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Working with Trio Mediaeval

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!


September 2nd, 2019

So what do singers do between gigs apart from preparing for the next one? From childhood I’ve had a mild obsession with flying. This began with model gliders built from kits and then getting a glider pilot’s licence as a teenager, and reached a high point when I went hang gliding between gigs with the Swingles.

I still have an assortment of flying models, though these tend to be electric nowadays (I even have a rather frightening vertical take-off machine).  I’ve also had instrument-building phases – an Italian harpsichord and a couple of psalteries, all from kits. But when you reach a certain age it’s the law that you have to get into gardening, and gardening means greenhouses. We don’t have anywhere  really suitable to put a greenhouse, but when we had our ancient Georgian-type windows replaced with double-glazed copies there was only one thing to do with the old windows. There’s nothing in the literature about not putting a greenhouse under an apple tree (can’t think why) so that’s where it is, up against the shed.

It began with a model, created by Penny and based on the available windows, some of which I would have to cut up, with additional panes created to fill any gaps.

Then I had to get bricklaying, which turned out to be every bit as therapeutic as everyone says it is; and we bought and restored an old door.


And I bought some tomato plants…

The roof fitted magically as it was the top halves of each of our old bedroom windows (the vertical ones being the bottom bits). It left a narrow strip at the top, too small for any of the remaining spare windows but perhaps solvable with wooden vents.

Then we remembered the apple tree, and that apples can rain down for several months in the summer and autumn. So we temporarily double glazed the roof with acrylic (it’s held on with Velcro), in the hope that the apples will bounce off. So far, so good…

In the meantime, the tomatoes continued to rocket and were joined by a couple of cucumbers;

Then Nigel Wood, who made our new windows, got in touch to say he’d finished the last remaining one, a copy of the Yorkshire sliding sash in our attic. Quite by chance the old sliding sash, cut in half and with a few additional bits, gave us two proper opening glass vents after all.

So that was the spring and summer days off taken care of. Now I have to figure out how to use it once we’ve eaten the tomatoes. Over the winter I’m going to fit it out with shelves, seed trays,  a potting area, loads of tiny pots and things like that.

DP in Dobrss

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

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…


The Book of Lost Lute Songs

July 1st, 2019

photo Guy Carpenter

This coming Saturday Jacob Heringman and I will open our Book of Lost Lute Songs for the final time in the UK this year. The idea behind it is to apply 17th century performance practice to later music, and among other things imagines a counter-factual take on the early music movement which is assumed to have begun in the 1920s. It’s very much the agenda that drives our Alternative History project with Ariel Abramovich and Anna Maria Friman, and which came together in our Amores Pasados album for ECM.

The programme opens with a group of renaissance poems set by Stephen Wilkinson (originally for voice and guitar) and Peter Pope (for choir). These have been intabulated and arranged by Jake for voice and lute as his 17th century forebears would have done, but with one difference: he plays as many of the composer’s notes as will fit on the instrument and I don’t attempt to ‘improve’ the vocal line. It’s a nod in the direction of what might have happened had lute players been around when 20th century composers set renaissance verse.

Next come three of Holst’s Four Songs for Voice & Violin set to medieval texts. We miss out I Sing of a Maiden, partly because Patrick Hadley wrote the definitive version in my book, but also because I’ve improvised on the poem so many times with the Dowland Project I couldn’t trust myself to stick to Holst’s notes. Instead we’ll do Jake’s intabulation of The Thought (also a love song but of the human rather than spiritual variety). I will be doing the complete set with Milos Valent on violin in the Czech Republic next month as penance.

Then we have two short songs by Vaughan-Williams: Along the Field, also originally for voice and violin, and Twilight People, originally for voice and optional piano. The first half finishes with a group of songs by Peter Warlock. It was Warlock’s settings of 17th century verse that inspired our first forays into this imaginary neck of the woods, but two of the three we have selected have poems by his contemporaries Bruce Blunt and Hilaire Belloc. The third is Warlock’s shortest song, How Many Miles to Babylon, a lullaby which I hope to surprise my granddaughters with as it’ll be just about their bed time.

The main reason we like to inhabit the 16th and 17th centuries is not just that the composers are dead, but that the composer-performer relationship would have been completely different when they were alive. That relationship survives in many other compositional genres outside ‘classical music’, and we have been very comfortable asking jazz and rock musicians to create songs for us. The pieces by Sting and Tony Banks in the second half work in exactly the same way as a song from the 17th century: the composer provides a blueprint and our task is to realise the song in whatever way we like; although the composers own the rights, we performers in practice own the music. We’ve never commissioned a ‘proper’ composer, but Late Music asked if we’d do a new piece by Michael Parkin, and we’d already decided to perform the winning song from John Casken’s Alwinton composers competition held earlier this year. This turned out to have two winners: Patrick Gardner and Joshua Brown. So our counter-factual machinations now include assuming the early music movement hasn’t happened at all…except that the Alwinton pieces also have bass viol so we are hoping Susanna Pell will be passing by, instrument at the ready.

Of course it’s not actually as simple as that: Jake has done huge amounts of ‘proper’ music and my concert biog at one time claimed I’d done more first performances than any other English tenor.  Do come and join us on Saturday evening at York’s beautiful St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel if you’d like to hear how we get on.


Amores Pasados

Tampereen Sävel!

June 9th, 2019

Last week I was invited back to Tampere to join the celebrations for the 30th contest for vocal ensembles.   I stopped chairing the ensemble jury four years ago and I still get Tampere withdrawal symptoms in the first week of June. I first joined the jury 28 years ago and chaired it for 22 years, so it was wonderful to be back. I’ve written many blog posts about the Tampere experience – there is nowhere else on earth where singers can experience such joy and warmth, and for audiences and participants alike it’s the one event in the acappella calendar that no one wants to miss.  This year was very special for me, as for the first time I could enjoy the performances without having to judge anyone. It was such a relief! We always made the point that it’s not actually a ‘competition’ – that the competitive element is only the excuse to bring everyone together to celebrate the music we love – but you can’t help being conscious of the fact that of the twelve groups you hear on the first day only a small number will be winners. I was asked to say a few words at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the contest’s 30 years and I should have realised that there would have been a translator on hand. The sensible thing to do would have been to write something down and deliver it in short chunks, but as usual I tried to busk it, got carried away and became increasingly lost in ever longer sentences, which the translator (the formidable Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, one of the country’s most distinguished choral composers) had to distil into Finnish. I eventually gave up before I got to the bits I really wanted to say. I have all my notebooks from every jury session. Many of them are undecipherable or incoherent-seeming as they’re full of crossings-out, bemused comments or even comments on my fellow jurors’ thoughts. No one else will ever see them, of course, but they are a reminder of just how difficult it is to compare ensembles from the different genres and cultural traditions that the contest encourages. It’s actually an impossible task. I also have the CDs of the final concerts that were made for several years, and these sometimes confirm that we got it right, and sometimes make me wonder if we may not have done. The standard in some years was ridiculously high. In 1999, for example, the final concert included Rajaton, Amarcord and Trio Mediaeval, all of whom are among the most successful vocal ensembles on the planet.

With every contest we would revisit the rules, and this evolution was comprehensively documented in the commentary that accompanied the photographs in the exhibition (drawn from the Kalle Kaihari archives and beautifully translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). It was this kind of attention to detail that kept the contest in the moment and not dependent on a traditional set of conventions. We always looked for originality, and we almost always found it. This year was one of extreme contrasts for me as a listener. The groups came from Europe, Turkey, South America and Uganda; the overall winner was flamboyant Danish group Sønk , with the German Ensemble Nobiles (sometime coached by yours truly) winning the acoustic category. There were some stunning performances as always. The evening concert was  billed as a special 30th anniversary concert with Club for Five and the Tampere Philharmonic, though I wasn’t the only one totally bewildered by what turned out to be a rather middle of the road programme of film music. Later though, we heard Tuuletar in Telakka, the bar/restaurant that acts as a kind of festival club. This group of four women singers had only been together a year when they came to Tampere in 2013. My notes mention their beautiful voices, dynamic stage presence, total commitment and original arrangements. I place them third, but as the jury discussions ebbed and flowed they end up without a prize. That’s juries for you.

Yet here they were, pioneering an entirely new genre – folk hop – blistering vocals and dynamic choreography, with no attempt to ‘entertain’ the audience in a conventional way. We were just witnesses to an intense emotional outpouring. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood the visceral heart of it. It was the highlight of the festival for me, and exactly what the festival has been about for all these years.

I hope they’ll ask me back  for the 40th anniversary, and I fully expect the festival still to be the place to hear the world’s best ensembles. Where will ensemble singing be then? I still have my wish list – no onstage note giving to break the spell, a post-beatbox percussion that is generically vocal and doesn’t try to imitate a percussion section? Maybe make a start by not miming the instrument you’re imitating (sooo infantile these days…)? Maybe groups could not start by thanking everyone (we know you’re grateful…), and please please don’t say ‘enjoy…’? I live in hope. Oh, and no film music…

Thankyou to everyone for three decades of great music making and wonderful hospitality – to my fellow ex-jury members, to the magnificent and long-suffering jury secretaries, to executive director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, to Eija Koivusalo and her team, and to whoever first got me into all this (was it you, Heikki?). And very best wishes for the next thirty years!

June/July concerts

May 14th, 2019

Just back from another trip to the Trollhättan Festival in Sweden. A drone strike at Frankfurt airport where I had to change planes on the way out caused complete chaos and I ended up running the length of the airport and just made it before they shut the door. Post-Brexit and without freedom of movement I wouldn’t have made it (and doing the gig at all may even have been just too much hassle). I’m sure anyone reading this in the UK will vote Remain on the 23rd…

Tampere Vocal Festival

At the beginning of June I’ve been invited to the 30th Tampere Vocal Festival, where I’ll be saying a few words at the opening of the ensemble contest exhibition. I chaired the jury for more than 20 of those years and it’ll be great to revisit the Manchester of Finland (now famous for skateboarding as well as singing and its Scottish heritage).

Concerts in the UK

Even though Jacob Heringman and I live less than fifty miles from each other we most often meet somewhere on the European mainland at an Alternative History gig (often Spain) to which he has travelled by train and for which I have blown the carbon on a plane. This month we’re being a bit more carbon neutral, beginning with the screening of Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film for which we provided the music (and subsequently re-used for our own Brexit video). We then have four concerts in the UK: two with the Herschel Trio, one with Pellingman’s Saraband and a lutesong recital of our very own.

The first of these is on June 15th at the  Alwinton Summer Festival when we’ll be joined by Susanna Pell for a mix of old and new music including the winners of the Alwinton Composers’ Competition which we’ll workshop earlier in the afternoon.  Then on the 22nd we’re in Stanhope with the Herschel Trio:

and then on the 23rd we have a concert in York at St Olave’s church:


The programmes for these two concerts will feature a unique copy of the Queen Elisabeth Virginal. This exquisite instrument formed part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, and its decoration includes both the Royal Coat of Arms, and an image of a Crowned Falcon standing on a tree stump, hence our title.

A couple of weeks later, on July 6th we’ll be appearing in York again, this time in the Late Music series. This will be an all-20th/21st century programme and we’ll be repeating the winning piece from Alwinton as well as Jake’s transcriptions and arrangements of early twentieth songs by Warlock, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and others, together with some of the songs given to us by Tony Banks and Sting.

…and Portugal

On July 21st I’ll be at the Marvao Festival  for a rare foray into Mozart. I’ll be singing the Missa Solemnis K 337 with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Juliana Banse conducted by Christoph Poppen (with whom I recorded Hilliard Morimur album many years ago).  The next day David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing an extended version of the programme we did in Sheffield cathedral last year, based on Dufay’s L’Homme Arme Mass (at the  Igreja de Santa Maria / Museu Municipal, starting at 4.00.

After that I have a break until the Dobrs Festival in the Czech Republic in August. It’ll be a unique one-off with Milos Valent and Ariel Abramovich. More details in a while.


Details of these and other ECM-related concerts can be found on my page on the ECM site.


Singing into space

April 5th, 2019

A Tweet from Mark Summers about a blog post of mine on the subject of  acoustic space turned out to be rather timely. Although in the post I seem to be reconciled to amplified sound I sometimes still find it very problematic. Last night I did Gavin Bryars’ Nothing Like the Sun (with the incomparable  Claron McFadden and phenomenal Gavin Friday), and as has become the norm the performance was amplified. I had the same reservations about this as I’ve sometimes had when Alternative History has to do amplified performances in concert halls, and although I think the performance probably worked it was a struggle to get there, all day while trying to get the sound right and in the performance itself (which invariably feels different from the sound check). This is not to detract from the work of the sound guys, who are awesomely competent and very patient on these occasions, but it’s about the nature of vocal sound and technique, what you do with it and who ultimately controls it. As I’ve written many times before, part of the joy of almost all the singing I’ve done has been interacting with the acoustic (it was in the Hilliard Ensemble’s DNA). I’ve often said the building is your amplifier, but it’s more like a palette that enables you to mix your vocal colour. This sound painting makes each performance as unique as the building it happens in, and I’ve been fortunate to perform in some amazing spaces from huge cathedrals to factories and lava tubes.  The first thing that happens when you use a mic is that you’re no longer negotiating with the acoustic, but with a virtual sound world created by the guy (I’ve only ever encountered one female sound person) on the desk. So instantly a huge part of your reason for being a singer vanishes – all that nuance, the micro-adjustments that you make depending on what comes back at you, not the heart of your performance so much as its guts.  The second thing that happens is that you adjust your technique to the fact that you’re suddenly very loud, so one of the main pillars of your conventional technique, the need to project the sound into a space while shaping a phrase, becomes redundant. Of course, you are still negotiating an acoustic space, but it’s mediated by someone who’s trying to minimise the effect of the building you’re in and create an entirely different one (reverb units are calibrated according to the type of building you want, so your own attempts to influence the acoustic are doomed to failure). You no longer balance your sound with your fellow musicians, you get a feed from a stage monitor and someone else determines this crucial musical relationship (another of the great joys of performing) for you.   You’re somehow partially de-humanised from the very first note, before you even get to the actual music (and Nothing Like the Sun has some of the most beautiful Bryars moments in his entire output so you can see why it bothers me). It’s no wonder some of us tie ourselves up in knots when faced with a sound system. Do you relax your technique, stand back and hope for the best? Leave it to the guys on the desk, we’re always told, so your performance leaves your mouth and you have no idea what’s going to happen to it.  Of course, none of this applies to proper microphone singing, which is an art in itself (and I’ve done plenty of that too) and in Nothing Like the Sun listeners have the opportunity to experience microphone singing from Gavin Friday – an absolutely electric wielder of the mic – and two classically trained singers who are simply being amplified. I wonder what a Martian would make of it.

My other complaint about amplification is an aesthetic one: a live performance should be unique, ie different from any other performance. Sound systems create a kind of ideal soundscape in which everything is optimised as far as possible, so they tend to sound all very similar (and they’re almost all very loud). Very few musicians I know are expecting to give an ideal performance, just one of an infinite number of possible ones unique to the occasion. And as an audience member I don’t go to a concert hoping that it will sound just like a louder version of a ‘perfect’ CD recording – I want something special to that occasion, that building, those performers. It’s rather ironic that we can spend all day trying to get the concert sound as good as it is on your hi-fi, while in the studio we try to get everything down in one or two takes and make it as live as  possible.

Brexit Music for REMA

March 29th, 2019

photo: Guy Carpenter

Last night Jacob Heringman and I had the privilege of performing to REMA, the European Early Music Association who were having their annual conference in York in solidarity with their Brexit-Benighted English colleagues. Although it didn’t perhaps have the poignancy that it might have had if it had really been Brexit Eve, it was nevertheless a moving occasion and we chose a programme that reflected our mutual sense of loss. When we decided on the pieces several weeks ago we didn’t know what the Brexit state of play would be, and it turned out that we were none the wiser last night either. We ruled out offering the assembled delegates an indicative vote on what sort of programme they might want (after all, they might have voted for none of them and told us to come back on Monday) but we did replace Dowland’s Now O Now I needs Must Part with Campion’s Leave Prolonging Thy Distress.  Sadly, we couldn’t show our video of In Darkness Let me Dwell, but I was able to describe our walk along the Brexit cliff edge to the post-Brexit ruin in which we burned our music to keep warm. And we were able to include Compere’s Omnium Bonorum Plena where the composer prays for twelve of his fellow citizens of nowhere, and Cipriano’s madrigal about the joys of coming back, finishing with what has become our Brexit anthem, Finisterre. We were even able to acknowledge the Irish backstop with the Vaughan-Williams/Sheamus O’Sullivan Twilight People as an encore.  A huge thankyou to the legendary Delma Tomlin for hosting the event and inviting us to be a part of it, and also to ECM who provided us with a very stylish discography, the outer pages of which are above and below.

In darkness – the making of…

March 1st, 2019

To commemorate our REMA performance on Brexit Eve (March 28) Jacob Heringman and I persuaded Guy Carpenter to create a video to go with our recent recording of Dowland’s In Darkness Let me Dwell (originally recorded for Mark Burghagen’s Sacred King film).  The inspiration for the shoot was a session the three of us did last year at a ruined cottage high up in the Dales, and the plan this time was for us to walk along an appropriately Brexit-like cliff edge and arrive at the ruin where we would again burn our scores to keep warm in the post-Brexit landscape. The window of opportunity consisted of  a just a few hours of the one day we were all free, which miraculously turned out to be the hottest winter day ever with the most amazing light.

We walked for what seemed like hours through the heather, with spectacular views on all sides

as the sun got lower and more dazzling with each step

until Guy launched his drone.

We had to work quickly as the clock (Brexit-like…) ticked away, so  we set off on our cliff-edge trek into the sunset,

eventually arriving at our destination, where we lit the fire

and managed to get it all in the can before the sun sank out of sight


You can see the result on YouTube here