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Exclusive Interview with Stile Antico: April 7, 2010

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On Monday, March 8, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with soprano Kate Ashby of the brilliant young English vocal group Stile Antico – whose new Harmonia Mundi release, Media vita, is dedicated to the music of the Tudor composer John Sheppard. In this rich and varied conversation, Ms. Ashby discusses the rise and success of this unique early music ensemble – that performs without a conductor, and is gaining widespread acclaim for its beautiful sound and keenly insightful performances. Topics of discussion here include the group’s distinct approach to rehearsing and preparing their varied Renaissance repertory, the critical and popular success of their previous release, Song of Songs, their stint with famed singer Sting, and much more. Enjoy!

“For the first four or five years, we carried on a constant inner debate about whether we should carry on without a conductor, or appoint a music director. But I think that our decision to remain without a conductor is something we’ve come to realize as a great strength.”
– Kate Ashby (soprano, Stile Antico)

Nolan Gasser: Let’s start with your most recent release ­– your fourth for the Harmonia Mundi label – entitled Media vita, featuring music entirely by the composer of that lengthy psalm motet, John Sheppard (c.1515-58).  Now, you had already presented a fair amount of Sheppard's music, five antiphons, in your first Harmonia Mundi release, Music for Compline [2007], which also included works by the later, and better-known composers, Byrd and Tallis.  So what inspired you all to return to Sheppard and dedicate an entire album to this lesser known Tudor composer?

Kate Ashby:  Well, originally it was the idea of Robina Young [V.P. and Artistic Director of Harmonia Mundi], who is our producer. When she first contacted us to suggest recordings to make for Harmonia Mundi, she raised the idea of recording a disc of Sheppard’s music; I think it was a sort of pet project of hers, which she had held for a while.  We were already quite keen on the idea, although we wanted to start off with a more mixed repertoire – to make sure the disc had some variety.  What was great coming to this Sheppard album was that there's so much inherent variety in his work that this was never an issue.

NG: Certainly, Sheppard is a great composer; still not terribly well known, but getting more so all the time.   

Now, I saw that Stile Antico previewed the new album at the London A Cappella Festival; but rather than presenting an all-Sheppard program, you included “Media Vita” – which was written for the funeral of a fellow composer, Nicholas Ludford (d.1557) – as part of a programmatic program with other works written for funerals, by Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prés, Heinrich Schütz, and others; sounds like a very interesting concert.  So, given what you just said, I guess it never was a consideration to include this motet as part of such a programmatic approach for the album?

KA:  Right, I think we wanted rather to do this as a single composer disc, to present a kind of overview of Sheppard’s music.  We did talk about possibly doing a disc along the same lines as the concert program, but we weren't sure that it would sell so well as a disc – it seemed like quite a gloomy program to do [laughs].  Although, it actually it works really well in concert!  But again, in the end we decided to present an overview of Sheppard’s work.

NG:  Yes, well perhaps coming on the heels your previous disc, featuring motets based on the “Song of Songs,” it would have been too much of a contrast.

KA:  [laughs] Yes, exactly.

NG: Now, Sheppard's music has actually been recorded a fair amount, especially by English choirs, naturally; and I couldn't help notice that another pretty well-known English choral group has recorded this very same motet, “Media vita”, and likewise used it as the title of one of their albums – that group being, of course, the Tallis Scholars.

KA:  Yes, this is true.

NG:  That was back in 1989.  So, was your rendering in any way a response to their interpretation? Did theirs serve as a catalyst for new ideas in your own piece, or did you pretty much bypass their version and go straight to the music itself?

KA:  Well, to be sure, we wouldn't be where we are without the legacy of groups like the Tallis Scholars; but we do indeed try to approach the music blind, as it were.  So, we don't dwell too much on other groups’ interpretations, because we want to come to the music “fresh”, without any preconceived ideas of how it “should” sound. 

NG:  Right, and this orientation is essential in order to get to the heart of the music – even though, as you suggest, you can't help but be influenced by the legacy of groups that came before.

And this perhaps can serve as a nice transition to discuss the origins and the identity of Stile Antico – since, like your esteemed countrymen, you also come out of this so-called “Oxbridge” choral tradition; and likewise focus largely on the Tudor repertoire; plus, I've seen more than once Stile Antico described as giving the Tallis Scholars “a run for their money.” So, can you take us back a bit and share how the group came to be, and in particular, what lay behind your decision to be a conductor-free ensemble?

KA:  Well, when we first got to University, we didn't look particularly far beyond just singing for fun, to be honest. We were first years at university, most of us anyway, and we got together on holidays just because we missed singing music during our break. And we though all wanted to sing, no one wanted to conduct; so that's basically how it happened. Then we became interested to see whether we could sing professionally like this, because it's quite unusual for a group of our size not to have a conductor. There are many groups that don't have a conductor, of course, but they tend to have one singer per voice part, rather than two or three, as we do – we’re twelve singers. 

So, it was just fortuitous that we happened to be a group of friends that have a decent balance of voices, were all interested in the same repertoire, and were all looking to sing for fun. As we became older, of course, it became increasingly more serious – as we left University and started thinking about becoming a professional ensemble.

NG:  Once you realized that this was not just for fun – that you had a really brilliant sound that you could foster into a professional group, did you wrestle with the notion of carrying on without a conductor?  I mean, I assume there are a few choral conductors among you...

KA:  Oh yes, definitely: for the first four or five years – until we started recording for Harmonia Mundi – we carried on a constant inner debate about whether we should carry on without a conductor or appoint a music director. But I think that our decision to remain without a conductor is something we’ve come to realize as a great strength, really.

NG:  Absolutely, it’s a strength – and a distinguishing factor that’s mentioned in virtually every discussion I’ve read on Stile Antico; it’s seen as very refreshing, and a big part of your success, part of the rationale behind the glorious sound that you produce.

I was interested in the comment that was made by your bass Oliver Hunt in a recent NPR interview, where he talked about the importance of both hearing and seeing each other, and being able to feel the internal pulse of the music – which, he noted, requires a fair amount of rehearsal time, since there's no conductor to give you the downbeats.  As a student of Renaissance sacred polyphony myself, I believe indeed that it’s the pulse – the “groove”, if you will – that is among the most powerful aspects of this music; and with your chamber approach, you’re almost like a jazz group, in that you really have to feel the pulse.  Can you talk about how not having a conductor affects your approach to the pulse of the music, or gives you a freedom that wouldn't be possible if you did?

KA:  Yes, I think that it’s quite paradoxical in a way, because without a director we have a lot of freedom, but we also have a lot of responsibility to be rock solid with our repertoire – because as soon as you take too much freedom, things starts to fall apart; and there's no safety net of a conductor to bring things back together again. 

So, it's really about awareness, and knowing the music inside out – not just our own part, but how that part interacts with all the other voices. And that requires a lot of rehearsal time – a lot of time spent not necessarily singing, but just looking at the music, analyzing it as a group, and figuring out how we're going to interpret it.

NG: You mentioned how it's uncommon for a group of your size, with multiple singers on a part, to not have a conductor; such is obviously more common for a five- or six-part madrigal consort, with one voice per part. I'm wondering – did some of you come out of a tradition of singing madrigals together; is that part of your origins?

KA: In fact, most of us came from college chapel choir background, so actually we do come from a conducted route, rather than an un-conducted route – although most of us were instrumentalists as well, and had played a lot of chamber music when we started at University; so perhaps that's partly where it came from as well.

NG:  Well, if you look at the iconography of the Renaissance period, you often see large groups just singing, with no evident conductor. And I suppose you can thus say, “If it worked for them during this age, it can work for us too.”

KA: I'm not sure we decided to do it this way because we thought it was “authentic”. In fact, a lot of domestic music of the time – that by [William] Byrd, for example, as recorded on our album Heavenly Harmonies – was written to be performed at home, with one voice per part, which is clearly not how we perform it. So, I don’t think we were thinking about “authenticity” with this decision of doing without a conductor; we were just interested to see what this kind of approach would bring.

NG:  So, it was almost kind of an experiment that worked.

KA:  Absolutely.

NG:  You mentioned how you not only spend a lot of time singing this music, but also analyzing it as a group. Now, there are so many questions that need to be answered when you prepare to sing these glorious works of the Renaissance: dynamics, blend, musica ficta [the unwritten accidentals applied to the music, especially at cadences], how to approach “word painting”, and so forth. Is Stile Antico a sort of great democracy, where ideas are bandied around and voted on, or are there some members who take a more directorial lead?  In short, how do you go about making these tough decisions?

KA:  Well, when we come to a new program, we have a small group – five of us –who choose the repertoire, who are the “music subcommittee”, if you will. Obviously, anyone in the group can suggest things, but we are responsible for actually getting a program together.  One of the decisions that this small group has to make is what pitch we’re going to sing the piece at – since, of course, the pitch isn’t fixed, but rather depends on the voices we have, and who is singing which parts, and so forth. In terms of musica ficta, we’ll all discuss it, but there are generally three people who get together and make these decisions – especially if it's a huge can of worms, where there are lots and lots of ficta decisions to be made. 

But, as for interpretation, that's done by the group as a whole.  When we come to a new piece, we’ll sing it through a few times, with the text and translation in front of us, and then we'll discuss the interpretation – dynamics, for example, since obviously, there were none written into the music during this period. There are some people who might be more vocal about certain things than others, since everybody has their own strengths.

NG:  Right, and I can just imagine that when two of your tenors are first approaching a line of imitation [counterpoint], they may have differing attitudes about whether it's going to crescendo or diminuendo, or by how much, and so forth. So, I guess you sing a passage, stop, discuss it, and then re-start; it must be quite an interesting experience to be at one of your rehearsals.

KA:  [laughs] Yes, and it can get quite heated.  I remember one clarification we had for about half an hour – just about which word to stress in a particular phrase; and then we had to take a vote! We have to come to a consensus, of course, because everyone is singing the same phrase, and so we have to make a group decision.

NG:  Yes, everybody has to be on the same page, so to speak; and so it really is a democracy.

KA:  Yes, it really is – and with all the good and bad things that come with it [laughs].

NG:  Terrific. Now, your previous Harmonia Mundi release was a big success for you, and put you on the map in a big way – it topped the US Billboard Classical charts and got a Gramophone Award, among other things.  Of course, this was dedicated to Renaissance motets with texts from the [Biblical] Song of Songs. It's a really wonderful disc; I particularly loved your performance of “Ego flos campi” by Clemens non Papa – who has always been one of my favorite composers. 

The album was justly praised for the beautiful, rich sonority that you create in these motets; but what is talked about is your penetrating insight into the emotional quality of the music and the text – which I’m assuming is also part of your group discussions. Can you talk about your approach to extracting the full emotional potential from the music?

KA:  Well, obviously the text is always important in motets, and particularly when we're looking at a whole disc of motets based on the Song of Songs – it's such an amazing book of love poetry.  When we came to rehearse the disc, we knew we wanted to create a passionate sound, and to respond directly to the words. We wanted to highlight what was different about this disc from our earlier ones, with their focus on English sacred music –since these texts from the Song of Songs are almost borderline secular.

NG:  Yes, these texts are very rich.  I’ve read some of your discussions about the disc, and have seen a concert video with your verbal intros to the collection – describing the dual significance of the Song of Songs texts, as being both the Old Testament song of King Solomon to his beloved, and also as this vehicle of a veiled eroticism to Church musicians at the time.  But, of course, there was a third significance to these texts during this period, namely that the “beloved” represents the Blessed Virgin Mary – who was such a central figure in the texts of Renaissance motets; especially such texts as “Quam pulchra es” and “Hortus conclusus”. I’m assuming you were aware of this reflection of Mary as being the Mother of God, the great Intercessor and also the object of this almost sensual adoration?

KA:  Yes, absolutely; and actually, two of the motets on the Song of Songs disc make that link plain by actually inserting new texts within the original Song of Songs text: “Trahe me post te, Virgo Maria” by [Francisco] Guerrero inserts the words “Virgo Maria” into the opening line of text – making the connection obvious; and similarly, “Vidi speciosam” by [Tomás Luis da] Victoria, the final piece on the disc, is half a Song of Songs text, and half dedicated to the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

We also wanted to explore some other ways in which the Song of Songs texts were used, for example, “Surge propera amica mea” by Guerrero has a cantus firmus [a melody of Gregorian Chant set usually in the Tenor voice, often in slower note values] that is from [the antiphon] “Veni sponsa Christi” – “Come, bride of Christ,” referring to the Church.

NG:  Yes, there are indeed many layers of exegesis with these texts – and, as you point out, in their settings by Renaissance composers.

So, Stile Antico has thus far focused much on the Tudor repertoire, and some Continental motets of the mid- to late-16th century; for example, I now see that one of your current programs features some Palestrina motets, the “poster child” of the historic “stile antico” [old style] or prima prattica [first practice]. But you're also doing Monteverdi’s “Missa in illo tempore,” among the last vestiges of that style, likewise with foreshadows of the newer seconda prattica. How did this program come about – was it largely due to the 400th anniversary of this 1610 composition?

KA:  That was one of the reasons that we particularly chose it for this year.  But it’s a piece that we have been aware of for a while, and I think it's a really good challenge for us now – since it's something quite different from what we've done in the past.  On the face of it, it looks like a typical Renaissance Mass cycle – very dense and polyphonic; but it's really a lot more Baroque than it appears on the surface. It’s been really interesting for us to have a go at it, as this is really a new style for us.

NG:  And are you going to stay true to your name, or are you going to explore further into the 17th century, and delve into the “stile nuovo” [new style]?

KA:  This is something that we talk about and debate quite a bit.  It’ll be interesting to see how far we can push it, but I think without a conductor, you need to have music which has quite a steady tactus [pulse], and the way the group works, we work better with polyphony.  We could probably do works by [Jan] Sweelinck [fl. 1600-1620] and that sort of thing, but there are limits to what we can do to the best of our abilities.  But it would be interesting to try.

NG:  Have you thought about possibly joining forces with an instrumental consort, and having a more flexible tactus aided by a continuo, or are you maintaining for the time being your identity as an a cappella vocal group?

KA:  We have occasionally done some things with instruments; we recently collaborated with a Belgian orchestra called B'Rock on a performance of [John] Blow’s Venus and Adonis – where we provided the chorus, and Gary Cooper conducted from the harpsichord; and this was really good fun for us.  But it felt like more a nice change from what we normally do, rather than something that we necessarily want to push too much for in the future; although, perhaps in a few years' time we may want to explore it more.  I mean, there's so much of the Renaissance vocal repertoire that we still want to explore.

NG:  Yes, it’s a huge iceberg that I don't think anyone has scratched too much of it – and it's so great to have a new fresh group with your talent doing it.  I'm wondering, in your new program of the Monteverdi Missa in illo tempore, do you perform the Gombert motet upon which the Mass is based?

KA:  No, we don't actually.  I think it would have been interesting to do that, but I think what we really wanted to do is contrast Palestrina and Monteverdi, two Italian composers who actually weren't too far apart: it was only 16 years between the end of Palestrina's life and the publication of this Mass.  It’s interesting to see how the stile antica became this new Baroque style, and how Monteverdi referred back to Palestrina.  I'm not sure that Monteverdi was paying homage to Gombert in that Mass so much as to the “old style” in general.

NG:  Stylistically, yes; though in terms of content, it is a parody Mass based on the motet – so perhaps multiple meanings of “in illo tempore”. Now, I saw that your current concert schedule for this program was not only in the UK and one in Portugal, but also in Lebanon.  How did that concert come about?

KA:  We were there last year as well, actually, so this was our second time in Lebanon. It was fantastic both times; it's an amazing country, and obviously completely different from where we'd normally perform.  We performed in a 12th century Crusader church that was stunningly beautiful and had fantastic acoustics. It's an annual music festival that happens near Beirut; our agent had connections with them, and they asked us to come last year and perform the Song of Songs program – and it obviously was amazing for us to sing music that often refers to Lebanon [e.g., 4:8, “Come with me from Lebanon”] in Lebanon. It was quite exciting!

NG: Yes, I'm sure it must be terrific to perform there. 

So, with regard to some of your future plans, I see that you have a Tudor Christmas album coming out – as your fifth Harmonia Mundi release, with music by Tallis, Byrd, Tavener, and others.  What was the impetus for that?

KA:  Well, it was partly that we just wanted to do a Christmas disc, and the Tallis Mass [‘Missa Puer natus est nobis’] is something we performed a few years ago at Christmas time; it's such a fantastic piece. We actually had a new edition made for us by Sally Dunkley; it was a great opportunity for us to perform the new version of the Tallis Mass.

NG:  That’s great.  And do you have plans to record the Monteverdi and Palestrina program? 

KA:  Possibly, but there is already a very good recording of Monteverdi on Harmonia Mundi, so…

NG: Yes, you have to keep the label happy, right? One more Renaissance repertory question: so far in your recordings, you've gone as far back as the post-Josquin era, with composers like Gombert and [Jean] L’heritier; any plans to go a little bit further back and actually do the works of the Josquin generation?

KA:  Yes, I think it's something that we might look at, actually.  We haven't talked about it that much, but in the latest program, the “In paradisum” program that we did in London with Sheppard’s “Media vita,” we did some Josquin and some Dufay – which added an extra hundred years backwards. It’s such a different sound world, and I think it's nice for the audience to hear a variety in sound – because this earlier sound is fantastically rich, and could provide something quite different.

NG:  Well, if you ask me personally, it doesn't get any better than in the works of Josquin and some of his contemporaries – something to put in the back of your mind.

KA:  Sure, I'll definitely put it to the rest of the group.

NG: On another note, I saw that you went quite a bit forward in the other direction, in performing a new work by composer John McCabe, “Woefully arrayed” at the Three Choirs Festival. How did that come about, and is this something that you might have an interest in as well – akin to groups like the Hillier Ensemble – to balance early and contemporary repertoires?

KA:  When we signed on to do the Three Choirs Festival, they said they wanted us to do this commission by John McCabe – and we were delighted to have the opportunity to have something written for us; it's a brilliant piece, and it's very exciting to work up a new piece of music that states “for Stile Antico” at the top, so that was quite a good experience. So, I think doing modern compositions is something we will definitely have as part of our portfolio, though still focusing on Renaissance music.

NG:  Right, so much to do; perhaps in ten years you'll have expanded your bounds quite a bit, then.

KA:  Sure, though part of the challenge is that a lot of Contemporary music is quite difficult to perform without a conductor; so it almost has to be commissioned for us, and that's something that we definitely want to do – but it takes time, and you have to choose the right people to work with.

NG:  Is Harmonia Mundi pretty open in terms of what you decide to pursue for release?

KA:  Yes, we've been really lucky with Harmonia Mundi; they've basically given us a free rein with whatever we want to do, and they've been really supportive of all our project ideas. They do suggest things – as with the Sheppard project, which again we were really happy to do.

NG:  Yes, it certainly is a wonderful label. 

So, I have one last question for you: You gained a fair bit of good PR a while back working with Sting, for example through your appearance on his Christmas album, If On a Winter's Night.  How did that connection take place, and do you have any future collaborations with him, or others in the pop/rock world?

KA:  That was sort of a chance contact, really.  We did a competition in York, as part of the Early Music festival there, the Young Artists’ Competition in 2005 – which is how we met Robina Young. The wife of one of the judges was working with Sting to promote his first lute album [Songs of the Labyrinth, 2006]; and as he was arranging the concert, he asked if she could recommend a young early music group to be his back-up singers – and happily she mentioned us. And it became quite a big thing, actually: we went on tour with him twice, once to Europe and once to Australia and the Far East; although, we weren't on the original disc, as he multi-tracked himself on that. From there, we did a few tracks on the latest album, If on a Winter’s Night.  There's nothing more in the pipeline, but we'd be more than happy to collaborate with him again – though for the moment, we're actually getting quite busy doing our own thing, so it will be harder and harder to fit that kind of thing in; but it was a brilliant experience for us.

NG:  Well, it really is nice that Sting has taken such an interest in early music, and hopefully with his big name recognition, he’ll be drawing out some new audiences for this wonderful music – which so warrants people's attention.  Given the youthfulness of Stile Antico, are you finding a good number of young people attending your concerts?

KA:  It really depends on which country you're in, and whereabouts you are.  In Belgium, for example, there are large young audiences; and so there are definitely countries that do pull in young audiences.  And I think early music is actually seen as an exciting part of classical music, and something that can attract younger people.

NG:  I certainly thank you for your role in doing just that; this music from the late 15th and 16th centuries is so necessary for us to recognize; so good for the soul.  Clearly, it has spoken to you, and it's great that you are speaking it so well to a new generation of listeners. So, thank you very much for your time, and I wish you all the best in the future.

KA:  Thank you so much; it’s been a pleasure.

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