensembles the festival means maximum fun, lots of networking and plenty of performance opportunities. Some 30,000 people reckon it’s THE place to be in the second week of July every other year.

Work not in progress…

Liz Haddon and I have postponed what would have been our final ‘work in progress’ session. We’ll be finding interesting places to do similar events once I’ve left the day job at the end of September.

Last Performances in York

Friday, June 11th, 2010

The best thing about my 12 years at York has been working with some extraordinary students. Two recent events here in the Music Department went  to the heart of what I think is most important about music education. They linked research, performance and real life in a dynamic way that isn’t dependent on teaching (in other words, I can’t take any credit for them beyond enabling them to happen and helping to ensure that the creative process stays on the students’ chosen track). The first was an event by the first and last student to do a Vocal Studies MA by Research.

Nora Ryan

This was particularly important to me, as it represented everything I value about a performance MA, and it was the refusal of the Music Department to allow me to make the (currently taught) Vocal Studies MA in to a ‘research by performance’ course  that was the final straw in my decision to leave the University (more about that in future posts).

Performance by research is a much-contested idea in academic circles. My own take on it is that if you’re going to have a post-grad course it has to be related to the likely future performing life of the participants. This means it has to be grounded in the students’ own individual performative creativity, giving them the maximum opportunity to experiment. There can be nothing generic about it: it should be loosely structured, with almost no teaching. The role of the supervisor is as a facilitator, enabler, consultant – call it what you will – a role very similar to that of a PhD supervisor whose knowledge and expertise in the relevant area will eventually be outstripped by that of the student.

Nora Ryan is an American singer, dancer, performance artist who has created a portfolio of events both here in York and in Leeds, working in multi-media with musicians, dancers and visual artists. This was one of  her last shows before returning to the USA, where she will continue her career as a freelance performer, and featured some of the Music Department’s most creative improvisers. The event was a stunning tour de force.

Italian opera from scratch

opera poster

The next day there was the ‘outcome’ (as we academics are obliged to call it) of my final undergraduate project. The Project System at York is unique, and the only reason it’s not copied in universities throughout the land is that the people in suits just don’t get it. It’s an incredibly creative way to engage groups of students over a period of time, enabling them to flourish as individuals within group activity that is challenging, stimulating and fun. It produces highly motivated students, who have a direct educational investment in the process, and highly motivated staff who can teach what they want in the way they want to do it. The suits have tried to rein it in from time to time: we have to produce in advance what they call ‘differentiated outcomes’ for different year groups  (around 3 of each!). This is completely daft, and is only there because (as one of my colleagues put it) our marking system has to be identical to, and understood by, people in the Biology Department). In practice what happens is that everyone takes away a completely unquantifiable set of ‘outcomes’ which is unique to each student and cannot possibly be predicted in advance. I suppose it’s not surprising that a centralising university bureaucracy committed to standardised rule making across the board, can’t get to grips with all that. I mean, what would a Handbook entry look like: we expect you to take away an unknown number of outcomes, none of which we can predict in advance…

The project was called ‘Performing 19th Century Italian Opera’ (my original inspiration for it was Philip Gossett’s wonderful Divas & Scholars: Performing 19th Century Italian Opera). I had 20 students for a day and half a week for four weeks. I started by giving them a brief history of the process of creating opera in Italy, homing in some more obscure composers but mostly Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni. We then set about creating an opera for ourselves, keeping roughly to the kind of process that might have happened in a provincial Italian opera house towards the end of the century. This particular opera house had a company of players but no music, so had to devise a complete show using only what they already knew or could find in time. They were also heavily into the game of Cluedo. I don’t know what Verdi and Bellini would think about some of their best bits being cut up and reused, but we had terrific fun with it. We also inverted the Cluedo plot so there were multiple deaths giving plenty of opportunity to raid the operatic death scene repertoire. It was in a mixture of English and Italian, and featured some of the greatest hits of the 19th century, arranged for an eclectic ensemble of instruments (including accordion and trumpet)  as well as spontaneously improvised recitative and dialogue. It was entirely student-devised and performed, and there were some stunning performances.

Work in Progress…

While on the subject of last performances, Liz Haddon and I are planning our final ‘work in progress’ session in the Music Department on June 22 (we hope to do similar projects elsewhere in the future). These have been an attempt to break down the oppositional nature of the recital genre, and to re-introduce something of the informality of 19th century domestic performance (for which much of the repertoire was originally conceived). It’s work in progress because we’re not giving definitive fully-formed performances, but exploratory sessions where we sing and play the music at that very creative stage where you’re encountering things in the music for the first time. The idea is to share that experience with anyone who turns up. We don’t expect people to sit there and just worship the music. Eating, drinking, chatting and interaction are encouraged, and we’re quite happy to repeat pieces if we feel there are other interesting things to do. It’s a bit like an open rehearsal. We’ve even been known to start again mid-‘performance’ to look in more detail at something. Not sure what the music will be for this one yet (it’s important we don’t do too much cheating in advance), but it might include some Chausson, Duparc, Tchaikovsky, Webern and early Schoenberg.  The date’s not quite certain yet but I hope   to confirm it shortly.

Diary update

I will get around to doing this when things get a bit less hectic. The next Being Dufay is in Foligno on June 26th in the Dancity Festival (which has a football theme since it coincides with the World Cup). After that I’ll be recording in Vienna with The Sound & The Fury, and gigs over the summer include Bratislava (Dowland Project), the Radovljica Festival (with Ariel Abramovich), the Kultursommer Rheinland-Palz (Being Dufay) and even a couple of rare appearances in the UK. More details next time.

April-May: Gavin Bryars, Being Dufay & Josquin Desprez

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Gavin Bryars Punkt album

This was recorded at the 2008 Punkt festival in Kristiansand. Live recording is exhilarating, and most musicians today try to make even a studio recording as ‘live’ as possible – long takes, minimal editing and lots of risk taking. But usually you know in advance that you’re actually recording something.  Gavin often records his gigs as a matter of record, and certainly the Punkt Festival set-up was perfect for this, but none of us expected to see it end up as a CD. It’s a reminder that every second counts and you never know what might come back to haunt you (YouTube, for all its wonders, is also the graveyard of clips that can’t decay fast enough). But I love this CD. It’s vintage Gavin – exquisite playing from his players Morgan Goff, Nick Cooper and James Woodrow, with the man himself on bass (and occasional piano). What an amazing  quartet they are – sitting on stage listening to them playing the two instrumental Laude is just one of the best things there is. And, of course, nothing beats singing with Anna Maria Friman (who’s just agreed to join me for the Josquin project).  Gavin’s band is a bit like a family – we’ve all been with him for a long time – and it was typical of him to invite Arve Henriksen, in town for Punkt and the future Mr Friman-Henriksen, to join us for a couple of numbers. Lauda 37 ‘Ciascun ke fede sente’ is one of two tracks featuring Arve, and it’s absolutely unique in Gavin’s oeuvre (his pieces with trumpet are very few and far between). We only saw it for the first time that day, and the trumpet is improvising; it doesn’t get much live-er than that. The last piece is the beautiful  ‘Amore dolce senza pare’. I nearly lost it at the end, but Morgan’s fabulous portamento is what you’ll remember.

Performances aren’t complete until they’re absorbed by the listener. Gavin provides no texts or translations, so the final element in the process is the audience members creating their own meanings inside their own heads. That’s just as it should be.

Being Dufay

Potter & Field

We’re hoping to have a film of the complete Perth Festival performance, but at the moment we have a YouTube clip of live audio with a video montage to give an idea of what Mick Lynch’s films look like. Lisbon was another wonderful gig, very efficiently organised by Pedro Santos.   There’s an interview with Nuno Galopim and a review by him in DN Artes.  I also heard some interesting singers at the workshop organised by Paulo Lourenco at the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa in their stunning new building.

The Sound and the Fury

Sound & Fury

…have a review in Gramophone for our ‘intimate and uncomfortable portrait’ of Gombert!

The next S&F event will be a recording session in Kloster Mauerbach followed by a concert in the church on July 9th. We hope to record Caron clemens et bengigna, jesus autem transiens, and sanguis sanctorum masses and the Ockeghem Missae mi mi and ecce ancilla domini

Josquin Desprez: Transfer in Mysteria

This new project, to be recorded by ECM later this year, has now expanded to 2 singers and 2 vihuelas. I’m hoping it will encourage promoters and audiences to think more creatively about 15th and 16th century polyphony: it wasn’t all a cappella – and our version is one of the many alternative ways that this music might have been performed. The line-up is Anna Maria Friman & me (singers) with Ariel Abramovich and Lee Santana (vihuelas). This should be a great combination of voices & instruments to explore the further reaches of renaissance sacred music in due course.

Forsaking Authenticity…

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s Wall Street Journal article was based in part on an interview with me during which I touched on Duke Ellington, sheet music and the dodginess of written sources.


APRIL 20 Being Dufay Chicago Early Music Festival

next performance at the Dancity Festival Foligno (Italy) June 26

APRIL 27 – MAY 21   19th Century Italian Opera Project (University of York)

MAY 5 L’Auditori (Barcelona): Musical Banquet (with Ariel Abramovich lute)

MAY 7 Castellón: Musical Banquet (with Ariel Abramovich lute)

MAY 6-9 Castellón: lute song workshops (with Ariel Abramovich lute)

MAY 27 Words & Music: Gavin Bryars & Blake Morrison (Howard Assembly Room, Leeds)

THE RESPONSES to the tenor book will continue next time. Happy Easter all.