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Paul Hillier: Exclusive Interview (October 22, 2009)

David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion
Paul Hillier

CDs: 1
Tracks: 19

Harmonia Mundi
Rel. 12 May 2009

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On Thursday, October 22, Artistic Director Dr. Nolan Gasser spoke with the famed English choral director Paul Hillier, in the midst of an active – and quite diverse – array of musical projects, involving four different ensembles and repertoires ranging from Medieval to Contemporary music. Mr. Hillier, of course, is the founder of the famed early music vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble, and has since gained acclaim with a number of other ensembles, most notably Theater of Voices. In this wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Hillier discusses his eclectic musical interests, the early days of the Hilliard Ensemble in 1970s London, his commissioning of David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (now featured in a recent Harmonia Mundi release), and much more – a fascinating conversation!

“It's like when people go into an art gallery: they don't only look at one kind of painting; they look at a whole range, and maybe find their favorite painters in each section... For me, it's the same with music.”

  • Nolan Gasser: Let's start with some of your current activities, which frankly are enough to make one dizzy: four ensembles based in as many countries: the Ars Nova in Copenhagen, where you now reside, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, the Coro Casa da Musica in Portugal, and of course, your perennial, Theatre of Voices, which, I guess is based everywhere now...

  • Paul Hillier Paul Hillier: It is, in fact, now also based in Denmark, but is indeed fairly international in makeup.

  • NG: Now, all of these are performing actively, and most of them recording, with repertories spanning from [Johannes] Ockeghem to [John] Taverner to [Heinrich] Schütz to [J.S.] Bach to [Arnold] Bax to Terry Riley, and young composers from Argentina, Sweden and China... and much more. You seem almost to be the ultimate freelance choral director. Is this everything you dreamed of, and how exactly do you handle it?

  • Paul Hillier PH: [Laughter] Well, yes, it is difficult, especially after spending ten years in a nice little secure tenured professorship. The thing I missed was performing as a "way of life"; I was doing fewer concerts than I wanted to – far fewer. So, it was a move back into that world. But at the same time, it was quite a bump to come back into a freelance situation... although I do have contracts with these groups, so it's not entirely "freelance".

    I'm enjoying it, very much. I don't like traveling as much as I have to travel, but there's not much one can do about that, except try and build in gaps between trips. But it's hard because, like being an actor, as soon as you've done something you think, "Well that's it, I'll never get another job..." And you're always looking ahead. So, somehow the work piles up, and I'm booked up for two years ahead... What I do find hard, especially as I get older, is the travel and dealing with airports; it never is pleasurable. On the other hand, I just came back yesterday from Mexico, where we did a couple of concerts, and it was a wonderful experience. You know, the trip was awful, but the performances were great to do and we had a lot of fun. So, it's a question of balance.

  • NG: Right. It's a happy problem to have too much work, but it has to be handled well.

  • PH: Yes.

  • NG: So, although the boundary edges seem to be ever stretching, you still seem to be focusing on the two broad realms of Early and Contemporary vocal music; the recordings you've been creating in recent years, likewise, are representative of these realms: Schütz and Taverner, but also [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, Arvo Pärt and David Lang among many others. Sometimes you even superimpose the two, as you did with the Scattered Rhymes album, with [Guillaume] Machaut, [Guillaume] Dufay and the young English composer Tarik O'Regan. You thus seem to have a fair amount of freedom with the labels you work with, especially Harmonia Mundi and Da Capo. What is your approach these days, then, to the philosophy of concert programming and ultimately to recording?

  • Paul Hillier PH: Well, I've done a lot of early and contemporary music... and, well, you get known for the repertoires you perform a lot... it's kind of a circle. People hear you do stuff like Arvo Pärt or Thomas Tallis, and they invite you to do the same again. But, frankly, I've always just tried to do the music that I'm interested in, and my interests are very wide. But I don't think of them as being extravagantly wide, they're just my interests, you know. You put all of this material, wherever it comes from – including the 18th and 19th centuries, by the way [laughter]. And I just respond to circumstances and make programs that appeal to me.

    In fact, making the program is one of the most exciting challenges that I have. I enjoy that; it's a very creative process. I'm always looking for new repertoire, so there's always a lot of rehearsal to be done. I don't sit back and just play the same pieces over again, although I do like to repeat the very good pieces as much as possible. And I like to search out new stuff...

    It's also because I get ideas in the abstract, as it were, that send me in a new direction: looking at repertoire from a different perspective, or coming across a new name and finding there's some interesting music there. It's quite true that I do a lot of contemporary music and early music, and I do enjoy mixing them up. But, I am increasingly trying to do some standard repertoire as well, because that's what I grew up doing, and I like it very much. So, the pattern continues to change.

  • NG: Yes, and that's why I noted that your boundaries seem to be ever stretching, and I guess they'll eventually meet in a Mozart Mass.

  • PH: [laughter] Yes.

  • NG: So, given your success and reputation, it would seem that the labels are happy to follow your inspirations of the moment?

  • PH: Well, obviously within limits, because they have to think of their own capacity to sell records, and as we all know, it's not an easy market these days. But, I've been very fortunate with Harmonia Mundi, who has given me a lot of leeway over the years – not without raised eyebrows occasionally. But, they've allowed some latitude, and I feel very lucky in that respect. It has given me the opportunity to do things that perhaps some other companies wouldn't allow or wouldn't want to get in to. So, yes, it's fantastic!

  • NG: Certainly, it's a great label. I definitely want to come back to some of your recent activities, especially as regards contemporary music. But, if you don't mind, and since we're all such fans of the Hilliard Ensemble, perhaps we can step back to Paul Hillier – the early years. Going back to London in the early 70s, after your studies at Guildhall, you became a singer at St. Paul's Cathedral. And there you met Paul Elliot and David James and decided to form an a cappella early music ensemble. Now, these were very exciting days of the early music movement with David Munrow, Christopher Hogwood, Alfred Deller, and David Monrow's Early Music Consort. I know that most of the members of the original Hilliard Ensemble (Paul Elliot, David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, and John Potter), worked with Munrow. Did you likewise work with David Munrow, and if so, what was that like?

  • PH: In fact, no, I didn't. Strangely enough, I had been booked to do a project, but then he died, and so it never came to fruition.

  • NG: Your colleagues, though, somewhat grew up under his influence; you were no doubt aware of his approach toward early music...

  • PH: Yes, of course. I think they were very inspired working with him; particularly as he was moving more and more into doing a cappella repertoire – and doing it very well, I must say. I think that a lot of what they learned from him, inevitably carried over into the work we did as the Hilliard Ensemble. I think we would all recognize the debt we owe David, actually.

  • NG: I think everyone who has become interested in early music owes a debt to David Munrow.

  • PH: Indeed.

  • NG: So, you decided to form your own group in 1973. What was it specifically that you envisioned for the group that would set you apart in these days?

  • PH: Speaking purely from my own perspective: while I was still in school, several years before, I heard recordings of Alfred Deller and I heard recordings of performances of pieces like the [Thomas] Tallis Lamentations by King's College Choir with the altos on top – and that kind of thing. And I became very enamored of the sonority of male voices – alto, tenor, bass – singing music of that period, and particularly the Tudor period [c.1480–1600]. I just got a fixed notion in my mind that this was what I wanted to do. So, with this in mind, I looked for two other singers to make a trio, which in fact was my first idea – alto, tenor, bass. But we quickly realized that we needed a fourth voice, at least some of the time. And so, the group became a four-voice ensemble.

    At the time, we thought, "Well, unlike most other groups, we're just a group of singers; we're not being directed by an instrumentalist, we're not a mixed ensemble..." I mean, it wasn't actually true – there were other groups that were just singers as well, but we thought we were something unique and we would try and show them how to do it [laughter]. In fact, for a long time, I mean for the first two or three years, we had hardly any concerts, so we seemed to meet all the time and eat dinners and discuss plans.

    But, gradually it fell into place. Finally, about four years later, we made our first recording – an LP for Saga – and that became a kind of calling card that we could use; it really helped us get off the ground, and get established.

  • NG: As a quick aside, the Hilliard Ensemble was named after the Elizabethan miniature portraitist Nicholas Hilliard, and not after you, as is probably a common misconception. What was the significance of making Hilliard the group's namesake?

  • PH: Well, we couldn't think of anything else [laughter]... No, I think the reason why it occurred to me was in fact the connection to my name – by chance. While I was at college, a friend of mine decided to give me the nickname of ‘Hilliard', because she liked his paintings. And that sort of put the idea of his name in my mind. And then there was the rather crazy logic behind it – that Hilliard painted miniatures in the Tudor Period, more or less, and we were going to perform vocal chamber music – vocal miniatures – from the same period. That became the rationale. Though frankly, a lot of people looked at us at the time and thought that the name was very odd – and they were right! But, of course, once a name is established, it doesn't really matter what it is. It becomes a trade-label. And that's really what happened.

  • NG: And it certainly has. Now, entering into the dangerous waters of early music performance – whether the Old Hall Manuscript or music of Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin [Desprez], and not to mention, Perotin – it raises so many tough questions with regard to performance practice. There's pronunciation, tempo, the number of singers per part, musica ficta, issues of blend and so forth... What were the techniques that you and your colleagues devised to answer these questions, and can you speak of any particular orientation or approach to performance practice of early music that guided you then – and how, if at all, that differs today?

  • PH: Well, it was actually a very pragmatic process. First of all, we had to find music that we thought we could sing, and that we liked, and then we did it. And we tried to make it fit our voices. And then the process of looking for that repertoire introduced me to all sorts of areas of repertoire that I knew very little about at first. But, I educated myself as I went along. The group that we had formed – the kind of lineup – three or four singers, male voices, alto–tenors–bass; was like forming a string quartet and looking around for repertoire, and then discovering, "Oh, there's this guy called Schubert, who's written a lot of string quartets, or Beethoven or Haydn..." So, you start to explore it. With the lineup that we had, we found ourselves looking at the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly when our type of ensemble was precisely the performing ensemble of the day for much of the music. So, again, it's a practical process. I'm not saying that the music didn't interest me, because it certainly did, but it was for the practical reasons that our group, as we'd made it, fit the repertoire, and vice-versa, that we got so deep into that particular time-period.

  • NG: Right, and as your repertoire expanded, you were able to forge your own particular approach to the music.

  • PH: Yes, and I think it's important to remember that at that time, there were quite a lot of very good early music groups – primarily vocal groups – in London. And we all sang in many of them. And, so there's a lot of exchange of information and learning how to do the music – by doing it. Obviously, one does a little bit of reading and consulting and so on, but I think the strongest element in all of this, was that we were all basically – although we probably didn't think of it that way – creating a tradition. We may have thought we were re-creating it, but really we were creating it, as we went along. And that in itself, of course, was very exciting. It was as if the music had just been composed for us, and we were making it happen.

  • NG: Well, indeed it was a very exciting, and very fermenting period in London. You mention other groups singing at the same time: and perhaps it's not coincidental that another preeminent vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, was formed by Peter Phillips in 1973 – the same year as the Hilliard Ensemble – obviously taking a different approach to various aspects of performance practice, not least of which is the gender of the vocalists in the upper register [the Tallis Scholars employ larger, and mixed, forces]. What sort of relationship existed in these early days between these two groups? You mentioned performing together and exchanging ideas – what sorts of interactions were there?

  • PH: Funny enough, I personally didn't have any contact with the Tallis Scholars at all, although, obviously, I knew some of the singers who sang in it. There were other groups that I worked with, groups that Paul and David also sang in. But, as we got more work, there just wasn't the time to do that. Of course, there are always going to be groups that one doesn't have personal connections with, although, of course, we knew each other's work very well. But we all came out of the same general "pot", as it were – of the professional, freelance singing world in London with a strong focus on early music and, in many cases, with a shared background of having been to Oxford or Cambridge, and having sung in college choirs there. I didn't, in fact, do that, but many of my colleagues did. And that, of course, had a very profound effect on what was going on.

  • NG: In fact, it's often called the "Ox-Bridge School" – all of the early music groups that came out of London in those days.

  • PH: Exactly.

  • NG: So, going a little bit forward – in fact seventeen or so very successful years with you leading the group – you felt it was time to move on. You left to begin an academic career in the States among other things, including at the prestigious Early Music Institute at Indiana University and likewise teaching at UC Davis, where you formed Theatre of Voices. This last has likewise focused on early music, but increasingly on contemporary music as well, with an initial focus on Arvo Pärt – which in fact had already been the focus of a few Hilliard Ensemble releases even before you left. So, two questions: first, was there any particular reason you felt the desire to leave the Hilliard Ensemble, and second, can you talk about where and how your interest in contemporary music, and especially the music of Pärt, came from?

  • PH: Well, I think by then I had gotten very tired of being on the road all the time; it just was too much. But also, I very much wanted to explore other musical territories. Not so much different repertoires, as having a different pallet to play with – in other words, a different range of voices, including women, and also working with larger groups, and developing my choral conducting side as well. So there were all those things. Plus, the fact of wanting a little bit more stability in my daily life. I think I had long nursed the idea that I wanted to work in a university context and do some teaching. I've always been equally interested in contemporary music as in early music. And in fact, this was also another reason for the change, because I was also discovering repertoires of contemporary music that I wanted to explore. In particular, the music of Steve Reich and other American composers. Of course, going to America gave me the opportunity to know them, and I did. And that really, looking back now, was the most positive aspect of moving to America and being there for ten years: getting to know quite a range of American composers and indeed American positions and singers generally.

  • NG: Certainly Steve Reich's music has became a focus of yours... I think his music comprised the first contemporary release you had with Theatre of Voices. But then, with regard to Arvo Pärt – who seems to have been such a long-standing part of your own career, both as a performer and as a writer – who was it that first introduced you to his music, even while you were with the Hilliard Ensemble?

  • PH: I simply came across his music, and recognized that it was something very special; just looking at it, I knew I wanted to perform it, and that it would suit the kind of forces we had. So, I got hold of some of his scores from his publishers, and Arvo himself heard about this and contacted me when he next came to England. So, we met and discussed things, and that led to our making programs for the BBC, and eventually to performing his St. John Passion. So, that's how it developed. At that point, I was extremely keen on his music and, as you know, wrote a book about it, which again, was something I was able to do while I was at UC Davis in the 1990s, because, to be frank, professors at universities have a lot of time on their hands, as well as a regular monthly check. So, you can do things like that; I couldn't have done it otherwise.

  • NG: I've learned that Pärt himself had had a strong interest in Renaissance music during his early studies, and that his first symphony was based on Renaissance practices; and so I certainly "get" the move from Ockeghem and Perotin to Arvo Pärt. But some of the other contemporary composers that you've championed – including Stockhausen, with his Stimmung, and John Cage with his Litany For the Whale – are somewhat less obvious in their aesthetic compatibility or connections. And indeed your repertoire of contemporary music has become quite broad: [Luciano] Berio, [John] Adams, Lou Harrison, Ingram Marshall. Can you talk about some of things that you look for, or are attracted to, in contemporary music?

  • PH: You know, it's like when people go into an art gallery: they don't only look at one kind of painting; they look at a whole range, and maybe find their favorite painters in each section, so to speak, not just from one section. For me, it's the same with music. I've been interested in Stockhausen and Cage, and the other composers you mentioned, for years. I performed them quite a lot in the 70s when I was a freelance singer in London. So, it was a completely natural process to pursue these various interests once I had the ability to do so. And right now, in fact, I'm performing music by Luciano Berio, which we're going to record in a few weeks. I'm also very interested right now in the music of Conlon Nancarrow, but of course he only really wrote for the player piano, so I'm not going to be able to perform any of his music, though I had seriously looked at it and wondered, briefly, if it could be transcribed to voices, but it can't. So that's that. But, you know, for me it's just a very natural continuation of earlier interests.

  • NG: I wasn't aware that in the 1970s, even in the early days of the Hilliard Ensemble, you were also performing contemporary music.

  • PH: Yes. In fact, that was when I first did Stimmung as a singer, with a group called Sing Circle, and we recorded it, in fact. I met Stockhausen then. I did a lot of contemporary music, both in small groups and professional chamber choirs, because it was very active at the time. That sowed many seeds.

  • NG: Well, it all comes full circle in your recent recording, which has garnered such praise, and which takes us closer to today – namely, a recent recording by Theatre of Voices of David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, which I understand you commissioned, and which went on to earn Lang the Pulitzer Prize. So, congratulations on making that happen! How did this collaboration come about?

  • PH: It goes back to Steve Reich in a way, because when I was working with him in the 90s on The Cave, he mentioned to me the ‘Bang on a Can' group of composers and said I should listen to this – this is the next generation, so to speak, in his area. And, so I did, and got to know their music through recordings. I forget the exact year, but it was in the early 2000s, I was in New York and met David Lang. And so I said, "Will you write me a piece? I mean, basically that's what I said, and he said yes.

    He knew some of my work in early music and also with Steve, so he knew roughly what I was doing. I described to him the sort of piece I was interested in, which would be a narrative piece, in which a small number of singers – it turned out to be four – would both sing the various roles, and also would represent the chorus commenting on it. That was the kind of description I gave him. And although he came back with something similar, he also turned it into his own vision – very much so, in fact. And I was very pleased with the results.

  • NG: It sounds like you gave him the formula for a Passion.

  • PH: [laughter] Right, that was a kind of prescription, though, I think he got to it by himself. And, in fact, just a few days ago, we performed it in Mexico.

  • NG: Just a couple more questions, Paul. Among future projects, I see that you're now very active with Ars Nova Copenhagen, and that there's a project you're working on called Voices of the North Atlantic. Is this somewhat of a sequel to your Baltic Voices triptych [i.e., three albums] that you did with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir?

  • PH: I suppose potentially it is. There aren't any definitive plans to turn that into recordings yet, although I must admit I've sketched out all the ideas. And we've also planned the repertoire with various new commissions over the next three years, so it's flexible – but in a sense quite a large project. Again, it's a reflection of my interests in having returned to Europe – the North, really, and the cultures associated with it. That's what I'm exploring.

  • NG: Well, we will look forward to that generating some future releases.

  • PH: Yes, I hope so.

  • NG: So, finally, I read in your "other biography" on your website, that in your youth you were quite the "pop" music fan – you even joined an Elvis Presley fan club. Has this interest in "pop" music maintained itself, and can we perhaps look forward to a "Paul Hillier Sings Elvis" CD?

  • PH: [laughter] No, absolutely not. It's totally left sediments, but I wouldn't dream of making a fool of myself in trying to perform his music; but I must say that I had to do a lecture in Memphis this past January, and I did make the pilgrimage to Graceland, and to Sun Studios – and enjoyed it very much, actually.

  • NG: I think those two are "Meccas" for musicians of any stripe. Again, thank you very much, Paul, and I hope we can get a chance to talk to you some time in the future as well.

  • PH: Thank you very much. It was great.

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