Music: Classical: Those who can't , shouldn't. Those who can, cantiga

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Catherine Bott has long been the reigning queen of early music. Now she's moving into a New Age. Nick Coleman enjoys a sample of the soprano's down-to-earth delights.

The science of marketing has produced some amusing musical hybrids in the interests of lifestyle enhancement. Rap-opera is a big favourite at present, newly eclipsing ambient-Gregorian plainchant as the No 1 emollient on the executive penthouse Bang & Olufsen. House-Puccini is long established as a post-modern sub-genre of note; dub-Berlioz can only be a brainstorm away.

So welcome, then, New Age 13th-century cantigas, or Pilgrimage - Nine Songs of Ecstasy, as it is formally to be known, an album of pulsating post-Floydian soundscapes fashioned in New York by two French beatmeisters out of the soup-ingredients of New Age/ambient rock and the devotional songs associated with the medieval pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. It is, according to the blurb, a "divine blend of chant, mysticism and hypnotic rhythms". Its creators, Simon Cloquet and Eric Calvi, describe it as "a sort of journey, a pilgrimage... The travel comes from the heart and not from the mind. What attracted us to the material was the power of the sensuality and eroticism that we heard in it." Catherine Bott, the English soprano whose voice was chosen to encode that sensualite et erotisme, says, "Well, it's the first time I've been credited on a record with doing 'lead vocals'."

Bott is not the sort to go about poisoning wells, however, and she remains steadfastly upbeat about a project over which she exercised no creative control. She is its voice and no more, her only input coming in advance and at some distance from the knob-twiddling that ultimately took place at Look Glass Studios in New York.

"The singing was all done unaccompanied," she says, "at All Saints, Tooting, under the direction of Philip Pickett [music director of the New London Consort] and then taken away for treatment by Eric and Simon. I did not hear it again until it was finished."

Bott was in effect sampled, then processed elsewhere - an amusing irony when considered in the tallow light of the great authenticity debate. Although the point should be made that, in this case, the authenticity at stake is not musicological so much as theological. The question is: do languid pace and lashings of electronic "atmosphere", topped off with medieval singing, automatically confer "spirituality" on music? (Always assuming, of course, that "spirituality" is a condition of the soul and not a brand of bath oil.) "We knew the finished product was going to be," she says mildly, "new age."

And yes, Pilgrimage is nothing if not easy on the ear and assuredly fulfils its first objective, which is to be a balm. Furthermore, if the album is successful, it will draw attention to its source material and its premier late-20th-century exponents, Pickett, Bott and the New London Consort, who were captured by L'Oiseau Lyre in 1991 belting the daylights out of the various codices of Navarre, Castile, Leon and Galicia that constitute their Pilgrimage to Santiago. If that bouncing ball of an album was a benchmark for vitality in the world of Early Music recording, then whooping, vaulting Catherine Bott was without question its governing anima.

Bott is as rounded a corporeal presence as she is an aural one. She has no visible affectations, she does not wear diva togs, and she limits her manual gestures to the orbit of her lap. She is garrulous and likeable. She has an anecdote about the time she and counter-tenor Michael Chance tipped up at the Salzburg Festival to hear Schubert piano sonatas, only to be sniffed at by the jewellery-rattlers of that city for wearing, respectively, a Jean Muir trouser suit and Armani without a tie. The anecdote then metamorphoses seamlessly into a meditation on the metaphysics of musical connection.

"Radu Lupu came on to face the impossible grandeur of that audience - and God knows why most of them were there - plonked himself down on a stacking chair, and just played. Oh..." she sighs, "it took me somewhere else altogether. It felt like just me, him, Schubert and the piano were there and no one else. And after he finished with the great B flat sonata, Michael and I turned to each other and said, 'We stopped breathing, didn't we!' And that's when I most like music, I suppose - when you get that feeling of intimacy, and maybe the feeling that there's only a handful of you there making the connection."

Schubert's piano sonatas are what turns Bott on the most. They are, she says, "the heights, as far as I'm concerned". Which is perhaps not what you'd expect from one so deeply identified with the rigours of the Early and the Baroque. She is, she says, a great pianist in her dreams. But then again, it's perhaps the Romantic in Bott that enables her to animate Monteverdi, Purcell and Guiraut de Bornelh with such convincing warmth. She certainly has what some analysts might call psychological integrity to her singing. Bott simply says she "likes to characterise".

It's not a big voice and it has no in-built decorative features; it comes out straight as an arrow and with rhythmic snap, golden in her mezzo range, silver higher up. This lack of vocal affectation is how she accounts for the fact that she is often sought out by contemporary composers, who do not like to see vocal style stand in the way of compositional clarity. She made, for instance, an album in 1994 with the young American Michael Torke of his Four Proverbs, has worked with Michael Nyman, and is shortly off to Utrecht to do what she calls one of her "kamikaze concerts", which will comprise Handel arias before the interval, and Berio's Folk Songs after it.

Yet Bott's voice is anything but the "pure" instrumental cipher beloved of out-and-out formalists. Far from it. Listen to her Dido (in Purcell's opera), which is intense, warm and detailed; the private, and therefore recognisable, passion of a self-dramatising woman. Her Dido's dying fall, "When I am Laid in Earth", marries the close emotional observation of Schubertian romanticism to the formal discipline of Baroque taste.

"Oh, yes," says Bott, clasping her fingers in her lap and rocking forward slightly. "I have a very strong view about Dido, which is that, at the moment of her death, she is not addressing a public rally. She is alone, vaguely in the company of Belinda but not really, because when you're going to kill yourself, you are in a sense completely alone. Dido is something of a neurotic. If you go through the score of Dido and Aeneas, you find that all she does is talk about herself. She's very self-absorbed. It doesn't make her unpleasant but she is self-obsessed, and you find that the line of her story is one long downward progression to the inevitability of her death. Not everyone likes my Dido, but I do. I actually sing it very quietly, almost as if I wasn't singing at all..."

Bott was not always going to be a singer, despite being very struck by the Beatles (and the Vernons Girls and a comedian) at the age of nine at Coventry Hippodrome, and despite coming from a family that had cultivated tastes. "Musicianship was a bit of an accident," she says. "Initially, I wanted to be the first woman up Everest, then an Egyptologist, then an actor." She did achieve the heights of the National Youth Theatre before "chickening out after a couple of seasons, which was wise" and heading for the Guildhall School of Music.

How would she describe her voice? "Hmmm. There could be a long silence here," she says, smiling at the ceiling. "I don't think I'm the kind of singer that has a description for her voice."

All right then. Why does she sing the kind of material that she sings? "Well, to a certain extent the repertoire chooses you, because of the kind of voice you've got. I have not got - and I can say hand-on-heart that I don't want - a verismo opera voice. And anyway, that kind of music" - presumably meaning Puccini and Co - "doesn't interest me. It's what I enjoy that counts, and I've always enjoyed Baroque music, probably because of its combination of structure and passion. I don't actually need to sing Puccini if I can sing Frescobaldi, Caccini, Strozzi, Monteverdi." She brings one hand up to her shoulder and opens it, then mulls gently for a moment on the misguidedness of "opera singers making their jazz albums - you just want to strap 'em down and make 'em listen to Peggy Lee".

I'm tempted at this stage to suggest that, before she gets involved in another New Age cantigas project, she strap herself down to listen to Lee Perry, Bill Laswell and all the great architects of the cosmic beat, but decide against it. It would be rude, and besides, she can remember the name of the girl who used to get her kit off on-stage with Hawkwind in the early Seventies, which commands the utmost respect.

'Pilgrimage' is on the Point Music label (CD 536 201-2)

REcord of achievement

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo Philip Pickett and the New London Consort (L'Oiseau Lyre)

A scintillating triple role for Bott as La Musica, Messaggiera and Proserpina, arrowing through the stately cornetts, sackbuts and theorbos of Monteverdi's great proto-opera.

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau Lyre)

Dido as recognisable human being shock. Bott was never lovelier.

The Pilgrimage to Santiago Philip Pickett and the New London Consort (L'Oiseau Lyre)

Early Music as road-movie soundtrack, featuring Bott as raconteur-in- chief on the medieval pilgrim route to the shrine of St James. If the gitterns and psalteries don't get you, the loopy tunes surely will.

Michael Torke: Music on the Floor Michael Torke, Lothar Zagrosek, London Sinfonietta and the Argo Band (Argo)

Torke's intellectualised post-minimalism gets the Bott treatment to the ultimate benefit of his Four Proverbs.

Sweet Is the Song Catherine Bott (L'Oiseau Lyre)

"Music of the Troubadours and Trouveres" sung with detailed intensity by an unaccompanied Bott. A hardcore 12th-century experience.