ISSN 1989-1938
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Revista de pensament musical en V.O.

A Conversation with Peter Phillips


Peter Phillips. Photo: Maria Ivanova. Edinburgh 2010

Peter Phillips. Photo: Maria Ivanova. Edinburgh 2010

What do you think it would do people start to understand the authentic sense of the music?
Peter Phillips:
I think …you are talking about polyphonic renaissance lyrics and Spanish. I think if it´s sung in an old-fashioned way, people don´t like it any more. Fifty years ago maybe it was normal but this music is much more popular now, it has to be sung in a sensitive way, otherwise the public don´t like it, and I´ve noticed because if we sing out of tune or bad blend between the voices, then people don´t like it, they don´t come to the concerts.
I think It is a question of education, really I mean as I´ve said fifty years ago, most singing was operatic singing and operatic style was seen with, even in renaissance polyphony people sang with an operatic style was vibrato. The tuning will suffer from too much vibrato and I think if you sing like that now the audience will go away I think you have to respect the music more now. I think that´s true.
The sound of the voices together, the interaction between the voices is the same throughout our concerts, so we don’t have to rehearse that, we just rehearse a new piece of music and get to know it.

Which is the dynamic of rehearsal for a week? How many rehearsals do you have at the week and do you practice more frequently when there is a foreigner concert or there is a normal practice?
Yes, Well, A professional choir probably does not have a regular practice, I know some choirs will have every week though each?, the same time every week. We don´t do that, we just have a practice or rehearsal, normally it´s the day before we go to sing a concert and so here we are in Edinburgh and we rehearsed yesterday morning in London, we rehearsed for two and a half hours and then we went straight to the airport and came to Edinburgh, we sang the concert, then we go home again, that´s the end. I think your readers will be surprised at how little we rehearse, yes very quite little, but then we specialize in renaissance music so we don´t need to rehearse the style, everything we do is in the same basic style.

Tumble © Andrea Geile 2010. Photo: Andrea Geile

Tumble © Andrea Geile 2010. Photo: Andrea Geile

How do you decide the repertoire and which criteria do you follow the repertory?
Well, We only sing renaissance music, renaissance sacred music and normally we are employed by festivals which have a theme and this year, the theme in Edinburgh is Spanish renaissance music. So I was asked to make a Spanish programme, and that´s very easy because the Spanish tradition has some wonderful composers, so we´re singing Victoria and not were singing Victoria, this year, in fact… Francisco Guerrero and also Cristobal de Morales. I´m very pleased about Morales. He is a really wonderful composer.

Francisco Guerrero and Cristobal de Morales, they are two composers of Sevillian cathedral… Which has been their contribution to the renaissance polyphonic music of the world?
Well, they´re just very good composers, I mean, their contribution is to write great music within the tradition. Morales is historically quite important because he was the leading Spanish composer at an earlier period from Victoria and Guerrero and Lobo, so Morales is an important link, actually between the high renaissance school and the earlier composers Francisco de Peñalosa, Fernando Escobar and the flemish school, Morales actually worked in Rome where he would have come across, he met many Flemish leading composers, he probably met Josquin des Près. He is a historical link.

And it was the reason that you choose this repertoire for this concert?
Well, now, I can´t remember how it happened, we were asked to obviously do Spanish music, we could have done English music or Italian music, or Flemish music, or Portuguese music, in fact, but because of the theme of the festival we had a Spanish request, and I like to do Morales, he is quite difficult, actually, but I was able to do him on this occasion for various reasons.

You say that he is a very difficult composer, you mean in the vocal technique?
No, Well, Intellectually he is quite difficult. He writes quite mathematical music, these pieces we´re doing have cannons in them, well unless you want me to explain what a cannon is, but it´s mathematically quite difficult and, you know, the music unfolds in an slightly unfamiliar way, it´s not predictable. But, then, he´s an early period than the high renaissance composers.


Peter  Phillips. Photo: © Maria Ivanova. Edinburgh 2010

Peter Phillips. Photo: © Maria Ivanova. Edinburgh 2010

Do you think that there is enough written investigation studies about polyphonic music of the renaissance?
No, I think there´s a lot being written and talked about, a lot more than before, but I think there will be, it will take another few decades, probably for renaissance music to be as much performed as baroque music, but you must remember that baroque music also is very unfamiliar, it took a long time for Bach and Vivaldi and especially to become famous but I think in time there will be, you know, Palestrina, and Lassus and Victoria and Tales will be as famous as anybody else.
It is a very exciting period, actually because there are more and more performances and more and more articles being written, and records, radio programmes, your magazine is talking about it.
So, you know, it´s all exciting and I think it will, I think the problem that we have to get over is that the public still expects classical music to be with instruments. It´s very hard to get music onto the radio if it doesn´t have any instruments in it, so that´s just something, we´ll get over at the end, but unaccompanied singing has to be very good for people to want to listen to it.

Maybe it´s not enough interest of the public for this type of music, of the ancient music.
I think the public is very interested in, well, it is in England and Holland and that kind of, where the operatic tradition is not so strong.
Yeah, but I mean that´s an old-fashioned situation, I think that´s changed everywhere, even in Italy, there are very good early music groups, singing groups as well

Do you think that the vocal technique has involved in the renaissance repertoire or is the same vocal technique like in the ancient.
Well, Nobody knows the answer to that question. We don´t know how they sang, there is no way of finding out, you can find instruments and guess what they sounded like, but you can´t find how people sang, there´s no evidence. So, you know, we have to just respect the music.

Is there some evolution of the vocal technique along the years ?
Well, this is… the evolution has been as I´ve described it from singing opera, there´s operatic voices all the time to what we do here now which is quite different.
I want my singers to sing without too much vibrato, what we say is straight, but not too straight because then it´s boring, though, but straight is…the tuning is good because polyphony is very complicated music, I mean, if the details are not clear, then the piece is spoilt, the public can´t hear what the details are.
I quite like people to think, I think one change in the time we´ve been singing renaissance music is that we sing probably louder than we did, and I think we learnt how to sing more strongly while still not singing with a big vibrato, in an operatic style, I think that´s what we learnt in the last twenty years.

In the 16th century the singers did not have trained voices, they just sang like you or me would sing, that means that probably they sang quite quietly and most of the music that we sing was written for small buildings, not for big cathedrals but for chapels and law courts and so and so.I think if we heard a performance from the 16th century we would be very surprised how quiet and unpresented, it´s not produced, the voices are not produced, they are just singing amongst themselves. We don´t do that at all, we stand, so the public can see us all and we sing really strong into the public, into big buildings, very big buildings

Is the acoustic much more different?
Well, no, the acoustic is probably the same, but the sound that we are making is going to be much bigger from the original singers.

How many time do you dedicate to the tours and the concerts.
It´s about a half of the time, I should think, the concerts are about, we do something like 60 concerts a year. Australia, Japan, America obviously, Canada, Mexico, recently I´ve been to South Africa, in southern part of Africa where I had some local people singing renaissance music. It´s very interesting.
We sang in Morrocco, we sang in Norway obviously, Iceland and so on and so on. In Russia is quite a lot of interest, in Russia now, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, once in China, in Beijing (Pekin).

Next year (2011) is the anniversary of Victoria´s death, Tomas Luis de Victoria and for there will be a lot of Spanish music, especially music by Victoria and we are going to do a special course in Barcelona from the first of September, so it´s the first, second, third and fourth of September of 2011. The final concert is on the 4th of September and this is a course for singers who pay a small sum of money to come and sing on this course.

So, all your repertoire will be strictly Victoria work?
Actually, not entirely, there will be some modern music also, contemporary music

In 1998 The Tallis Scholars celebrated his 25th anniversary for the first time the singer has sing it a Tribute to Cavafy a work of the contemporary composer John Taverner with the narration of Vanessa Redgrave so, How has been the experience with contemporary music especially with the emotional resource of the narration of Vanessa Redgrave.
We did this piece of music many times, and we actually had Paul McCartney as the narrator and Sting and Vanessa Redgrave Yes and a number of other people.
I think the most famous occasion was when we did Paul McCartney in New York, that was very good, huge public, I mean, just you had to keep your eyes, you know, they loved it, I mean, it was great, a big event.
Vanessa Redgrave, we did that in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, that was a normal public we don´t sing very much modern music.

Composers want to write music that´s suitable for us, then we are happy to sing that music.
For example last week we were singing in Warsaw where they´re celebrating Chopin at the moment in Polland, and a composer wrote a piece of music which is based on things by Chopin. That´s completely different.

Do you work about some musical research at the present?
Do I? Well, really, I want to write a book about performing this music, someone needs to write a performing and also style, a book about how this music should be sung, now. I´d like to write a book about that, but I haven´t started it yet.

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