:: trio mediaeval


Tuesday, October 5th, 2021

Back in the nineties I spent an eventful year commuting to Bremen as a Dozent at the Akademie für alte Musik (the AKA as we all knew it). I lived close to Stansted airport, then not much more than a shed in a field, and once a month or so I’d fly out on Air Bremen after breakfast, teach in the afternoon, stay the night, teach a bit more and fly home the next day in time for dinner. The plane was a lovely whispering turbo-prop with leather seats. Quite often I was its only passenger and towards the end of the year Air Bremen went out of business. I then had to resort to Lufthansa (my favourite airline) and Heathrow (my least favourite airport) and the whole business took an extra day or more. At about the same time the AKA converted from a privately run academy to a full-blown Hochschule (it’s now part of the Hochschule für Künste Bremen) and I was asked to become a proper prof. It was one of those moments which (in theory at least) might have altered the flow of the ocean currents (as Luciano Berio might have put it). They didn’t want a teacher that would only appear whenever there was a break in their performing schedule, and to do the job properly I’d have to either move to Bremen or get used to regular circuits of the M25. So I forwent the chance of a German pension (and haven’t taught singing since) and a few years later York beckoned and the ocean currents found their proper course.

The AKA was an amazing place, pioneering early music performance and bursting with musicians from all over Europe. One of my colleagues was the conductor and musicologist Manfred Cordes, whose substantial discography with his ensemble Weser Renaissance includes landmark recordings, especially of the early German baroque. In 1996 my Hilliard colleague Rogers Covey-Crump and I joined the group for a recording of the complete  Cantiones Sacrae of Heinrich Schütz . Now, twenty-five years later, I’m just off to the Gothenburg Organ Festival for two concerts celebrating the Praetorius anniversary, and Manfred Cordes will conduct. My fellow singers will include Trio Mediaeval, with whom I sang a programme of Machaut and Cypriot polyphony just before the virus appeared. Post-virus musical blood is beginning to flow through my veins again at last.

One of my first post-Covid gigs was celebrating Josquin as Jacob Heringman’s secret chanter, and I’m very glad that the next one takes in the other (and sadly, less celebrated) anniversary. I’m double vaccinated, have booked a return test and upgraded my travel insurance, attempted to fill in the Passenger Locator Form, printed out and practised the dots, booked flights and trains…anything else? It’s been so long since I’ve been to the mainland I can hardly remember how to do it.

ECM from the Hilliard Ensemble to Alternative History

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

If you were hoping to get to one of our Corona-cancelled Alternative History gigs and haven’t got one of our albums, Amores Pasados has several pieces that are still in our repertoire, and the Josquin and Victoria on Secret History is the tip of an iceberg of similar material that we would be doing live. The ensemble name post-dates the albums so you’ll find them under our individual names – and do check out the discographies of  my fellow band members Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Anna’s most recent Trio Mediaeval recording is Rimur (with her husband, trumpeter and extraordinary vocalist Arve Henriksen); you can hear Jake and Ariel playing vihuela duets on Cifras Imaginarias, and Jake and I also put in a brief appearance on Ariel’s latest album Imaginario with Maria Christina Kehr. It was a winter’s day and close to zero when I recorded my bit of Josquin and it has had unusually mixed reviews ranging from the mythical to the mediocre, but don’t let that stop you listening to the magnificent Maria Christina and Ariel. Jake has a huge discography, and if you want to wallow in a Brexit metaphor, Guy Carpenter videoed the two of us in a post-Brexit (post-Coronavirus?) landscape for In Darkness Let me Dwell.


Three of these five albums are on ECM, Manfred Eicher’s iconic label that has so successfully captured the musical Zeitgeist either side of the millennium. My connection goes back to the first meeting between the Hilliards, Manfred and Arvo Pärt in the back of a BBC van in the mid-1980s. When I left the Hilliards about fifteen years later I was incredibly touched to be asked to suggest new recording projects and the Dowland Project was born (as much the creation of Manfred Eicher as we musicians).  I don’t listen to my own stuff obviously (there’s a full discography here) but if I did here are some of the earlier ECM tracks I might summon up…

The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium produced lots of fantastic music but many people didn’t get beyond the first album. Mnemosyne, the second recording, is a double CD and we were a lot better at negotiating with the saxophone by then. Two of my favourite tracks are Quechua Song, put together from fragments of South American folksongs, and the Brumel Agnus Dei. The Brumel has that wonderful sequence and we reordered it so that it would keep on coming. We used to do it live as the final piece, leaving the stage while still singing with Jan Garbarek soaring away above us. Of the other Hilliard albums from my time, A Hilliard Songbook is a double album of the the group’s greatest 20th century hits including not only works by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis  but also wonderful pieces by James MacMillan, Barry Guy, Paul Robinson, Elizabeth Liddle, Joanne Metcalf, John Casken, Piers Hellawell and Ivan Moody.  The Arvo Pärt Passio and Miserere albums continue to resonate decades after we made them. I also love the gloriously bonkers When Sara was Ninety Years old (also on Miserere), where Rogers Covey-Crump and duet over Pierre Favre’s shamanic drum for the ninety year gestation period until the moment Sara (in the form of Sarah Leonard assisted by Christopher Bowers Broadbent) is miraculously delivered of  Isaac. We hardly ever did it live as it’s almost impossible to programme, but long after I’d left the Hilliards I was doing a gig in Sofia and found myself sharing a taxi with the distinguished percussionist and we bonded once more over the six words that we had in common.

Being Dufay

The Bulgarian gig was a new work by Ambrose Field for me and amplified string quartet, the second piece he’d written for me. Ambrose was a colleague at York and one day asked me to find him some fragments of Dufay, which we recorded in the Music Department studio. I was totally gobsmacked when about a year later he produced the extraordinary electronic tour de force which is Being Dufay. We played a bit to Manfred when he came to the university to deliver the PRS Lecture and he remixed and remastered it for ECM. There are proper prog moments when (as one reviewer put it) ‘the full digital Potter is unleashed’ but I really like the final track, La Dolce Vista. It’s a delicate love song,  one line of a three-voice ballade which I sing over an electronic drone. Ambrose used to re-mix it when we did it live, and I still do it with the Dowland Project, with Jacob Heringman providing the drone and John Surman and Milos Valent alternately inventing additional parts.

The Dowland Project

It’s impossible to pick a favourite Dowland Project track as they’re mostly single takes and you enjoy each one as though it’s the last you’ll ever do, so each one has everything you’ve got.  The most serendipitous album is Night Sessions, half of which was done after midnight and a lot of alcohol, having completed the previous recording (Romaria). With no music left but a feeling that the night was still young we went back into the monastery church and busked away with a book of medieval poems that I happened to have with me. We didn’t really know what we’d done until the next morning. The track about medieval gardening is excruciating, but Corpus Christi and I sing of a Maiden hit the spot. You’d have no idea we were making it up and that these were the only takes. With Night Sessions I think the process that began with Officium reached a kind of point of no return (and I’m sure my ex-Hilliard colleagues are very relieved that I left before I could drag them in that direction). Strangely enough Theoleptus 22 was originally intended for the Hilliards and Jan. It’s an ancient Byzantine chant (with 22 notes, I seem to remember) and obviously got very different treatment in the hands of messrs Guy, Stubbs, Homburger and Surman. Thankyou Manfred for half a century of fantastic music making.

Working with Trio Mediaeval

Monday, September 16th, 2019

I’ve known Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Anna Maria Friman since the  newly-formed Trio Mediaeval first came to the Hilliard summer schools some twenty years ago. They subsequently asked me to produce their first CD and we went on to collaborate on two more albums for ECM. We’ve have kept in touch since, exchanging ideas about programming and so on, and of course Anna and I have worked extensively with Gavin Bryars and Alternative History, and more recently with Serikon. Eons ago there was a brief Trio Mediaeval sextet when the Trio invited the (then) three Hilliard tenors to join them for a new commission from Gavin  Bryars, but apart from a bit of spontaneous droning at a concert in York for which they hauled me out of the audience I’ve not sung with them for almost two decades. Until last week when I joined them and their newest member Jorunn Lovise Husan in the great church at Otterberg in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Over the years I have done many concerts in the  Via Mediaeval – Musik und Räume des Mittelalters series run by Kultursommer Rheinland-Pfalz, and last year, after a concert by the Conductus Ensemble, project director Holger Wittgen floated the idea of a programme by Trio Mediaeval and me for the 20th anniversary season this year; Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus was the result.

It was a very special occasion. Of all the ensembles to have absorbed the Hilliard experience the Trio comes closest to the HE musical aesthetic, combining a finely blended, fine-tuned sound with an enterprising approach to both old and new repertoire. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to feel a little as though I was coming home. From the first notes at our rehearsals in Oslo it was like the sun coming out, and we knew that both the sound and the programme would work. Our programme choice was designed to make the most of the the fact that Linn and Anna have similar soprano ranges and Jorunn Lovisa (like her Trio predecessors) also possesses a tenor rang that overlaps with mine. I hadn’t imagined I’d ever sing the Machaut mass again, but the parts fitted us perfectly with some careful transpositions so it virtually chose itself.  The Cypriot polyphony (early 15th century equivalent of Richard Strauss…) has the ars subtilior line-up of two (sometimes three) virtuosic voices over one or two slower moving parts, and this too proved absolutely ideal for our quartet. For an encore we sang Descendi in hortum meum, an old Hilliard favourite written for the HE by Ivan Moody (whose PhD Gavin Bryars and I examined at the University of York some years ago). It really was a kind of homecoming for me (if only temporarily!), a great joy to fit in to an ensemble whose musical instincts are identical to mine, and I’m looking forward to repeating the experience in the future.  We had a wonderful time in Otterberg, and the audience loved it too, one reviewer likening it to a walk in a magical garden:


Thankyou Holger! And thankyou Linn, Anna and Jorunn!

DP in Dobrss

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

JP      Milos Valent      Ariel Abramovich

This was a first for us, multiple firsts in fact  – the first time Ariel, Milos and I had performed together, the first time Ariel had played with the Dowland Project, and the first time we’ve done a gig without the sax of John Surman. It was exhilarating – bang on the DP button, with neither us nor the audience knowing exactly what would happen next. We revisited some old DP repertoire, beginning Can ve la lautzeter mover, with Milos conjuring bird noises on his rebec from up in the gallery, then morphing into Pulcherima rosa from C16 Prague. Then we were into new territory with Godric’s oldest songs in the English language, and on through Dowland, Holst, Vaughan-Williams, ending up with some Alternative History pieces by Sting and Tony Banks. We finished with Finisterre, and when I announced it as our anti-Brexit song there was an outbreak of spontaneous cheering which was  deeply touching.

We were in beautiful Dobrss, about halfway between Prague and Salzburg and so deep in the Czech countryside that your Satnav probably won’t find it. Yet people came from Prague and even Bratislava to hear us. The Dobrsska-Brana festival is a wonderful combination of local hospitality and international music making – a big thankyou for inviting us. There’s a comprehensive review (in Czech) of the first part of the festival in JazzPort by Michal Sykora  here (with some stunning pics and video).

The good people of Dobrss were obviously well aware of the giant cock-up that is about to befall us Brits:

That’s the last Dowland Project gig in the diary for this year, but we will be on the road again in Germany in 2020. In the meantime I’ll be doing duo recitals with both Ariel and Milos, and Ariel and I will get together for more Alternative History in Sweden and Spain in the autumn. My next gigs are with Trio Mediaeval in the UK and Germany next month: Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.


Summer concerts

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

A Singer’s Guide to Britain

Some weeks ago Jacob Heringman and I did some recording in the Treasurer’s House for  a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series ‘A Singer’s Guide to Britain‘, fronted by Roderick Williams. Our contributions will appear in episodes 2 and 3 transmitted on August 14 and 21. We wittered away at some length between pieces – mostly about our Alternative History view of the world and how different it is from the CD-driven fantasies of today, but no doubt only a fraction of our ramblings will have made the final cut. Roddy Williams, incidentally, used to sing in our expanded Hilliard choir for Arvo Part’s Passio in his youth and once sacrificed his trousers when mine got left behind.

Dobrsska Brana

On August 16 Ariel Abramovich, Milos Valent and I will be doing  a unique Dowland Project one-off in the Czech Republic, not far from Prague. This will be the first time the three of us have performed together, though I have performed many times with both of them in different contexts. As well as revisiting some Dowland Project numbers we’ll be exploring Holst and Vaughan-Williams as well as new versions of songs by Tony Banks and Sting.

Trio Mediaeval quartet

It’s more than twenty years since I first heard  Trio Mediaeval at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge.  They invited me to produce their first albums, which went on to be hugely successful on ECM.  Our paths have occasionally crossed since then, and we’ll be getting together again in September for a new programme called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus.  This explores the connection between Machaut and the mysterious Cypriot-French composers of a generation or two later. The first half will consist of the Machaut mass, together with Cypriot chant antiphons, followed after the interval by a mass and motets from Cyprus.  The first outing is at Hebden Bridge on September 12,  and then in Otterberg on the 14th.

As it’s summer and holiday time, my next post will reveal what tenors do on their days off…


Projects for 2019

Friday, December 7th, 2018

In darkness…

My last event of 2018 was recording John Dowland’s In darkness let me Dwell with Jacob Heringman for Mark Burghagen’s film of the final soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II launched in February  on the anniversary of the King’s death in 1400.  Dowland’s most melancholic piece  seemed not only appropriate for the Shakespeare but also for most of the likely Brexit scenarios. This Guy Carpenter photo of Jake and me in a post-Brexit landscape (burning our scores to keep warm) is the inspiration for a video that we’re making to coincide with our private valedictory performance to European early music promoters on Brexit Eve, which will use In Darkness as the sound track.

Alternative History

On February 15 the Alternative History ensemble got back together for gigs in Madrid (Amores Pasados) and Barcelona (an all-Josquin programme). It was a great start to what promises to be another busy Alternative History year  and the press loved both events:

Rompiendo barreras con “Amores pasados: de Dowland a Sting”, de Alternative History

Desprez en la intimidad


The various fractals of the Alternative History project will also be busy, and I’ll be doing recitals with both Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. Jake and I have more UK gigs,including  John Casken’s Alwinton Summer Music, which will feature a composition competition for a new lute song. We’ll then repeat the winning entry in York’s Late Music series. John Casken wrote Sharp Thorne – one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s signature pieces – and it will be great to catch up with him again. Jake and I will also be doing concerts in York (including a special Brexit themed event on Brexit Eve for the REMA conference at the NCEM) and we’ll repeat our Dufay mass with countertenor David James in Portugal.

Bryars and Beyond

I’ll be doing Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun in Hull in April and returning to Trollhättan for the TrollhättansTidig Musik-dagar with Serikon in May, and there will be new collaborations in the summer. More soon…

Trio Mediaeval

Plans for the new project with Trio Mediaeval are coming on apace. The programme is called Machaut and the Kings of Cyprus, and will celebrate the extraordinary connection between Reims and Nicosia at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th. The manuscript known to musicologists (but not to many performers or audiences) as Torino J.II.9 is an extraordinary collection of ars subtilior polyphony and chant by a single unknown author who clearly knew the music of Guillaume de Machaut. We will bring the two strands together in performances of the Machaut mass and a Cypriot mass of a generation or two later.  At the moment we have concerts lined up in Norway, Germany and the UK (details to follow when we’ve worked out a coherent schedule). 


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.

trio mediaeval at St Gerold

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

resized 11

Back in January I decided to take six months more or less off to focus on grandfathering and house moving stuff. There were some things I just had to do though (the final Conductus album and a last Hilliard trip among them), and last weekend I sat in on Trio Mediaeval’s latest ECM recording at St Gerold.

I’ve known the Trio almost since they started, setting a Hilliard summer school alight just a year or so after they’d first got together. Several summer schools later they surprised me by asking me to produce their first album – which I agreed to do as long as they also hired Peter Laenger as Tonmeister. At the time they had no record label in mind, but Manfred Eicher got to hear a first edit and the rest is history. We did two more albums together, and each one was pure joy. I’d never produced anything before (hence the crucial role of one the business’s great Tonmeisters), and my technique turned out to be not unlike my coaching – a sort of homeopathic approach, depending not so much on input from me as encouraging a certain sort of creative self belief in everyone else.


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This was the Trio’s first album with Berit Opheim. In Torunn Østrem Ossum they had a unique and much-loved bottom line, but fans of the group needn’t worry about her successor: Berit is a fantastic singer and her background as both a ‘classical’ singer and a distinguished folk musician means she’s a perfect fit in the magical Trio soundworld. The recording revealed a staggering range of tone colours from all three singers (they can all switch instantly from ‘early music pure’ to rich Nordic dialect, and from a flute-like sopranino to a bell-like tenor). I won’t reveal what’s on it (the languages range from Icelandic, southwards to Italy via a small island off the European mainland) but I can tell you it’ll be out in time for Christmas (unusually quick for ECM…).


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My last experience at St Gerold was definitely one to forget, so it was great to be able to go back and erase the memory properly. Previous visits included many Hilliard recordings (Officium and Mnemosyne were both recorded there) and three of the four Dowland Project albums. We were on our way to record Care-Charming Sleep when I had a message from my son Ned telling me to get to a TV set. Changing planes in Amsterdam I caught a fleeting glimpse of the screens showing the planes hitting the twin towers. We arrived at the monastery to find a small black and white tv that only worked sporadically, so we spent the next few days completely ignorant of the fact that the world had changed.


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It’s not quite the same as it was in Pater Nathaniel’s day – it’s a bit more business and a bit less Benedictine – but the view and the acoustic haven’t changed, nor has the arrival of copious amounts of wholesome mountain food at far too frequent intervals. And you still get woken up at 5.00 by the dawn chorus across the valley before it gives way to the chirping of house sparrows in the eves. As for the weather – it was 32 degrees and yet so cold in the church that we had to put the heating on.

The Trio went on to another gig in Switzerland, meeting up with trumpeter Arve Henriksen for a completely different programme with electronics and video. The group is unique – and surely one of the most versatile vocal ensembles in the world. Who would have thought at that first summer school that we were dealing with future Grammy-nominated artists? Well…I did…and a lovelier bunch of people you couldn’t hope to meet.