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Josquin journeys

December 16th, 2020

Art of the Netherlands

The Art of the Netherlands (EMI 1976)

Early Music Consort

My first encounter with the most significant composer of the late 15th/early 16th century was in 1976. They were heady times: I’d been grappling with scat and Berio for two years with the Swingles when out of the blue came an invitation to sing on what would be David Munrow’s last two recording projects, the Art of the Gothic and the Art of the Netherlands. Everyone who sang on those seminal albums had come up through the English choral tradition – which only went back as far as Tallis and Byrd (or Tavener if you were especially esoteric), so they were as revelatory as Berio in their way.  I sang on four Josquin tracks and was also introduced to Brumel and Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. The Brumel Et Ecce Terrae Motus Gloria included a stonking countertenor line-up consisting of David James, James Bowman and Charles Brett, and four of the five tenors who would later sing in the Hilliard Ensemble, all of us driven along by DM’s energetic conducting. It was in Abbey Road, and if the earth didn’t move it wasn’t for want of trying. Inviolata and Josquin’s mass movements would reappear decades later in a process that would mirror the historical life of the piece, morphing from liturgical polyphony to domestic performance based on lute intabulations. Actually, Nesciens wasn’t yet by Mouton; here’s it’s anon, the authorial limbo that claimed many pieces originally attributed to Josquin. Whoever wrote it, it’s one of those pieces that is so moving that it can be almost impossible to sing unless you’re completely in the zone.

 

Josquin Desprez - Motets and Chansons

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (EMI 1989)

Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliards had already made one Josquin recording before I joined them. By this time Jozza was beginning to shed more of his attributions (Mouton had gained Nesciens and Lugebat Absalon had fallen to Gombert). We took part in a famous Josquin conference at which several academics who should have known better walked out during a performance by the American ensemble Chanticleer (one of the first groups to challenge the comfortable euphony of the Oxbridge sound). Although more than a decade after the Munrow recording, on our 1989 album (like the Munrow albums, re-released and anthologised many times since) we were still singing like soloists reining ourselves in; for the mass propers we added additional voices, giving it a choral feel that we would later abandon. The last track is Tu Solus Qui Facis Mirabilia, sublime in its stillness and simplicity, but not quite yet the instinctively blended, perfectly tuned performance we would later achieve live. Over the years we would perform plenty more Josquin, but only one motet found its way onto disc: Ave Maria is the final track on the 1993 Codex Specialnik album.

 

Master of Musicians - Songs & instrumental music by Josquin des Pres, his pupils & contemporaries /Musica Antiqua of London

Master of Musicians (Signum 2000)

Musica Antiqua of London

I’ve tried to avoid Josquin’s songs wherever possible but couldn’t resist agreeing to taking part in this Musica Antique recording. I grew out of Scaramella, el grillo and La tricotee quite quickly and have tried not to look back. This album of secular music by Josquin and his contemporaries is very much of its time: an excellent instrumental band getting in a bunch of singers who had never sung with each other before, and presenting the same song in several different versions (a bizarre obsession of early music programme planners at the time). Another distinctive feature is the booklet, which is so strangely laid out that it can take a whole track to discover who’s performing (by which time you’re on to the next one).

 

Romaria

In flagellis; Tu solus qui facis (ECM 2006)

Dowland Project

Jacob Heringman’s 2000 DGM album of Josquin intabulations made a huge impression, not least because it opened my eyes to the colourful history of Josquin performance normally overlooked by scholars. It confirmed that the Dowland Project (which Jake would later join) was on the right track, and the two performances on this album take the process further still. We’ve come a long way from the intensive head-banging rehearsal days of a quarter of a century before. These are first or second takes and have the freshness (and sometimes panic) of the moment.

 

Secret History: Sacred Music By Josquin And Victoria

Secret History (ECM 2011)

This is in one respect the most important recording I did in the second decade of the 21st century: it gave birth to the Alternative History ensemble (the name came later). It was conceived as two CDs, one of which would celebrate the Victoria centenary; it ended up six years later as a single album and has become our contribution to the Josquin centenary. After the Dowland Project’s de-constructions it was great to connect with Ariel Abramovich who was deeply into Josquin intabulations. He proposed an album with two singers and two lutes, having collaborated in the past with Lee Santana. It brings together many of my favourite Josquin motets, and we hoped it would help to revolutionise Josquin performance, showing the longer performance history of the pieces. It wasn’t easy and we didn’t get it all done, eventually combining it with the proposed Victoria album. Together they make a slightly different point, that intabulations of both composers sit side by side in later manuscripts all over Europe. We’ve done many performances since of both composers, and I’ve done similar tab programmes with Jake and Ariel separately here in England as well as Spain and South America, so it generated some great music making.

 

Tu solus qui facis (Armonia Concertada, 2017)

My most recent recording is as a guest (with Jacob Heringman, who also has a magnificent new Josquin album) on Imaginario, a sumptuous recording by Maria Cristina Kiehr and Ariel Abramovich of an imaginary vihuela songbook. Unusually, it was recorded in England, in a tiny church on one of the coldest days of the year. It didn’t get down to the minus 12 that the Sound & Fury once had to cope with in Mauerbach, but it was so cold that Jake and I could barely function. It does, though, show something of what might have been done with the homophonic Josquin pieces. One of the joys of this motet is that it can take you by surprise as you continually seek to renew it. Jake and I are now so attuned to each other‘s idea of Josquin that on our first run we found ourselves sometimes doing the same spontaneous and quite complex ornamental flourishes simultaneously. You never know where the music’s going to take you. Jake and Ariel duet on this album, and they have a duo album of their own called Cifras Imaginarias. Their duo is the other great result of the Alternative History project.

  Cifras Imaginarias - Musica Para Taner A Dos Vihuelas      Josquin Des Prez: Inviolata [Jacob Heringman] [Resonus Classics: INV1004]   Fantasia sobre el madrigal "Anchor che col partire"

Modern performances of a cappella Josquin can be ravishing to listen to, and they have a rich history from the nineteen seventies onwards. I relished being inside the texture of the Hilliard and Sound & Fury Franco-Flemish polyphony but I love the way my experience of  this music has evolved in much the same way as would have happened in the 16th/17th centuries, beginning with a cappella polyphony based on the composer’s manuscript, then nearly half a century later still cannibalising it for whatever forces are available. It’s what Josquin and his contemporaries would have expected, and it puts us in touch not only with him, but those who kept his music alive for generations after his death. If you want to get close to Josquin the living breathing musician, reach for your lute or reach out to your lutenist friends.

 

 

 

Eastern adventures

November 25th, 2020

There is real optimism in the air at last, and with the prospect of a vaccine some of us may soon be able to chart a way back to performing reality. Alternative History has invitations on the stocks to perform Polish and other music from central Europe, so I’ve been re-visiting repertoires that I haven’t sung since Hilliard days. Our forays into the old East began when Graham Dixon asked us to take part in a short series for Radio Three. Along with Jacob Heringman (one of the first times we played together) and aided by Peter Hellyer at the British Library, we recorded our first Polish music (in Latin, needless to say). We subsequently did memorable concerts in Bratislava, Krakow and Prague, and these were literally labours of love as we were paid in local currency which wasn’t convertible. The last person to see us off at the airport usually got to go home with whatever we hadn’t been able to spend, and we took off with armfuls of music, local produce and (in my case) ice skates, glove puppets and once even a complete sledge. On one trip we went by hire car from Austria to Hungary and had an exciting moment on the border when the Hungarian guard asked us to get out of the car and open the bonnet, which initially we declined to do since he was already outside and could easily do it himself. There was a brief moment when we realised no one had ever refused this request and a gun poked through the window, after which we changed our minds.

The first recording we did for ECM after we left EMI was of music by the almost unknown and rarely performed Walter Frye. It was a hugely significant moment, when we realised that Manfred Eicher wanted only the music that we wanted to record, regardless of how saleable the composer might be. It cemented our artistic collaboration which went from strength to strength and would eventually include a million selling album. Walter still hasn’t come into profit decades later – though it’s getting close and a few Christmas purchases might finally push it over the line.  It also cemented our relationship with legendary Tonmeister Peter Laenger from Tritonus, who went on to engineer Officium and albums by the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval and Alternative History.

It was his ‘Ave Regina’ that first put us on to Frye. This exquisite motet appears in manuscripts all over Europe (and even on the ceiling of a French chateau). One of the sources was the mysterious Codex Speciálník, and on one of our music-buying trips to Prague I’d picked up a copy of an edition of some of the motets, and another volume of Czech medieval music which also included older pieces from Spec. After the success of Officium we wanted to do something completely different yet distinctively Hilliard, and the mixture of medieval and early renaissance music from all over Europe in a single source was perfect. It not only had Josquin and Agricola as well as Frye and fellow Englishman John Plummer, but the extraordinary Petrus de Grudencz (he of the acrostic clues to his authorship). We tracked down Jaromir Czerny at the Charles University, and with input from Charles Brewer,  Graham Melville-Mason and Peter Hellyer ended up with more music than we could get on to one album. Codex Speciálník is still one of my favourite Hilliard recordings. I also love Barbara Wojirsch’s elegantly minimal design, the cover printed on matt paper and the booklet pages almost transparent. It just has the three things you need to know printed on a white background: artists (in black), music (in red) – and ECM New Series (smaller but even blacker).

Many of the Hilliard albums were recorded at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian Alps. For much of that time we were hosted by its one remaining monk, Pater Nathanael. He was a person whose deep spirituality never obscured his genial hospitality and encyclopaedic knowledge of Austrian wines. A friendly smile was never far away, and nor was a corkscrew. We loved him. He retired to the mother house of St Einsiedeln, and last week died of the cancer that he could no longer fight.  St Gerold was a kind of spiritual and musical home for us,  and for those of us privileged to know him Pater Nathanael was its heart.

Gordon Jones   JP   Manfred Eicher   Pater Nathanael

photo Peter Laenger

Postponements…

November 11th, 2020

It seems a very long time ago that I (or any of my friends) got on a plane or a train and did a concert.  In the old universe I’d be coming home from Madrid about now after an Alternative History gig at the Spanish National Concert Hall, having premiered a lovely new piece composed for us by Peter Erskine. We’d also have recorded it, together with new songs by John Paul Jones and Sting for our new album, River God Songs. There’d have been Peter Warlock, C W Orr and E J Moeran too.

Fortunately we should be able to re-schedule both the gig and the recording, as soon as the virus allows us to put things in the diary. We’re also re-scheduling the Swaledale Festival performance of new work by John Paul Jones and Sting, the Dowland Project’s aborted Mainz gig and the Alternative History concerts in Ireland.  More details in due course. I’m now so optimistic that I’ve invested in  a 2021 diary. Fingers crossed…

In the meantime, Jacob Heringman’s fantastic album of Josquin transcriptions has been released to great acclaim. Alongside his earlier landmark recording, this makes him king of the Josquin tabs. If you’ve already got our Amores Pasados and Secret History, treat yourself to Jake’s Inviolata or Ariel Abramovich’s Imaginario  for Christmas.

I’m not being completely idle during lockdown, and I’ll do a proper post in a bit about new writing projects which I hope will keep me busy until real life returns.

 

Moving on

September 18th, 2020

The late Ward Swingle would remind us from time to time that he always had a suitcase packed. It wasn’t a threat exactly, but perhaps a more optimistic symptom of a mindset that always allowed for the possibility that change might be inevitable and for the better. After four years with his group it turned out that several of us had suitcases packed and we moved on. I repeated the process several times with other ensembles, and when I joined the Hilliard Ensemble I felt obliged to tell the guys that I had a reputation for leaving things. I stayed for 18 years so that mostly went right. Each of my departures was triggered by musical frustrations, and every time I risked impoverishment as I reverted to surviving on my wits while I searched for the next musical grail. It was never easy but ultimately always exciting. The truism that musicians don’t do it for the money is for most of us absolutely true. Though there are limits. On one occasion the Hilliards were involved in a big recording project in Germany and the producer suddenly announced an additional performance and broadcast with no fee attached. The instrumental band with us readily agreed without telling us and we got a bit exercised and said no.  ‘I guess the Hilliards only do it for the money’ said our collaborators. To which our response was it’s not that we only do it for the money, it’s just that we don’t do it for not the money.

So what are we all to do post-Covid? Well, first of all there may be no post-Covid, so we may have to get used to staring at an empty diary. Those of us who’ve been around for decades may find our musical hearts torn out (or perhaps transplanted) but we will survive because we always have, and if you survive long enough you get a pension. At the other end of the spectrum those starting out may be panicking at the prospect of no career and no income. And then there are those who might or might not have been able to get government assistance.  Those of us lucky enough to be able to should be wary of doing it for not the money: let the work (such as it is) go to those who really need it.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that universities and conservatoires have successfully oversold a profession to the extent that it was already full to bursting before the pandemic hit. Full, that is, with excellent musicians competing for the same gigs with the same repertoire. Look at the audition requirements for music colleges, and compare them with half a century ago. Look at the categories for musical competitions. There have been amazing exceptions, but ‘classical’ singing mostly remains just that: classical. Which is fine as long as audiences and opportunities increase to match the staggering numbers of fantastic musicians who graduate each year. That hasn’t happened for some time, and is very unlikely to happen in the present circumstances.

A re-think is long overdue. As a university lecturer the one piece of advice I was able to give students based on my own experience as a performer was that their future career might well not have anything to do with what they had studied, and they should be open to anything that came along.  Of course, it’s very easy to be open to anything when there isn’t anything to be open to, but after a bit you have to make serious decisions about what happens next. My guess is that in a severely shrunken profession very few young musicians can expect a full time career. One effect of the over production of singers was the continual undercutting of successful careers by the succeeding generation who would do the same job just as well but for lower fees. This affected many of my contemporaries who followed the traditional route and eventually priced themselves out of the market. So expect to need another source of income, and don’t do the same as everyone else, otherwise you may have a very short career.

Pop musicians have been coping with this problem for years, and are used to turning uncertainty and risk into creative opportunity. Streaming gigs from home via Facebook or Instagram isn’t the recital experience you may be used to, but it gives you a much more intimate connection with your audience (comments instead of clapping). You might discover that your audience, engaged by the new reciprocity, is up for all sorts of challenges, and you should be too.

Having said that, I’m not…or not yet anyway.  But I do have some sort of structure and direction and am no longer in mourning for gigs that I can’t do. Sitting in the garden listening to bird song is actually better than listening to disembodied flight announcements. It’s time to move on (even without a suitcase) and I’ve always eventually managed that successfully in the past. I miss  Alternative History and the Dowland Project, and I miss bringing to life the 16th & 17th century musicians whose future we inhabit. But in the meantime for me it’s reading and writing which I hope will bear metaphorical fruit in the future, and gardening which is bearing actual fruit in the present. You have to think in the longterm…

 

Those who can, sing; those who can’t, write…

July 1st, 2020

 

Gardening is all very well, but it has its limits. It’s almost been worth being locked down to have grown Padron peppers…

…but not quite,

so when I’ve shut the greenhouse for the day I open the laptop. The Observer re-published part of a Guardian comment of mine about Covid revealing fissures that already existed in the music profession, and CUP have told us that A History of Singing is being translated into Polish (the first time any of my stuff has had a formal translation).  This time last year (remember that?) I wrote the liner notes for Arve Henriksen’s fantastic Timeless Nowhere vinyl box set and I’ve now finished  a note for Jacob Heringman’s forthcoming Josquin album. It’s been a huge pleasure to write for such friends who are also amazing musicians. There is no trumpet player like Arve (he SINGS!) and Jake’s first CD of Josquin intabulations is one of my favourite renaissance recordings.

Lockdown and the constraints of Coronavirus have forced me into a proper writing routine. I’m in the process of finishing the book that began as an update to Vocal Authority eons ago and has at last morphed into its final (and much more readable) form.  My decade or so in  academia began to acquire a slightly more rosy glow as it faded into obscurity; my thoughts on the frustrations and missed opportunities mellowed to such an extent that my old day job  doesn’t really feature in the new book at all. I’ve abandoned the Gramscian theory that underpinned VA (it started life as a PhD thesis…) and replaced it with real life.  It’s called From Leonin to Led Zeppelin: Adventures in Old and New Music, and  it’s basically a fairly upbeat account of how performance has worked for me, with three interludes salvaged from a lost Hilliard travel diary. The final chapter touches on performance in a post-Covid world and will obviously be out of date as soon as the ink is dry, but if the old mainstream is coming to an end I hope my experience (which has been mostly outside it) might be reassuring to those who now find themselves having to survive on their wits.

So…I’ve written the book and grown the veg, so what’s next? Well there’s still no singing yet, even though singing quietly (which is what I do) is now thought to be less dangerous than going to the pub.  Alternative History is still hoping to reconvene for a concert and recording in Madrid in November, so we’ve got our fingers crossed for that one. All of my gigs that were in the dairy before lockdown have been re-scheduled for next year, which is very gratifying (and still a long way off, which is good). I still can’t face the thought of Zoom performances as the whole point for me is sharing the physical, acoustic, musical creative space with my fellow musicians. Friends have done some streaming and I speculate a bit about this in the book; I’d hoped to be able to give advice about streaming licences and so on, but I met with a very curt and unhelpful response the PRS.

I may be running out of things to do. I could re-visit one of my shelved novel attempts, but I guess everyone’s doing that. It may come down to re-doing the double-glazing.

 

ECM from the Hilliard Ensemble to Alternative History

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.

ECM…

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.

Alternative History update

March 19th, 2020

I’m not really a football fan, but my son Ned is so I try to keep up with the fortunes of Liverpool. He’s supported them since he was about ten. One of the most serendipitous things that ever happened to the two of us was driving from Essex to Liverpool decades ago to watch a home game and we stopped at a service station which turned out to have a picture by Ned’s great grandfather Ernest Walbourn on the wall of the cafe. Can’t imagine what Ernest would have made of that.  The Liverpool manager/god Jürgen Klopp famously said when urging fans to understand and support the Coronavirus cancelling of matches, that football is ‘the most important of the least important things’. It’s a brilliant way of describing the things that obsess us but in the end are not actually real life. That’s the case with music too of course, but if you’re a freelance musician during the plague the lack of public music making is very real indeed. It may be hard for us ancient musicians to be in quarantine for 3 months but at least we have a pension (of sorts) so we won’t starve. We’re also lucky enough to have a wonderful family to look out for us. I’ve been age-blind for as long as I can remember, but the 70-till-dead bracket does tend to make you a bit more aware of how the rest of the world sees you.

The news on the work front isn’t good. We think the Alternative History recording planned for Madrid next month will have to be postponed if its associated gig falls through. I won’t be going to Portugal or Australia either, but hopefully there will be opportunities in the future. Fingers crossed for the summer. I’ve never thought of retiring (most singers can’t afford to) but the next three months will be a pretty good rehearsal should it ever happen (apart from the social distancing stuff, obviously). I’ve become a serious gardener now that my greenhouse is fully operational and I can imagine that becoming as important as the music. Every windowsill and every shelf in the greenhouse is bursting with plant life. Nurturing a plant is a wonderful thing and has many parallels with musical endeavour. And then there’s writing. I may even get to complete the much junked sequel to Vocal Authority…

January 31 is a dark day

January 30th, 2020

Europe, European Union, Flag

I’d never been abroad until I left school, when I hitchhiked to Istanbul with a mate. I can’t remember how it came about – maybe one or other of us suggested it in jest and having agreed neither of us dared pull out. Somehow we found ourselves on the Dover-Calais ferry, from which we miraculously managed to get a ride to somewhere in the middle of Germany. Off the Autobahn we found ourselves on a country road that looked distinctly unpromising for hitchhiking. But it wasn’t long before a huge beer lorry rumbled to a halt and the driver beckoned us in, reaching behind him for a couple of bottles. This was a proper country.  A day or two later in deepest Bavaria I opened the youth hostel window at first light to see the Alps. We’d arrived the previous night and hadn’t even known they were there. Awestruck doesn’t cover it. Then over the Brenner pass, crossing the border with sufficient German to understand the guard’s joke to the driver about how my hair was too long to tell which sex I was. On down through the Dolomites, crawling exhausted one night into a small building that revealed itself in the morning as a disused toilet. Eventually arriving in Venice and encountering not only canals but something called pizza. We made a mental note to start a pizza stall when we got back to the UK (we forgot, sadly, but we would have been years ahead of our time). On to Jugoslavia as it then was, burning a tic out of my leg after a night in a field, a train ride to Sofia with lovely Slavs sharing their food and drink, then a mega lift across Bulgaria from a German smuggling shirts in the false floor of his Volkswagen estate, who stopped at a mountain spring to treat us to fresh water (the only English words he understood), yoghurt and pickled cucumbers. Finally Istanbul itself, the bazaar and the cisterns, changing money on the black market, crossing the Bosphorus so we could say we’d been to Asia and jumping fully clothed into the Sea of Marmora.  Nick and I decided to have a race to Athens. I went via Bulgaria, having been assured that no Turkish driver would take me to Greece.I walked over the border in darkness and asked the guard where the nearest youth hostel was. There wasn’t one but he fixed me up with somewhere to stay the night.  Nick went the quick way and won.  A few days later we were lying on the harbour smoking who knows what before I set off for Corfu and the long journey home, my money getting precariously low. My first lift, most of the way to Delphi, was in the back of a Lambra, those tiny three wheeled trucks the Italians call Ape. The driver was taking fruit to market (at around twenty miles an hour for several hours).  He plied me with wonderful apricot-like fruit which I thought he called something like ereeks and which I’ve never seen since.  Then the Brindisi ferry and several lifts across the baking Italian south, eventually reaching amazing Rome to be greeted by a fantastic firefly display in the youth hostel gardens. Total magic. Then on to Florence and up through France. I met a couple of Israelis who asked me which country I thought they came from. Israel was somewhere in the bible so there was no chance I’d have guessed. We spent the night in a ruined castle sharing stories. They were on their way to England for some final fun before compulsory military service. It all sounded very grown-up to me. By the time I got to Calais I was surviving on a baguette a day and was horrified to discover when I changed my last pounds that I was several francs short of the ferry fare home.  As I was wondering how on earth a penniless teenager could get across the channel who should appear but my Israeli friends of a couple of nights before, and who gladly helped me out.  I probably never knew their names for more than a few minutes, but thankyou guys! On the other hand, maybe I’d still be there…

I went back to a bit more hospital portering before going on to university. In time I became a musician and I got to work not only in all those countries I’d visited on that riotous trip, but in all but two of the countries of Europe. My first working trip was in the Belgian Ardennes where I was introduced to iced radishes and neat gin, then with the BBC to France where we emptied the hotel kitchen into the swimming pool (proper rock ‘n’ roll but as this was classical music we were banned from the hotel), I was in Berlin just after the wall came down (and have a bag of bits to prove it). I’ve been paid in hockey sticks and ice skates in the old Czechoslovakia, I’ve belted out Finlandia at four in the morning with a load of happy Finns before jumping naked into the snow, I’ve been in restaurants in old Estonia where I hardly knew which way up to hold the menu (and in Israel, come to that) with serendipitously delicious results, in Sweden I was introduced to the startled children of a friend of mine as the man who’d never ski-ed, before being taken cross-country skiing, I’ve seen storks nesting in chimneys in Latvia, sung on a forklift in a former armaments factory in the Ruhr, a power station in Norway, a Roman amphitheatre,  dozens of abbeys in  France, Austria and Switzerland, half the cathedrals in Germany. Talking of Germany, that country where the kindly truck driver gave us free beers all those years ago, I’ve worked there more than anywhere else and have more friends between Berlin and Munich than here in York. The Hilliards did hundreds of concerts in places I’d never heard of and I even got to teach at the legendary Akademie für alte Musik in Bremen for a while, commuting on the now-defunct Air Bremen flight from Stansted.  I discovered that in German churches you could find photographs of wartime destruction (usually behind the altar), and that so many of those beautiful old towns had been rebuilt brick by brick after the war. A dear friend of mine, on hearing of Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders to Syrian refugees said it was the first time in his life that he was proud to be a German.  21st century Germans are surely the first true Europeans.

I now work a lot in Spain with a Swede who has a Norwegian husband, a German Jewish  American with an English wife, and an Italian Russian Jewish Argentinian with a Spanish partner. They are fluent in more than half a dozen languages between them but we speak English to each other because I live on this  tiny island off the European coast and can only splutter a few words in their languages.

My wife Penny (60% English,  28% Welsh, 8% East European and 6% Iberian) gave me a DNA test for Christmas. I’ve just got the results: I’m 60% North West European and 15% Scandinavian, and only 25% English. I know it’s all approximate and random but I’ll happily take 75% European.

What on earth are we doing leaving the most civilised (and civilising) geo-political entity the world has seen? Get a grip people.

Alternative History in Spain

January 15th, 2020

Next year will see the 10th anniversary of the Alternative History quartet (as we eventually became).  Ariel Abramovich and I had been working together for a couple of years and were beginning to explore the ‘intabulation’ repertoire where 16th and 17th century musicians made their own versions of earlier a capella  polyphony. We hatched a plan to record Josquin with two lutes and two voices; this was a great advenure for me as it meant I could continue performing the renaissance polyphony I’d done with the Hilliards but in a radically new way. Anna Maria Friman was the obvious choice for the top line as she and I had worked together for many years (most recently with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble) and Ariel invited Lee Santana to join him on lute.  We then remembered that the big Victoria anniversary was coming up, and we thought we could also slot in a celebratory Victoria mass album with just me and two lutes.  Lee couldn’t make the Victoria sessions so we invited Jacob Heringman, who’d already made his landmark Josquin recording but who’d never worked with Ariel before.

It didn’t work out quite as we’d imagined: the Josquin proved disappointingly problematic and we ran out of time. Anna was able to stay on for a couple of Victoria pieces and we ended up with a single album of both composers.  It makes a kind of musical and historical sense but it wasn’t the result I’d hoped for (needless to say, we didn’t make the Victoria anniversary). It’s the only time I’ve done a purely ‘early music’ record for ECM and it was a bit of a miscalculation on my part (all the more poignant for being in St Gerold, the Austrian monastery where I’d had such extraordinary times with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliards and subsequently with the Dowland Project). But during those fraught sessions a unique musical partnership was formed. Anna and I had been vocal and musical soul mates for many years, but the real surprise was the instinctive rapport between Ariel and Jake, two very different musicians who were playing together for the first time. From the very first note the four of us were all on the same musical wavelength.

A selfie from 2014…the earliest I can find

We were determined to do more together.  Another repertoire which I had lost through lack of opportunity to perform it was 20th century English song, and if we could apply 16th century performance practice to Josquin, what about trying it with, for example, Peter Warlock who would surely have written for lute had there been any lutenists around in the 1920s? And while we were at it why not get some living song writers to compose for us? Amores Pasados coalesced into an album featuring not only 17th century songs but Jake’s Warlock and Moeran transcriptions, a new version of John Paul Jones’ eponymous suite, and new songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting. It was quite a journey and recording it at Rainbow Studios in Oslo with Manfred Eicher and the late Erik Kongshaug was a joy, so much so that ECM released it unusually swiftly (and before the original Josquin/Victoria which came out as Secret History in 2017).

rehearsing at the Swaledale festival with John Paul Jones (mandoline) and Malcolm Creese (bass)

Both albums had great press and led to lots of gigs all over Europe (and even once or twice in the UK). Many of our concerts have been in Spain thanks to Ariel’s energy and vision, and we started this year at the amazing Teatro Circo in Albacete on January 24, and the local press put us in a gilded frame…

There’s a short interview – in Spanish – with Ariel here.  On April 17 we’ll  be back in Madrid at the National Concert Hall where we’ll be giving the first performance of Sonnet 2 by ex-Weather Report drummer and composer Peter Erskine. In the previous week we’ll be recording much of our current repertoire (including Peter’s poignant Ash & Snow that we wrote for us last year). We’ve continued to expand all of our repertoires and now have programmes with  Victoria,  Josquin and Morales transcriptions (including his De Falla arrangements), more new works from our rock musician friends John Paul Jones, Tony Banks and Sting, and a host of what we call Jake’s English cowpat transcriptions (which now extend to Charles Wood as you’ve never heard him before, English choral tradition fans might like to know).  2020 promises to be another exciting year, and I’d like to pay tribute in advance to my amazing musical partners: Anna, whose singing and violin playing are a constant inspiration,  Jake, whose unfeasibly long train journeys enable him not only to save the planet but produce stunning arrangements for us, and Ariel whose creative energies know no bounds. Muchas gracias amigos – I’ve never had so much fun!

 

Alternative History…

November 3rd, 2019

 

Alternative History

Our final concerts of the year were in Sweden, Spain and Portugal. On 14 November we were at the AHA! Augmented Reality Festival in Gothenburg. This was an Amores Pasados programme, and our application of 16th century performance practice to much later music was a very good fit with the agenda of the festival (which also included an especially bizarre event by Stefan Östersjö, Bill Brooks and Jez Wells that Bill and Jez presented at York last year). We then met for gigs in Idanha-a-Nova (Portugal) on the 22nd and  Cadiz the following day (as part of the Cadiz de Falla celebrations).

Once again we were able to bring our particular take on historical reality, this time by interpreting some of de Falla’s arrangements of Cristobal de Morales.  The two gigs involved a prodigious amount of travel for all of us, in my case visiting Spain and Germany twice as well as Portugal. And as for Jake – the fearless eco-warrior had to resort to the skies on the way home rather than face a thirteen hour bus journey to the boat. Spain has really become the home of the group, and we’ll be returning in January (Albacete) and April (Madrid Auditorio Nacional de Música – Sala de Cámara with new music including a premiere of another new piece by legendary percussionist and composer Peter Erskine.

The Dowland Project

DP in Murnau (photo Heribert Risenhuber)

Very gratifying to see that the DP is rarely out of the classical charts in some form or another. There will be more concerts in Germany next year, and we hope there may be another recording (perhaps in collaboration with Alternative History). In the meantime I’ve updated the webpage.

 Milos Valent, JP, Jacob Heringman at Radovljca, Slovenia (photo Jana Jocif)

Alternative Future…

Sadly, the forces for good lost the UK election and it looks as though we’ll begin the long and terrible process of withdrawing from Europe in 2020. Here’s a reminder of our video contribution to the Brexit debate. As the only English member of a European ensemble I can only apologise to fellow band members and to our many European friends.  It’s hard to think of anything positive to say, except perhaps that we will soon see what Brexit means, and once the perpetrators become aware of the reality we can begin the long haul back to sense and civilisation.

Happy New Year everyone.