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David James in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe


David James, countertenor. Photograph courtesy of Hazard Chase Ltd.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 - credit Roberto Masotti, copyright ECM Records
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 of repertoire.

'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 465    122-2

[Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses in Greek mythology; signified the memory of great events.]



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)

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