John Potter
Musician & Author

News & Comment

8 out of 80: the Hilliards at 50

Published at: 02/12/2023

                                                         Five Go Gardening in the Austrian Alps: RCC, JG, DJ, GJ, JP

8 out of 80: the Hilliards at 50 was the title David James and I gave to our article for the December issue of Gramophone, celebrating the ensemble's first concert. I don’t know if we really made 80 albums – there are probably one or two more, but 8 out of 80 made a really clever title, drawing attention to our vast discography and the difficulty of choosing a representative sample. Sadly, an editor, completely missing the point and without consulting us, changed it to A Hilliard History in 8 Records. Why on earth would you want to tell the story in just 8 albums, epecially as consiracy theorists will point out that it takes a whole supplement to tell the story of the the Tallis scholars? You only find out if you read to the end.  

I wasn’t actually there on the big day (I missed the first ten years and the last twenty or so) but the almost two decades I spent with the group from 1984 onwards saw some of the most exciting musical events of my life. The Gramophone piece takes 8 sort-of-representative albums over the life of the ensemble. It wasn’t easy to decide which ones, but we used each choice as a point of departure for more general ramblings from the two of us. I hope it encapsulates the essence of the ensemble, and what it meant to us as we grew into that extraordinary life we had, peopled by amazing composers from Ockeghem to Arvo Pärt and musical giants such as Jan Garbarek and Manfred Eicher. It was great fun to write, David and I tapping into each other’s memories over a number of Zoom sessions. There is a longer story to be told, and you’ll be able to read more in my From Léonin to Led Zeppelin, which I hope will appear sometime next year. There’s a chapter devoted to the HE, and extracts from my travel diary which documented some of our more bizarre adventures on the road.  

For all the mega-selling albums and world tours, the thing that meant most to me was the collaborative way of working that David, Rogers, Gordon and I evolved from our ECM Walter Frye recording onwards and which the group later continued with Steven. Ironically, Walter still hasn’t produced a profit (our only one not to do so) - so feel free to consider him for Christmas.  I still work in just the same way with the Dowland Project and Alternative History: each of us going with each other’s flow. It’s so simple and elegant (and if you want to know more about how it works, it’s the basis for my ensemble singing chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Singing). 

What are we up to now? David recently sang and spoke at the Arvo Pärt centre in Estonia, and he and I did a gig in Leipzig last year at the festival curated by Amarcord, the stunningly successful German group that we once coached at our Hilliard Summer School. I’ve just co-produced an album for the equally stunning Trio Mediaeval (now touring the USA) who also came to our Cambridge summer schools. It’s called An Old Hall Lady Mass and was partly inspired by the Hilliards’ recording of the same repertoire (and it’s one of four albums cited in my co-producer Morten Lindberg’s Grammy nomination). Rogers can still be found roaming coastal paths as nature intended, and Gordon still gardens (searching for the elusive Crump’s Naked Rambler, no doubt).  Steven is still a star of the acappella firmament, singing  with Gothic Voices and the Tallis Scholars, and often encounters old Hilliard friends on his travels.

There are a few HE references in my recent book from Yale, Song: a History in 12 parts  – also a perfect (and cheap!) Christmas present…and the book is also the subject of a forthcoming BBC History Extra podcast.

photo Peter Laenger

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