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Hilliard Ensemble: Improvising With Jan Garbarek

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Hilliard Ensemble: Improvising With Jan Garbarek

Hilliard Ensemble: Improvising With Jan Garbarek

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LYNN NEARY, host:

A choral group known for its early music repertoire and an avant-garde saxophonist steeped in the art of improvisation may not be the most likely musical partners, but when the Hilliard Ensemble collaborated with Jan Garbarek for the first time in 1993, the result was "Officium," a recording of hauntingly beautiful music that sold more than a million copies.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek have joined forces again for their third album, "Officium Novum," featuring ancient, modern and sacred music with an emphasis on the musical tradition of Eastern Europe.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: We're joined by countertenor David James and tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, two members of the Hilliard Ensemble. They are in the studios of the BBC in London. So good to have you on the program.

Mr. DAVID JAMES (Countertenor, Hilliard Ensemble): Thank you.

Mr. ROGERS COVEY-CRUMP (Tenor, Hilliard Ensemble): Thank you.

NEARY: So, let's go back to the beginning. How did your group start collaborating with an avant-garde saxophonist? What brought you together in the first place?

Mr. COVEY-CRUMP: The story, as I have it - I mean, there are different versions - that Manfred Eicher, who is really ECM Records, he wanted to do something special to celebrate his 25 years as a recording company. Now, most of his label up to that time had been devoted to jazz, of course. And basically, we were invited to meet in a wonderful place in Austria, which is the place where we've done most of our recording since 1993, to see if we could make music together really. Everybody was amazed.

Mr. JAMES: This is David speaking now. Of course, we were naturally very apprehensive, as you rightly said in your question, how do such two diverse sort of disciplines come together? And we weren't really sure at all. John Potter brought along stacks of music. He was a sort of librarian as well as arranging all of our programs, and he just sort of lumped it on the sort of altar in this monastery. And said, guys - he had handed music - and said let's just try and sing through some stuff.

And so he got out this one piece, which ironically is I think the piece you've just played, "Parce mihi Domine," and the four of us started to sing this wonderful piece from the 16th century by Morales in four-part harmony.

(Soundbite of song, "Parce mihi Domine")

Mr. JAMES: (unintelligible) was standing there and we just began to sing this piece. It's seven minutes long, so there's plenty of time. It's very slow too. And I can truthfully say that after about, singing for about three or four minutes, suddenly we were aware of another sound, something utterly, something was happening.

(Soundbite of song, "Parce mihi Domine")

Mr. JAMES: It's more than we normally do, I mean, the four of us. And the realization was that Jan had picked up his instrument, heard what we were doing and just decided to join in. We continued to the end of the piece and sort of mesmerized, I think, is the best way to describe it and finished. And there was complete silence. And then suddenly the few people who were there got up, Manfred rushed up to us, and he just, with a tear in eye almost, said, guys, we have to record this as soon as possible. And that's how it started.

NEARY: That's incredible, and is that how you continued to work? Is Jan always improvising or once he has improvised, do you write out his parts? How does it work?

Mr. COVEY-CRUMP: Yes. This is the remarkable thing about him. I mean, I've never encountered anybody like this. But, yes, he improvises all the time. And he deliberately never looks at our music scores. I mean, of course, he's extremely musically literate and he's written pieces for us, of course. But he just wants to know the key in which we're singing - two sharps, two flats, whatever - that's all he needs to know and then he just uses his ears. It's fantastic.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: We're speaking with David James and Rogers Covey-Crump, members of the Hilliard Ensemble, about their latest album.

It features music by Komitas, who was a priest and a composer and is considered the father of Armenian music. Tell me something about him and why you wanted to explore this music in particular.

Mr. COVEY-CRUMP: Well - this is Rogers speaking - he was probably the first what you would recognize as an Armenian musicologist. I think he actually started in Turkey and roundabout the turn of the sort of 1900s, he was rather similar to what Paul Williams did with English folk song in England. He became very interested in this ancient music of the Armenian Church and he wanted to bring it to life again, give it a new life by harmonizing some of the chant. Because most of it is a single line of chant, like Gregorian.

A chant goes back to about the fourth or fifth centuries after Christ. And, of course, it's the oldest continuously Christian country on the planet. So, we were invited to go and record some of this church music. They call the pieces characants(ph). And we did it for a radio station in Armenia, and we became very attached to this music. And we brought it back with us, as it were, and have been performing it for the last seven years.

NEARY: Well, let's hear an excerpt from the album. And we're going to hear "Hymn from Maundy Thursday."

(Soundbite of song, "Hymn from Maundy Thursday")

NEARY: That is such a remarkable sound and who would have guessed it?

Mr. JAMES: Well, yes. We're still quite surprised ourselves. You know, I mean, especially after 17 or 18 years working together, it still gives us as much of a thrill to work with Jan.

NEARY: You know, some of the music on this CD has a sort of very classic sacred music sound. But some of it, I would say, is edgier, maybe a little more challenging. Maybe I'll go back to that word I used earlier, it has a kind of avant-garde sort of feel to it. You know, was that a deliberate choice or did that just come out of the music itself, that it came out like that?

Mr. JAMES: This is David speaking again here. Well, there's one piece on it that we actually performed on one of the previous CDs, which is "Alleluia, Nativitas." And I said to Manfred, this piece is like a completely different piece now; would you mind if we recorded it again? And so he listened to it and he said, no, not at all. And so that's why it is on this CD.

(Soundbite of song, "Alleluia, Nativitas")

NEARY: I have to say, that sounds like it's fun to perform. Is it? Is it a fun one?

Mr. JAMES: It's absolutely wonderful to perform. I mean, we get completely carried away in every performance. And at the end, we're sort of jigging around and (unintelligible) taking off. And it is just great fun.

(Soundbite of song, "Alleluia, Nativitas")

NEARY: David James and Rogers Covey-Crump are members of the Hilliard Ensemble. Their latest album with saxophonist Jan Garbarek is just out. It's called "Officium Novum." Thanks for talking with us. It was a lot of fun.

Mr. COVEY-CRUMP: Thank you.

Mr. JAMES: Thank you, Lynn.

(Soundbite of song, "Alleluia, Nativitas")

NEARY: To hear more recordings by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, visit NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is back next week. I'm Lynn Neary.

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