Sounding off

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The Independent Culture
Perotin and Part, Tallis and Reich - they're all players in Paul Hillier's theatre of voices.

Paul Hillier (left) with Arvo Part: `each piece has its own inner and unique concept' Caroline Forbes

Until recent times medieval music was the preserve of monastic communities, scholars and a handful of performers prepared to explore works apparently written before the earth cooled. Paul Hillier ranks high among early-music revivalists, a persuasive and successful salesman of neglected vocal repertoire long before discs of Gregorian chant became the latest lifestyle accessory.

The Dorchester-born bass firmly rejects the view that shrewd marketing lies behind the present popularity of such groups as Anonymous 4 or the Hilliard Ensemble, of which he was a founding member. "One accepts that there has to be an effort in terms of publicity," he says. "But that will only work if you feel the music demands to be heard; it won't improve works that are best left unperformed."

Six years ago Hillier surprisingly parted company with the Hilliard Ensemble in favour of a professorship at the University of California at Davis. Was the break amicable or the result of problems within the group? "I don't think I'll try to set the record completely straight" is Hillier's considered reply. "For some time I'd wanted a less mobile life than singing with the Hilliards allowed and, since my wife is American and I like America, I had been looking to move there."

A former Hilliard colleague, John Potter, has spoken of Hillier's apparent keenness to tackle large-scale projects and steer the group in directions it did not wish to take. Hillier, in Potter's view, presumed the market for all-male, early-music vocal quartets was limited and that grander projects would prove more attractive. "I'm sorry," says Hillier, "but that's rubbish! I love small-scale stuff and was always happy to do it; I just don't accept John's criticism. The argument works the other way: one of those large projects involved the performances and recording of Arvo Part's Passio, which helped put the Hilliard Ensemble on the map."

One musician who has worked closely with the Hilliards suggests that Potter and Hillier held strongly contrasting views on repertoire and planning, but preferred not to discuss them either with one another or with the other permanent members of the group. "Even knowing them well," he says, "I can't give you an exact account of why they fell out, and I don't think even they could."

Whatever the story of Hillier's Hilliard farewell, it can't be denied that he paved the way for the group's recent successes on the Munich-based ECM label. "I discovered Part's music in the early 1980s," he recalls, "and was captivated the minute I saw it. There was something going on there that spoke to me directly. When we gave our first Part concert for Radio 3, Arvo arrived with his record producer, Manfred Eicher. That connection led to the Hilliards' ECM Part recordings, which attracted enormous attention."

Part's elevation to cult status owes much to Hillier's commitment to the music of the shy, mystical Estonian, who might easily pass for a close relative of Rasputin or Durer's St Jerome. "His reputation for being an evasive, difficult man is more fiction than truth," says Hillier. "If he's surrounded by people who are only interested in him as a `product', then he backs away. But he's responsive to those who are genuinely interested in his music."

Later this year, Oxford University Press will publish Hillier's monograph on Part, offering a commentary on the music and its aesthetic foundations, neither of which would appear easy to define. "That's why the music is there. But it doesn't rule out offering certain touchstones to the ideas and beliefs that have sparked his compositions." Hillier dismisses the common criticism that Part's recent works rely too heavily on self-quotation and the repetition of a limited harmonic and melodic stock. "He has a certain way of working that sometimes appears to produce the same ideas in different works, but each piece has its own inner and unique concept. It's very easy to copy the Part sound, but it invariably produces an incredibly boring piece. That's why he's the composer and I'm not!"

Since leaving the Hilliards, new music has occupied an increasingly significant slice of Hillier's performing career. In 1993 he conducted the premiere of Steve Reich's multi-media work The Cave, the CD of which has just appeared on the Nonesuch label. He concedes that his repertoire is intentionally catholic, ranging from the music of 12th-century Paris to that of today's New York. "For me, that doesn't feel uncomfortable. Reich himself admits that Perotin has influenced his own music. Working with Reich and Part has been the realisation of a dream rather than a determined shift to change the public perception of my work. It seems the most natural thing to perform both early and contemporary works."

Besides his work as a teacher and writer, Hillier stays busy in the concert hall. The Davis campus is home-base for his Theatre of Voices, a professional chamber choir started in 1992. The group's somewhat abstract title mirrors Hillier's conviction that singers should be able to enthral an audience by the expressive intensity of their performance, much as the best actors can enliven a simple text without props or wild gestures. "Only think of the amazing power of speech radio in that respect. Likewise, hearing just one singer on stage can be a dramatic experience."

Theatre of Voices, already regarded as among North America's finest choral groups, can boast a diverse, attractive discography on the Harmonia Mundi label, including an anthology of medieval courtly love-songs, a disc of carols from the old and new worlds, and Lassus's powerful setting of the St Matthew Passion. The group's latest release is of music by Thomas Tallis, featuring his suitably dramatic Lamentations of Jeremiah. Discs of 12th- century Parisian polyphony and of works by John Cage (on the Hat-ART label) are in production. "I'm driven by the desire to do as many different kinds of repertoire as possible," says Hillier, "without the need to invent different groups for each project."

The sound of most American chamber choirs seems markedly different from that produced by their English contemporaries. Theatre of Voices offers the best of both worlds, coupling traditional values of ensemble precision and accurate intonation with a healthy spirit of individuality. "That's a deliberate decision on my part," says Hillier. "There's no question that the sound produced by certain English groups is enviable, but there are other ways of performing choral music. The sense of individual freedom often tends not to come through with the English approach."

He admires the tonal beauty of such groups as the Tallis Scholars, but is less sure of its value when applied regardless of the words being sung. Theatre of Voices' account of Tallis's Why fum'th in sight, for example, could not be described as pretty, delivered as it is with a hard-edged, muscular tone. But the unrestrained style sharply highlights the sense of Archbishop Parker's psalm translation. "It certainly helps pep the piece up, and there's nothing wrong with that. I want to offer music that stimulates and excites people."