Interview with John Potter

John Potter is a tenor and a writer, but above all he is a prolific collaborator. His varied career has taken him in lots of different directions, but most of it has centered around pushing vocal music into new ground. He was a key member of The Hilliard Ensemble, and played an important part in their award-winning album Officium in collaboration with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. He was also a member of The Swingle Singers when they were working with Luciano Berio, and a founding member of the extended vocal technique ensemble Electric Phoenix. More recent collaborations include The Dowland Project on ECM, a striking electronic album called Being Dufay with composer Ambrose Field, and a medieval music project for three tenors called Conductus.

You’re a keen collaborator and you’ve worked with a vast array of different musicians. How do you chose your projects? And what makes a successful collaboration?

I don’t really choose projects – they sort of coalesce around a bunch of like minded musicians (or an idea). In the case of The Dowland Project Manfred Eicher asked me to record an album of my own and I suggested Dowland. His idea of a Dowland album was much more radical than mine – John Surman on sax, Barry Guy on bass and Maya Homburger on baroque violin aren’t obvious choices for a 17th century album – but he knew we’d have interesting things to say to each other. There’s a kind of collaborative mindset – very few rules, lots of instinct, trust and mutual risk-taking. You don’t have to come from the same musical neck of the woods – it’s a bit like a Venn diagram: you find the areas that overlap where you can understand each other’s language. Once the first album was made we developed the repertoire and with each subsequent recording Manfred would surprise us with ideas we’d never thought of.

The Alternative History ensemble grew out of a duo I’ve had for the last ten years with Argentinian lutenist Ariel Abramovich. We proposed albums of Josquin Desprez and Victoria to ECM (intabulations of their choral music using two vihuelas) and asked Lee Santana and Anna Maria Friman to join us. Lee couldn’t make the Victoria sessions so we asked Jacob Heringman. The recordings were difficult (and ended up being just one album) but after we’d recovered I realised that the line-up of Anna, me, Ariel and Jake could work for John Paul Jones’ Amores Pasados (written for my group Red Byrd back in the eighties). Ariel and I are also fans of Genesis and Sting. I’d met keyboardist Tony Banks at Hilliard gigs and I’d written about Sting in my first book Vocal Authority. Ariel was a mate of Sting’s lute player Edin Karamazov and one thing led to another and we ended up with pieces from both of them to add to John Paul’s set. Sting had originally intended Bury me Deep for Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood movie. His Russellness didn’t think it manly enough so Sting passed it on to me… We then added in the sort of intabulations we’d used for the Josquin but applied them to 20th century English song as though the early music movement had started in the 1920s, and the album was born.

You tend to perform music by living composers or music that’s ancient (and sometimes predates notation as we know it today). Do you see any correlation between the two, and do you approach them in the same way?

The music only exists – whether it’s old or new – at the moment of performance, and I see the process as a sort of negotiation with the composer whether alive or dead. The score is the source material, and it’s up to the performers to create something out of it. I used to be in awe of composers, and for quite a chunck of my life I thought it my task to interpret the composer’s will. I don’t think that now, and in retrospect a lot of hardcore Modernist composition seems a bit like musical fascism. I don’t have any desire to control people, so that makes me wary of prescriptive composers (why would they want such control over fellow musicians?) and of those conductors or directors who are certain of how the music goes. Until (roughly) Wagner the relationship between composer and performer was much more fluid. The score was the starting point – often no more than a sketch – and the performer would in effect complete it in performance, shaping it differently each time. It was a creative partnership. That’s the reason I do early music, and why I can work with certain composers and not others.


You’ve worked with some of the great composers and pioneers of contemporary vocal music. What was your experience of working alongside Berio with The Swingle Singers, and did it feel significant at the time?

Working with Berio was a life-changing experience. Ward Swingle had fired his French group and moved to England to start again. As happens so often, my joining the group came about quite by chance (literally a case of being in the right pub with the right person at the right time). We were all aspiring singers in our twenties, doing what solo concerts we could get and filling in with choir work or ad hoc  sessions at the BBC. It took a year or so for us to learn Ward’s style of microphonic singing. We spent around a hundred hours rehearse-recording a baroque album, after which we did Madrigals which became the first release. By then we’d learned how to do it so we junked the original baroque recording and did it all over again. Berio had written Sinfonia for the original group a few years before and we inherited the gigs that were already in the diary. We spent months learning it and then found ourselves in Paris or Milan with the composer or Boulez conducting. It was an amazing experience, going from struggling young singers to jetting all over the place, but more importantly it opened our eyes to the fact that singing could be so much more than what we’d been taught, and that music was a living, dynamic thing, not just something you either listened to or ‘interpreted’. Luciano re-worked both the Cries of London and A-Ronne for us, and I still think of our recordings of those two pieces as among the best things I’ve done. We were so inspired in fact that half the group left after four years to start Electric Phoenix, a dedicated evt ensemble. We commissioned tiny effect boxes we could operate from our mic stands – revolutionary in those days. It was the first time we met Henri Pousseur, Roger Marsh and Bill Brooks, among many other extraordinary composers. I also got some money from the Arts Council to commission a kind of vocal synthesiser. I could become polyphonic by tapping frequency ratios into a calculator-sized keyboard and hook up various effects through a ten by ten patchboard all while singing. Nightmare! Berio has a lot to answer for…


The Hilliard Ensemble worked with Arvo Pärt on several recordings. How do you think Arvo Pärt’s vocal music will be remembered? What was he like to work with?

Haha – a former colleague at the York Music Department asked a similar question the other day, hinting that today’s students knew little of minimalist composers (and even less of the old avant-garde). Arvo’s music is still the most performed by any living classical composer, and I suspect that the reason academics doubt its longevity is because there’s very little teaching mileage in it. Much of his music is very systematic (too easy to teach) and is rooted in the triad (old compositional hat). If you stick to his self-imposed rules you can’t help writing pastiche. So there’s no Pärt school of composition, and never could be. The reason it works isn’t entirely down to the rules though: it’s the limited and carefully weighed freedoms that Arvo gives himself that make him a composer of genius. He is an extraordinary man – big hearted and with a wonderful sense of humour, far from the spiritual aesthete that he’s often portrayed as. He’s very modest (after one Hilliard performance of his music he said to us ‘everything you sing is very nice, even if the music is Scheiss’)! The day of my father’s funeral Penny, Ned and I had to drive from Surrey to Durham for a live tv performance of Passio in the cathedral. Arvo was waiting for us in the car park. I’ve no idea how long he’d been there (it was before the days of mobile phones). He silently embraced us each in turn. I’ll never forget it.


Your work has spanned lots of different musical styles and genres. Most recently you have been taking modern pop songs and reframing them with lute accompaniment as part of your Alternative History project. How do you approach this as a vocalist?

I don’t actually sing pop songs. I’d love to, but classically trained singers attempting pop songs is the work of the devil. You instantly lose any integrity you might have had. I’ve spent a lot of my career unlearning what my singing teachers taught me. It’s one reason I don’t teach singing (though I might be able to unteach it!). I don’t really like generic voices – I like to hear the person and the music rather than the singing itself. We all have unique speaking voices and turning those into generic sopranos or whatever comes at a huge cost to one’s individual vocal persona. Non-classical singers mostly don’t have this problem – they sing pretty much as they speak. So I try to get as close to speech as I can – just as they did in the 17th century before the modern voice evolved. I can’t get close enough for pop songs – it would sound ridiculous if I sang actual Genesis or Led Zeppelin numbers for example – but I can ask rock musicians to set a text. Putting across a stylised or poetic text (as opposed to a vernacular one) is what I’ve been doing all my life so I can make that work. The Alternative History project is a kind of corrective to the ‘Early Music’ default idea of renaissance polyphony being the pristine acappella choral music beloved of record companies and choral scholars. It was – briefly – but as soon as the ink was dry on the manuscript it was appropriated by lute players and singers who rearranged it for whatever forces they had and continued to perform the music long after the composers were dead. We’re inspired by the performance history of the music rather than the original manuscripts.


Where do you think vocal music will go next?

Inevitably, I’m a bit out of touch, especially since I stopped doing the Tampere Vocal Festival a couple of years ago. Anders Jalkeus (The Real Group), Jussi Chydenius (Rajaton), Anna Maria Friman (Trio Mediaeval) and I used to be the ensemble contest jury so we heard cutting edge acappella from all over the world (especially Scandinavia and Germany). Beyond the beatbox… I love the way young singers maximise their potential by multi-tasking as instrumentalists and composers. That way you get rich and sometimes intensely personal performances. I also like the way classically educated musicians are able to transcend their musical baggage: Regina Spektor, for instance, Jacob Collier or Joanna Newsom. You yourself are a case in point, as are the many other hugely creative Yorkies such as Laura Moody or Kerry Andrew and her Juice compatriots Anna Snow and Sarah Dacey.


What are listening to at the moment? Have you got any good recommendations?

I had a turntable for Christmas – my second attempt at revisiting my vinyl collection. This one works, so I’ve been on a fifty year nostalgia trip. Muddy Waters, early Beatles & Stones, Long John Baldry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Oscar Peterson, early Bartok, Prokoviev, Britten. I’ll get over it…


What’s your next venture?

One of the great things about surviving so long in the profession is that if you’re lucky you eventually stumble across your ideal musical collaborators. Anna Maria Friman and I have worked together for nearly twenty years, since I coached Trio Mediaeval at a Hilliard Summer School and produced their first three albums for ECM. Jake Heringman and I go back a lot longer than that. Ariel Abramovich has only been with me a decade or so but I can’t imagine musical life without him. We can do anything from the 15th – 17th centuries and we can apply the same principles to music from the 20th century to the present. So next year the Alternative History project will have gigs in Spain, Germany, Poland and even the UK, and we have plans for two new albums: one of early 20th century intabulations alongside more from John Paul Jones and Tony Banks, and a rather more severe album of Arvo Pärt with Dowland and Tallis. I also have a couple of new pieces to do: Ed Jessen‘s Flammarion theatre project has been gestating since we were both at York, and we’re doing a week of rehearsal, video and other promotional stuff with a Dutch production company. I’ll be spending more time in Sweden with Daniel Stighall’s Serikon and Cecilia Frode’s theatre project (which we may even bring to the UK one day if an English translation materialises). I still work with Gavin Bryars, and the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork has commissioned a new piece from Gavin for me and his band. Later in the year I’m hoping to take delivery of a copy of an early 16th century harp. Then I have to learn how to play it…