John Potter
Musician & Author

News & Comment

Transitioning away from fossil fugues

Published at: 15/12/2023

2023 was yet another…

 After a lifetime of polyphony, the most streamed track of my 150+ discography was a piece of solo Gregorian chant for the second year running and my book was #2 Most Gifted Amazon music theory book, beaten only by Easy Piano Music for Adults (neither has any music theory). I mean, how much better can life get?

In the real world there were great gigs with the Dowland Project in Germany, Alternative History in Spain and Serikon in Sweden, 2 videos in Madrid and a trip to Finland as a guest of the Tampere Festival, as well as a new venture with harpist Leah Stuttard.  Jacob Heringman and I even did a set of Jake’s Peter Pope arrangements here in York. On the writing side Yale published Song: a History in 12 Parts, I contributed a chapter to the new Gavin Bryars book, wrote an article on the Hilliards with David James for Gramophone, and my entry on Pier Francesco Tosi finally appeared (in German) in Bärenreiter's MFAE Lexikon. Sounds quite exhausting in retrospect.

 2024 is the 50th anniversary of my joining the Swingles, launching half a century of life more or less on the road apart from a brief and exciting excursion into academia (you can see how that related to my performing life here). Most of the time I’ve been a serial ensemble singer: Swingle II, Electric Phoenix, Electronic Vocal Theatre, The Hilliard Ensemble, Tragicomedia, Red Byrd, The Gavin Bryars Ensemble, The Dowland Project, The Sound and the Fury, The Conductus Ensemble, Alternative History and various ad hoc collaborations that came and went (it’s not actually one every five years, many of them overlapped). But it has to stop someday, and this year I’m going to transition away from fossilised vocalism, to only slightly misquote the COP 28 mantra. The musical climate post-Brexit, post-Covid (which finally caught up with me in November) is getting distinctly cooler, so I’m going to look for new challenges beyond just singing. It doesn’t mean I’ll be completely silent, and I will still be devoting plenty of time to writing and coaching, but any performing I do from now on is likely to be with old friends and for fun rather than starting new time-consuming projects.  In the meantime, by way of a retrospective, here are a few recordings (in chronological order) that made my heart sing: 

Luciano Berio: A-Ronne, Cries of London Swingle 11 Decca 425 620-2 (1976)  

The Swingles had a bifurcated life of Ward’s arrangements and works by Lucian Berio. A-Ronne challenges the very idea of what performance means. We did it with just our mouths illuminated, so the audience was literally focused just on Sanguineti’s extraordinary meditations on beginnings, middles and ends, Berio subjecting them to multiple musical contexts including a dictator’s speech, a party, verbal tennis, mock commercial ad breaks, soldiers’ marching songs and a bedroom scene. Our recording for BBC2 was one of the first music programmes to use colour video. 

 Arvo Pärt: Passio  Hilliard Ensemble  ECM 1370 837 109-2 (1988) 

 I first met Arvo when I played the drum in the first BBC broadcast of Arbos, little thinking that I’d be joining the Hilliards one day and record his greatest vocal works. There’s also a video of Passio [Arthaus Musik 100248] recorded in Durham cathedral on the day of my father’s funeral so it’s always had a special place in my heart. My role of Pilate mostly went un-noticed by the press, with the exception of the Chicago Sun Times which said I was ‘effete and degenerate’.


Songs of Love & Death   Red Byrd  Factory FAC 336 (1990)  

 Red Byrd was a state of mind for Richard Wistreich and me, and this represents its essence  – treating past and present as though they are the same thing. It was the first of many collaborations with the amazing musicians of Tragicomedia, Stephen Stubbs, Andrew Lawrence-King and Erin Headley. Richard and I commissioned Amores Pasados from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Love & Death became a cult hit, especially after Factory went into liquidation. It also has the first recording of Frank Martin’s Poèmes de la Mort and the only recording of the Harvey Brough/Emma Freud eco-anthem ‘The Red Bird’, as well as Monteverdi duets with electric guitars, one of which has me duetting with myself.  

Monteverdi Balli & dramatic madrigals Red Byrd HyperionCDA66475; Helios CDH55165 (1991)

 I made several Monteverdi recordings but I had to choose this one if only because Classical Express (USA) described it as ‘unsurpassable’ and ‘one of the most perfect CDs ever made’. With the Parley of Instruments, it has ‘Il Combattimento’ and three more of Claudio’s best pieces from Book 8.

Lawes & Johnson: Orpheus I am Tragicomedia EMI CDC 7 543112 (1991)  

Onwards and downwards – this one includes a descent to a sub-octave Bottom C for Johnson’s hell (one left over from my extended vocal technique days). The songs are a delight to sing, and often get lost in the post-lutesong landscape. Fantastic playing from the band.

Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach  Tragicomedia  Teldec 4509-91183-2 (1994) 

I’d completely forgotten that I’d recorded any Bach (with whom my dad was obsessed and after whom I was named) until I  got into a taxi in Quito on my way to the airport after a lute song recital with Ariel Abramovich, to discover the driver listening to a track from this album. You couldn’t make it up.

A Hilliard Songbook ECM 1614/15  (1995-6)

This album is the Hilliard Ensemble at its best, taking its name from Piers Hellawell's eponymous settings of Nicholas Hilliard, it's a cornucopia of new works, many from our summer school composers or commissioned as the result of our competition funded when we won a sampling case in the USA. It has the ecstatic Here in Hiding, my favourite James MacMillan piece, and one of the few pieces on record in which I had to do proper singing. 

Mnemosyne The Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek (saxophone) ECM 1700/01 465 122-2 (1999) 

Officium, with its three versions of Morales’ Parce Mihi became the best-selling early music album of the century, but this second album with Jan Garbarek was where we really found out what we could do. We plundered, among other things, ancient Greek epic, South American folksong and medieval fragments. My favourite track is the Brumel Agnus Dei, part of which we looped so it never ends. We used to end live concerts with it, exiting the stage singing until we were out of earshot.

Night Sessions (recorded 2001 & 2006, released 2013) The Dowland Project ECM 476 5968

 I could have chosen any of the Dowland Project’s four albums, but this one reached into bits of ourselves that we didn’t know were there.  After finishing the Care-charming Sleep sessions we treated ourselves to a prodigious evening of eating and drinking in the St Gerold refectory, at the end of which, as I was setting off for bed, Manfred Eicher sent us back into the church to record some more. We had no more music. We didn’t really know what we’d done till we listened back the next day, and Manfred decided it was too radical to release until we’d done another album so potential listeners could meet it halfway. The recording was put into storage until Romaria followed five years later. This time we ended up with too much music and were able to save the medieval pieces and put them together with the results of the 2001 carouse, which finally appeared in 2013 as Night Sessions (half of which were actually recorded during the day). The Dowland Project really did boldly go where none of us had been before. Every performance was like falling off a cliff and discovering you could fly.


Gavin Bryars: Oi me lasso  Gavin Bryars Ensemble GB Records BCGBCD05 (2005)

 I’ve performed a lot of music by living composers, but the composer who’s written most pieces for my voice (getting on for a hundred, depending on how you count them) is Gavin Bryars. Anna Maria Friman has been a musical soulmate for decades and we both sang with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble for many years. This has the first recordings of Gavin’s Laude, all of them composed for Anna and me with Gavin’s band.   


Being Dufay ECM 476 6948 (2009)

 Ambrose Field’s creation out of a few minutes of my voice is a perfect example of how past and present are really the same thing. Performing it live, with Ambrose remixing as a kind of renaissance DJ was full of often very loud risk-taking. I’ve had various duo partnerships over the years (and once even became an amplified one-man band) but this was definitely the loudest and most colourful. You need the volume up to 11. There's more behind-the-scenes info on ECM's official Being Dufay site here.

Conductus Vol 1 Hyperion CDA67949 (2012)

 This was the first of three Hyperion recordings, outcomes of a huge research project with fellow tenors Christopher O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump, led by Mark Everist at the University of Southampton.  The three of us became The Conductus Ensemble and conducted ourselves all round Europe with this, the first pan-European art music.


Amores Pasados ECM 481 1555  (2015)

 If you’re very lucky, you end up discovering your perfect bunch of musical soulmates. Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I have worked together as Alternative History for the last ten years or so. Both our ECM albums pre-date the name (like the Dowland Project’s eponymous first album). This was our second one, and again merges past and present with songs by Moeran, Warlock and Campion, and music written for us by Genesis’ Tony Banks. It also has Sting’s Bury Me Deep, which he had intended for Russell Crowe to sing in the Robin Hood movie. Sting passed it on to me, the actor having considered it too delicate for his character. The more recent past becomes the present in our re-arrangement of John Paul Jones’ Amores Pasados that I first recorded on Red Byrd’s Songs of Love & Death; the Red Byrd aesthetic lives on. When we recorded it, Manfred Eicher danced around the studio, something I never thought I’d see.


I’ve had a great time! The complete-ish discography (I stopped counting at 150) is available here. And if you haven't done so yet, you can order the Gavin Bryars book here and Song here. 

As Edoardo Sanguineti put it: ‘ In my end is my music:  ette, conne, ronne…’.

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