Leaders In Early Music Face A Final Curtain, With Grace

Dec 21, 2013
Originally published on December 23, 2013 9:14 am

Since 1973, the four-man vocal chamber group The Hilliard Ensemble has been breathing new life into the sounds of the Renaissance. Now that they've reached their 40-year anniversary, the members have decided to call it a day. Fresh off the new album Il Cor Tristo, the Hilliards will spend 2014 celebrating their long tenure with one last world tour. Then, a year from now, it's all over.

Only one man has been with The Hilliard Ensemble this entire time: counter-tenor David James. In an interview with NPR's Arun Rath, James recounts the excitement of being at the vanguard of early music in the 1970s, and explains how the bond between the four members made it impossible for the group to end in anything but a clean break. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Thanks again for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: Four voices that rocked the world of early music are calling it quits in 2014. The Hilliard Ensemble hit the scene 40 years ago, attracting a fresh audience to ancient music. This is the stuff that was already old by the time Bach was in his prime. But Hilliard also performed new music and worked with contemporary composers. Their new album is quintessential Hilliard, connecting the very old and the totally new in one unbroken circle. It's called "Il Cor Tristo." Five hundred-year-old madrigals...


RATH: ...alongside a new commission from composer Roger Marsh, who set music to words from Dante's "Inferno."


RATH: Only one man has been with The Hilliard Ensemble this entire time. That's countertenor David James.

DAVID JAMES: There's no perfect time to disband a group such as ours. And there seemed to be three, maybe, options open to us. One was to think of ourselves more like a franchise group, such as maybe The King's Singers where we sort of passed on the baton. But the one youngster in our group, Steven Harrold, we offered that choice to him and he wasn't keen. He said: No, David. You've been here from the beginning, and I feel it's very much your sort of group.

The second option would have been just to continue to the foreseeable future. And when you start to get older, you know, little injuries - illnesses become major illnesses. And we see ourselves so much as a closely knit, four-voice ensemble just like a string quartet. And we can't really work with anybody else. And so if somebody was by, God forbid, taken ill, the rest of us would be stranded.

And so the third option was really to have a cutoff date and say, look, we should end at some point. And so I suggested, well, look, we are 40 years old. And maybe if we did a whole 40th year, sort of like a celebratory year to - of all things we've done, it'll be probably a good time to finish at the end of that. And so that's what we decided. So we will be finishing exactly a year from now almost to the day. It'd be December the 20th, 2014.

RATH: It seems to me that this 40-year span that you've been performing, it's been a very interesting time for the world of early music. I wonder first if you could maybe take us back to 1973. What was the world of early music like?

JAMES: Well, it was certainly very, very different from now. I mean, early music actually did not exist. I mean, well, of course, it was there, the music, but the journey had not begun. And the one group that had formed in London was he Early Music Consort of London with a gentleman by the name of David Munrow, who frankly was the greatest inspiration to all of us. But we had no sort of plan - should we say grand plan - that, oh, we're going to form this group and we're going to conquer the world singing this music.

There was a great - certainly in the U.K., there was a flood, suddenly, of singers coming from Oxford and Cambridge who seemed to be veering towards singing this music from the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries. And it all somehow gelled together all the different groups. And suddenly the explosion started. I mean, this chap I mentioned, David Munrow, he was given his own radio program on the BBC, a daily program. It was called the "Pied Piper" - I mean, literally every day - and he thrilled audiences.

Suddenly, people perk up and say, gosh, this is absolutely fantastic. And so we were very fortunate. We were right at the beginning of this. And I'm so glad. I mean, 10 years earlier, I think we might never have started, shall I say.


RATH: One piece I'd like to talk to you about in particular, one of my favorites, is the "Cadman Requiem" by Gavin Bryars written for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

JAMES: Indeed. Gavin played in a jazz band. His engineer was sadly one of those who was lost in that incident. Cadman is actually his surname. The best way he was able to express his grief and sorrow was direct a piece which asked for straight singing with viol consort, which he wrote it for at the time. And very moving it was.


RATH: I want to talk about another one of your collaborations that was very celebrated with Jan Garbarek, the saxophonist. How did that come about?

JAMES: How did I guess you'd be asking that?


RATH: So retrospective. Of course.

JAMES: Oh, well - I'd have been surprised if you hadn't. But anyway, well, that was actually extraordinary because we were lucky enough to join the record label ECM. And the man in charge of ECM - well, he is ECM - is called Manfred Eicher. He encourages his artists on his label to sort of have some kind of collaboration. He likes sort of some unusual sort of combinations, this rather - not dismissive exactly but a typically boring a sort of music-based group who sang so they know what was put in front of us in a church music.

So anyway, he arranged the meeting of the two of us together, and we met in a monastery in Austria. We were very nervous, apprehensive, not knowing what to do. John Porter bought along a huge stack of music for us to try. And John got out this piece, a motet. It was a funeral motet, so very slow-moving harmonies written by a Spanish composer called Morales.

And we started to sing this piece. And unbeknown to us, Jan picked up his instrument and he literally came from behind and just joined in. And I can still, as I'm talking to you now, feel that incredible vibration, the sense of that moment when he started to play. It was just magic. It was as if he'd been doing that all his life.


RATH: Did you have any trepidation going into that, though, because there had been some other - I think around 1990 - I don't know if you remember that band Enigma. They had the Gregorian chant with dance beats over it. It got pretty big for a while.

JAMES: Yes. Well, I might tell you something that you probably don't know here, will sort of surprise you.

RATH: Yeah?

JAMES: (Unintelligible) I was sampled on that very album.

RATH: Did you know that at the time?

JAMES: No. A friend of mine's - my friend of mine's husband worked in the pop music industry. And he knew. I was - we were sitting listening to the latest releases, and he played this track. He said: I know you think I'm utterly nuts, he said, but I'm convinced it was David singing.


JAMES: And it sold three million albums, you know? I mean...

RATH: Did you ever get a check?

JAMES: We didn't get very much. But they did fight it, strange enough, near you, in a court in Los Angeles. A judge had to listen to my original singing and Enigma, and he had to decide - because he wasn't musical - whether it was the same voice, you know, and everything. And so we did get something. But the lawyer took most of it, of course.

But it was fascinating. The most insulting bit of all was that the original text I sang (unintelligible) was about the Virgin Mary, you know. And you know what they called the track?

RATH: What was it?

JAMES: It was called "The Principles of Lust."


JAMES: It was embarrassing. So that's what actually the record company decided to challenge that in court was mostly on that, that it was being used for the purposes for which it was not recorded, you know?


RATH: You're still so passionate about the music. I can hear it in your voice. What's retirement going to look like for you? Or is it really retirement?

JAMES: Oh, it is, unfortunately. I mean, I'm dreading it. Half of me is really looking forward to this in terms of the fact that we're going to be singing a lot of the music that's dearest to our hearts. But the thought that after the end of next year I won't be able to sing it anymore is devastating. I mean, these guys, we spent our lives together, the four of us. And we love singing together. And so it's going to be an enormous wrench. But, you know, we've got to do it. I mean, you just can't sort of go on forever, you know? And so the decision is made, and I'm going to stick by it.

RATH: That's David James. He's a founding member of the vocal chamber group Hilliard Ensemble. They'll be disbanding at the end of 2014, but they'll be touring, including all over America. And they just released a new album, "Il Cor Tristo." David James, thank you for all of the wonderful music over the years.

JAMES: Thank you.


RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Tune in tomorrow when we hear what a leader of the Syrian protest movement is doing in Los Angeles. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.