David James in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe
THE JOURNEY TO MNEMOSYNE
When the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble started to record
the choral music of Arvo Pärt on the German record label ECM, they
had no idea where this connection would eventually lead them.
ECM is a small family company; Manfred Eicher is its guiding light. Countertenor
David James describes him as 'an incredible, visionary guy with an instinctive
feel for new and original sound'.
Eicher likes his artists to try new combinations and to interplay with
each other. The group was asked if there was anyone on the label that they
would like to record with. The Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek was
suggested because of his 'beautifully controlled and fluid sound'.
The group heard nothing for three years although 'Manfred Eicher was
mulling over ideas', James continues. 'The story goes that Manfred was in
Iceland driving across the larva fields - as one does! - when he put on
simultaneously a tape of us singing and one of Jan playing and found the
sound extraordinary'. Thus the idea for Officium was born and The
Hilliards acquired a fifth member.
'The concept was exciting as we'd never done anything like this before.
We were brought up in the classical English choral tradition: cathedral
choristers and then choir members who stood and did what we were told! [There
was certainly no room for work of an improvisatory nature.] We performed
some baroque music which has quite a lot of ornamentation and it can be
creative but I never felt it was a natural expression. We were told this
is what is done and we did it. We were now venturing into new territory'.
The title Officium comes from a work that is the centre-piece
of the disc, the Officium Defunctorum of Morales. The music fell
into three categories:
'We sang chant lines and embellished them strictly within the chant and
Jan added a descant. Then we used medieval music that had a part missing;
Jan added the fourth part. The other type of music we used was like the
Morales with slow-moving, block harmonies. Jan did this incredible weaving
in and out with the saxophone. It doesn't matter what you do to great composers,
they can stand the test.
'The recording was made at the St. Gerold Monastery in Austria. If there
is ever a place that is an inspiration to make music, it is there. The church
is small but when it's empty the conditions are perfect. The only occasional
sound is that of cow bells.
'We started to sing and Jan just wandered about. We suddenly felt this
welling of sound when he joined in. After five minutes we knew this was
going to work - it was as simple as that'.
Officium was an enormous international success although some people
'couldn't handle it'. Early sacred music with a saxophone was a revolutionary
concept at that time.
Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.
Photo: Roberto Masotti © ECM Records
Left to right: Rogers Covey-Crump, David James,
Jan Garbarek, Gordon Jones and John Potter
'I remember once', James reminisces, 'we were going to perform Officium
in a cathedral abroad. The Archbishop thought it was ridiculous to present
sacred music with a saxophone as it was an instrument of the devil! Once
he heard the CD he found it acceptable. It was the same with the academics
who wouldn't countenance the mixture but found it enjoyable to listen to'.
Over the five intervening years since Officium this unique set-up
has given many concerts around the world and there has been a gradual development
'We've moved away from early sacred music and started to use fragments
of pieces from different genres and to improvise within these fragments.
We've widened the boundaries. For example, one voice will carry the tune,
the others will harmonise chords underneath and Jan will improvise a duet
with the soloist. We also use, quite literally, fragments of lines so once
we start we've no idea where we are going to go; each performance is different
and cannot be repeated. With experience we have learned that there is a
natural span of time to any piece; it has an arch - sometimes it points
to Jan. He's never looked at a single piece of music that we've sung since
we began! He does it all by ear, picking up the mood and is brilliant at
structuring the shape. All he needs to know is the key and then he slips
in and out. Somehow you just know when it's time to wind down.
'About a year ago we decided we had something new to say that we could
put on record. We returned to St Gerold'. And new it certainly is. Although
there is some material similar to Officium, the repertoire spans
22 centuries from Tallis, Dufay, Brumel and Hildegard von Bingen to an Estonian
Lullaby by Veljo Tormis, folk song fragments from North and South America
and Spain, a Russian psalm, a Scottish ballad and much more. The material
was so extensive it made a 2-CD set. This was not the original intention
as James explains:
'After we'd recorded everything we left the choice to Manfred. He wrestled
with it for three weeks and couldn't reach a satisfactory conclusion; the
repertoire was so diverse. The juxtaposition of new and old was too dramatic
for one CD. We were astounded when he made the decision to produce a double
CD but we trust his judgement entirely. I was gob-smacked to think that
we had recorded two CDs in two days! In this way we can gradually move from
the old type material into the new then gradually wind down at the end.
It's like going on a journey, there is a connection throughout'.
The collaboration works because of the adaptability of The Hilliards
and the strengths of this great saxophone player.
'Jan doesn't want to dominate. He plays when he feels it's right. For
me', says James, 'the critical thing is not knowing when to play but when
not to . Jan has this great gift'.
Will the journey continue, and if so, in what direction?
Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe,
April 28th 1999
Jan Garbarek / The Hilliard Ensemble
Jan Garbarek (soprano & tenor); David James (countertenor); John
Potter (tenor); Rogers Covey Crump (tenor); Gordon Jones (baritone).
ECM New Series 1700/01 2-CD
[Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses in Greek mythology; signified the memory
of great events.]
PURCHASE MNEMOSYNE FROM CROTCHET
PURCHASE OFFICIUM FROM CROTCHET
<< Music & Vision
Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble
World Tour 1999
28 April Basilica, Brussels (Belgium)
2 May Chiesa di San Prospero, Reggio Emilia (Italy)
4 May Teatro Nuovo, Udine (Italy)
6 May Schloßkirche, Friedrichshafen (Germany)
7 May Propstei, St Gerold (Austria)
8 May Marktkirche, Neuwied (Germany)
9 May Phoenixhalle, Mainz (Germany)
10 May Eberhardskirche, Stuttgart (Germany)
12 May Fngelbrekts kyrka, Stockholm (Sweden)
13 May Tonstad Kraftstasjon, Sirdal (Norway)
14 May Tonstad Kraftstasjon, Sirdal (Norway)
15 May Hylen Kraftstasjon, Suldal (Norway)
16 June Kreuzkirche, Dresden (Germany)
17 June Martinskirche, Basel (Switzerland)
18 June Stiftskirche, Tübingen (Germany)
19 June Kloster Eberbach (Germany)
22-26 June Greece
1 July Izmir (Turkey)
2 July Istanbul (Turkey)
4 July Montreal (Canada)
30 July Basilika, Trier (Germany)
1 August Pauluskirche, Hamm (Germany)
5 November Lukaskirche, Munich (Germany)
12 November Philharmonie, Köln (Germany)
13 November Augustinenkirche, Gelsenkirchen (Germany)
14 November Birmingham (UK)
16 November Royal Albert Hall, London (UK)
18 November Brighton (UK)
20 November Durham (UK)
3 December Gdansk (Poland)
4 December Warszaw (Poland)
6 December Krakow (Poland)
7 December Wrozlaw (Poland)
8 December Posznan (Poland)
11 December Martinskirche, Kassel (Germany)
12 December Stadtkirche St Michaelis, Jena (Germany)