John Potter: Secret History (ECM New Series 2119)

2119 X

John Potter
Secret History: Sacred Music by Joaquin and Victoria

John Potter voice
Anna Maria Friman voice
Ariel Abramovich alto, tenor and bass vihuelas
Jacob Heringman tenor and bass vihuelas
Lee Santana alto and tenor vihuelas
Hille Perl viola da gamba
Recorded February 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 25, 2017

Not knowing a man, the virgin mother bore
without pain the savior of the world,
the king of angels himself
suckled only by the virgin,
her breasts filled from heaven

So begins Secret History, an album once buried in the ECM vault, recorded as it was in 2011, and brought to light six years after the fact. In this song, composed by Jean Mouton (1459-1522), we understand through the intertwining voices of John Potter and Anna Maria Friman the blessings of divine and fleshly life, wherein flowers a contradiction so mysterious that unity can be its only gift.

In his liner note, Potter outlines the project’s philosophical genesis: “Music history is traditionally written in terms of composers and the first appearance of their significant works,” he writes. “Performance history doesn’t work like that: it’s the story of what happens to music after it has been written down.” So saying, he has assembled for the fortunate listener a series of tunes that survive in the tablature of lutenists and vihuelists who recast sacred polyphony into barer mosaics.

The two supports of this thrumming loom are Josquin Desprez (c. 1455-1521) and his Spanish successor, Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). Although not typically linked in the manner they are here, both composers belong to a nexus of musical ideas that, while rooted in the church, took on lives of their own when itinerant string players arranged them as standalone vocal pieces. And while such “corruptions” might be seen far removed from their sources, they are in fact part of a larger, breathing organism that subsists on the spiritual food of interpretation. Potter and friends make this outward progression as clear as the notes have been resilient to the passage of time.

Victoria’s Missa “Surge Propera” is a tender spine, the separated vertebrae of which find cushioning in Josquin’s expansions of anonymous chants, thereby expressing the inchoate ability of melodies to shed their composers in favor of the God in whose honor they were penned. The mass, for its part, is so deeply intertwined with the Spirit that it cannot feel like anything but a benediction, even when its choral setting is condensed into the chamber of a single vihuela, played by Jacob Heringman. Other pieces by Josquin, such as the heartrending “Absalon fili mi” and “Nymphes de Bois,” brush gently against Victoria’s “O magnum mysterium,” which closes its eyes like the doors to a vestry, wherein rest sacraments of infinite musical possibility.

Heringman’s own Preludes, sprinkled throughout, are like the punctuation of a grammar that makes itself known gradually, intimately. The larger context, however, is still being written, and stalwarts like Potter are key voices in the conversation. His passion for innovation reveals an innovation already within; his attention to detail an openness of expression already active. Whether alone or with Friman by his side, matching every call with a response, he shows us that words once holding hands in circles now release their grip from ages past in favor of an unknown future.

Absalom my son,
would I had died for you;
I can live no longer
but descend into hell, weeping.

John Potter: Amores Pasados (ECM New Series 2441)

2441 X

John Potter
Amores Pasados

John Potter voice
Anna Maria Firman voice, Hardanger fiddle
Ariel Abramovich lute
Jacob Heringman lute
Recorded November 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: July 17, 2015

In his liner note to Amores Pasados, former Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter puts forth the notion that perhaps the wall between popular song and so-called art song, which even just a century ago were one and the same, is an arbitrary one. Such is the contradiction behind his latest project, as inevitable as it is unusual. In a musical climate where singers shackled by marketing to particular genres branch out into others at their peril—a climate in which “world music” still rings like a derogatory term for non-professional, non-western curiosities—it may be difficult to conceive of a time when melodies we take for granted as part of the classical soundscape were once “popular,” belonging as much to the theatrical stage as to the troubadour’s lips. Contrary to the pop songs of the 20th century, by which the roles of lyricist and composer have all too often ridden divergent streams of commodity, songs once fell fully within the purview of laypeople at a time when notions of artistic integrity had yet to hammer a wedge between “professionals” and “amateurs.” This dynamic would now seem to have undergone a dramatic reversal via singing competition shows like The Voice, but even there the purpose is to produce the next generation of underdogs, whose underlying ambition is to buy into the professionalism they seek, often at the expense of at least one vital organ of their creative bodies. They must be the complete package: looking and acting the part into which they will be groomed if they are to succeed beyond the ephemeral glory that makes them visible. Amores Pasados, then, represents a rare—and all the more so for being successful—attempt to blur the lines between the old and the new, performing modern folksongs with an antique spirit and older songs afresh, along with more recent balladry by pop/rock legends John Paul Jones (bassist of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (keyboardist of Genesis), and Sting.

Amores portrait

The arrangements are Potter’s own, and find a choice companion in Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman. Friman’s journey as part of the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval has since 2001 graced ECM with a series of eclectic recordings, all under the mentorship of Potter himself, and so their rapport is duly felt here. Joining them are lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, making for a multi-national roster.

The album’s first three songs comprise its titular suite, featuring Spanish Golden Age poetry set to music by Jones. It begins with the full quartet in “Al son de los arroyuelos.” As Potter and Friman harmonize over interlocking lutes, it’s clear that a new age of song has begun. The haunting “No dormiá,” for its part, has what Potter calls an “Arvo Pärt-like sparseness” which “defies categorisation of any sort,” and indeed reminiscent of the Estonian composer is its organic evolution from single-note chants to polyphonic blossoming. These give depth to a droning horizon, brushing in trees, mountains, and setting sun. Should it fall under any generic label, let it be: haunting. “So ell encina” finishes the triptych with a relay of understated power between the two singers.

Much of the album is, however, clearly in the tradition of that most famous purveyor of Elizabethan love songs, John Dowland (1563-1626). And while his music is nowhere to be found here (leave that to Potter’s earlier Dowland Project, also well documented on ECM), Dowland looms large, especially in this album’s closer, “Bury me deep in the greenwood,” by Sting. Sting’s 25-year obsession with Dowland led him to take up the lute and to release the Dowland-centered Songs from the Labyrinth on Deutsche Grammophon in 2006. Although “Bury me deep” is commercial in origin, having originally been written for director Ridley Scott’s 2010 reboot Robin Hood, it best captures the spirit of its influences through an exquisite sensitivity of both melody and lyric, being the only of the modern songs herein in which both come from the same pen.

For context we are presented with three specimens by Dowland contemporary Thomas Campion (1567-1620). “Follow thy fair sun” and “The cypress curtain of the night” are both heard in their original versions, and again with new music by Banks. The former glide off the tongue of Friman (what a joy to hear her as a solo artist), whose shaping of imagery is as evocative as the verses themselves. “Oft have I sighed” completes the Campion tour with quintessential languishing. As for Banks’s “Follow” and “Cypress,” they express the balance of self-loathing and -resolution of the original lyrics through soulful composing. The second song, with its lilting changes and Potter’s melodious diction, is especially memorable for its arpeggios (recalling the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite) and unexpected ending.

Also unexpected are the chord changes of two early 20th-century songs: “Sleep,” with words by John Fletcher (1579-1625) and music by Peter Warlock (1884-1930), and “Oh fair enough are sky and plain” with words by A. E. Housman (1859-1936) and music by E. J. Moeran (1894-1950). Both work seemingly within the Dowland frame, but color outside the lines like the roots of a tree that grows wherever it will. Moeran’s is the most surreal of the album, sprouting leaves in winter and dropping them in spring.

Two versions of “In nomine,” the lone surviving composition of one Picforth, beyond whose 16th-century flourishing hardly anything is known, regale with their circularity and Celtic knot structure. Each is something of a palate cleanser for the ear, a baptism by hearth after the rain along the way.

To the seasoned ear, the distinction between older and newer songs will be rather obvious. This does nothing to undermine the integrity of the project. If anything, it strengthens that integrity, because the goal here is not to disguise itself as the past by way of compositional pantomime, but to own up to the trends of the present while paying respects to what has informed it. Whichever direction it may ultimately choose in the listener’s mind, one can hardly walk away from Amores Pasados without feeling its communal heartbeat. And perhaps this is the album’s truest goal—namely, to invite all who wish to sing, regardless of elitist approval, to enjoy the gift of creation (and creating) together, yielding a unity of voices across all lines drawn.

(To hear samples of Amores Parados, click here.)

The Dowland Project/John Potter: Care-charming sleep (ECM New Series 1803)




The Dowland Project
John Potter
Care-charming sleep

John Potter voice
Stephen Stubbs chitarrone, baroque guitar
Maya Homburger violin
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With In Darkness Let Me Dwell, ex-Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter did something very special for the early Baroque, for what at first seemed a wild reconfiguration of songs and motives from John Dowland and his contemporaries was instead an act of deference to the improvisatory spirit that moved the music’s inception. The song- and partbooks of Dowland’s time were never meant to be prescriptive, but to function as stepping-stones for musicians’ creative interpretations. Here this concept is taken to task, and the result is music that carries itself across great divides with fluency and, dare I say, charming care. The inclusion of reedman John Surman and bassist Barry Guy is therefore an easy one to digest in what may look on paper to be a potentially disastrous experiment but which is, in fact, a program of awesome originality, which is saying something in a market flooded with early music interpretations of varying quality.

The project has also become an appropriate venue for the music of lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who contributes four plaintive Refrains to the proceedings. The first of these begins the program and weaves an elastic and chromatic net for all that follows. Its biggest catch is without a doubt the title song by Jacobean composer Robert Johnson (1583-1634). It is presented to us in two versions. The first of these takes advantage of the entire ensemble, spinning on the edge of Maya Homburger’s tremulous violin. Potter leaps into falsetto territory against a backdrop of harmonics, even as the entrance of Surman’s soprano adds further dimension and scope. Not unlike Jan Garbarek’s work with the Hilliards, Surman feeds off the infrastructure of the music at hand, spinning from it a weave at once respectful and innovative. An interlude provides Surman room for an enchanting rumination before Potter returns to the fold. In its reprisal, Johnson’s venerable number comes to us as we might expect it: through the familiar strains of lute and voice alone. Johnson’s aching moods wash over us again in two more songs, of which “As I walked forth” is wrought with due restraint and commentary from Homburger.

The often-played “Accenti queruli” of Giovanni Felice Sances (c. 1600-1679) provides some relief from the heavy pool of sentiments in which it finds itself. The tune plays like a jam session and best exemplifies the spontaneity behind the project’s concept. The regretful note on which it ends dovetails smoothly into “Weep, weep, mine eyes.” This mournful ballad by John Wilbye (1574-1638) draws out the program’s splintered relationship to love, and expresses through its saxophonic lines a suitable harmony of word and context. Surman likewise proves himself a defining presence in “Angela siete” by Cherubino Busatti (1600-1644), for here woodwind and throat swap roles like ribbons around a maypole.

Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) was a new name to me, and his “Già più volte tremante” is a stunning piece of notecraft. Though brief, its unexpected minor shifts and Monteverdian phrasing make for a heart-stilling monologue.Yet while this album is rich with such luscious music, a single tune by Cipriano da Rore (c. 1515-1565) is for me its flashpoint. We encounter his “Ancor che col partire” also in two versions, once with lute and violin and again with vocals. The latter ends the program with a slow flourish that descends into the crypt from which it sprang in search of sunshine.

Nothing about the Dowland Project cries gimmick. This is not a mere ploy to capitalize on overdone material, but an offering of sounds already so rich with implication that the musicians cannot help but explore those sounds for all they’re worth. Anyone wary of approaching albums like Officium may want to ease into this rewarding ECM niche with Care-charming sleep.

Ambrose Field/John Potter: Being Dufay (ECM New Series 2071)

Being Dufay

Ambrose Field composer, live and studio electronics
John Potter tenor
Recorded 2007, Bishopthorpe, North Yorkshire, UK
Mixed 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Manfred Eicher, Ambrose Field, and Jan Erik Kohngshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one of Renaissance music’s most beloved figures, Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) has been represented through a slew of fine recordings from such groups as the Hilliard Ensemble, the Medieval Ensemble of London, and Pomerium. Though known more for his sacred works, Dufay’s secular chansons find new life here in English electronic composer and performer Ambrose Field’s awe-inspiring soundscapes, with the Hilliard Ensemble’s John Potter at their center. Potter recorded a mere eight minutes of actual singing for an album just shy of fifty, and from this throated nucleus Ambrose Field has cultivated a lush molecular accompaniment.

Potter sings an alluring chanson, bathed in a tender drone, in the introductory Ma belle dame souveraine. Both the melody and its nebulous aura seem to come from a distance. This is one of the more minimal arrangements on the album and as such carries us gently into its unique sound. Je me complains boasts a more pronounced electronic presence with its flanged vocal samples and extended metallic fades. It feels very digital, ending in a viscerally epic swell of synthesized chords amid a fine weave of heavily processed voices. Being Dufay begins with a highly processed and extended vowel, and from this Potter emerges with a more clearly articulated “live” form of the same, spinning from this massive jumble of threads a clearly discernible path for us to follow. Certain phrases become looped before being swept away in a tide of reverb. This density soon relaxes into an even deeper stretch of sound as Potter’s samples flit in and out of view until he reemerges from the cosmic static to gently hang his melody from the clouds. Je vous pri comes into being like a resuscitated lighthouse, not so much piercing as caressing the darkness with its fortuitous light. Along with Je me complains, this track is most effective at shifting between Potter’s solo passages and their ghostly afterlife. It’s also teeming with distinctly organic sounds, as hints of percussion, water, and wind are carefully placed throughout. This ends in a swirl of repeated motif, caught like a song fragment in the net of time before being hoisted out of earshot. Presque quelque chose is an electronic interlude, hovering just beyond the threshold of life and bringing with it the promise of a singer’s dream. Sanctus is built around a sacred chant, undergirded by a bass note that cuts out like a broken radio. Potter’s voice morphs into that of a woman (an effect achieved through Ambrose Field’s painstaking digital modeling), filling the space with a virtual choir. La dolce vista is very much like the first track, giving Potter’s voice full reign of its territory as it glides into finality.

In these settings, one can really appreciate the well-roundedness of the chosen melodies. This isn’t Dufay in outer space, for there is still something undoubtedly earthly about all of this. Even so, the album may not be for everyone. Avid listeners of electronic music may feel more at home, while Renaissance purists may find the electronics outrageously intrusive and might prefer an ensemble of carefully chosen instruments. Yet I believe this album strikes a happy medium between two forms of musical expression that are not so entirely different from one another, and I would encourage even the most reluctant to immerse themselves in its wonders.

This is a conceptually stunning project, one founded on the melodic strength of its source material. In a day and age filled with debates over authenticity and scholarship, and in which so much of the music we have from the early Renaissance survives only in fragments or without clear indication of tempo or arrangement, how refreshing it is to see two musicians taking a strikingly different approach that is no less attuned to the spirit of the music, allowing it to freely wander its own contours without having to fit into those of another. Ambrose Field’s electronics are not “supportive.” Rather, they are an audible extension of something in the music itself and in Potter’s exquisite voice. Regarding his compositional process, Ambrose Field says:

“Whilst being important for my work, I have a general dislike of computers, preferring to find the right sounds first instead of undertaking extensive processing later. This can be a lengthy activity, but has the result that the electronics here highlight the contributions of humans, rather than machines.”

This isn’t just humility, for his statements are clearly evident in his respect for the tactile feel of analog equipment. The combination of digital and analog sounds strikes a fine balance between the former’s “cooler” tendencies and the latter’s heavy warmth, making for an overall effect that is, well, ambrosial.

These pieces are the exact opposite of timeless, beautifully enmeshed in their contemporary technology, be it a band of minstrels, a church choir, or, in this case, an ocean of electronic information. In Dufay’s time, these songs were the supreme form of sound manipulation. They worked in real time, pulsed with an immediacy that required only a willing ear. And in today’s audio landscape, electronics have become equally ubiquitous. We are therefore privileged to hear Potter’s voice unmasked in such unobtrusive company. Even in the longest stretches of synthesized sound, Potter’s presence haunts and provides the foundation for much of the synthetic drive, so that we are never too far from the vulnerable pulchritude of the human voice.

For the sake of live performance, filmmaker Michael Lynch created seven short subjects, one for each of these pieces, from which we are given only a few screen shots on the official site, and which one can sample below. Perhaps a DVD is in order?