Here and now

"The idea is to create a whole world just with voices," says Paul Hillier of his Grammy-winning vocal ensemble.

May 28, 2010 16:52
The Theater of Voices, led by Paul Hillier.

The Theater of Voices 311. (photo credit: Klaus Holsting)


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The juxtaposing of “theater” and “voices” in a musical milieu may seem somewhat akin to a mixed metaphor, but Paul Hillier is quite clear on the intent behind the name of his world famous Grammy-winning vocal ensemble which will appear at the Israel Festival on June 8.

“The emphasis is definitely on the voice, not the visual,” says the Theatre of Voices founder and musical director, adding that there is a subliminal element involved too. “When, for instance, you hear a voice on the radio you can make a picture, in your mind, of what is going on. The idea is to create a whole world just with voices.”British-born Hillier, 61, founded Theatre of Voices in 1990 and has been creating worlds, and feeding off seemingly disparate genres, ever since – and with a great deal of success. Now based in Denmark, Hillier put the ensemble together to explore the world of early music as well as performing works by contemporary composers, and occasionally even commissioning some.

The June 8 concert at the Jerusalem Theater, for instance, at which Theatre of Voices will join forces with the NYYD string quartet from Estonia, features “Beata Viscera” by 12th-century composer Perotin, a member of the Notre Dame school of polyphony, followed by “Psalom” written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who was born in 1935.

Hillier’s CV makes for impressive reading. He hails from Dorset in the leafy south of England and got some early training for his eventual career choice as a choirboy in his local church in the market town of Dorchester. Even so, this was a quiet rural hinterland and, back then, there was nothing to suggest that the youngster would eventually become a world-renowned singer and conductor or, indeed, spread his musical net so extensively.

“I didn’t get exposed to a lot of unusual music as a child but at school, from around the age of 15, I got totally absorbed in early, classical and contemporary music. I had sung in my local church choir in Dorchester and later in the school choir. It was mostly typical Anglican church music.”

Still, as a kid surely Hillier got an earful or two of the rock and roll and, later, pop music sent across the radio waves. “Yes, I heard that too,” he notes, “but I wasn’t that interested in it and, anyway, as soon as I started getting into classical music and music from earlier and later periods that superseded anything I got from the radio.”

Interestingly one biography of Hillier notes that in his teens he was, in fact, a rock and roll and pop music fan and listened devotedly to the pop charts on the Radio Luxembourg pirate radio station. The same biographical source claims that he dug early Elvis Presley numbers, joined the Presley fan club and even won a dance competition doing the Twist. But all that is now a long time ago, and very far from his professional work.

Hillier has traversed quite a few musical and spiritual junctures in his time. In the 1970s he discovered the work of Jewish American minimalist composer Steve Reich and, in 1980-81, when he was on the teaching staff of the University of California, Santa Cruz, he came across the work of John Cage and discovered Zen Buddhism. It was after his subsequent return to Britain that he encountered the work of Arvo Pärt. In 1996 he became director of the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington and later published books on Pärt and Reich with Oxford University Press.

In a music industry that is becoming increasingly beleaguered, marketing and pigeonholing are deemed to be of paramount importance, to make it easier for consumers to identify and – naturally – shell out their hard-earned cash on the product. Hillier, on the other hand, is quite happy proffering music from both ends of a 700-year spectrum to audiences around the globe.

The temporal lapse notwithstanding, the musical director and baritone vocalist believes there is common ground between his chosen genres. “I try to select music that goes together, even if they come from different eras,” says Hillier. “Look at [19th century Jewish Austrian pianist-composer Henri] Herz. He is a prime example of music of today with one foot solidly in an earlier period. I think the music benefits from the juxtaposition. But we are always in the here and now.”

THE SYNERGY of music and words provides the ensemble with a powerful means of communication. The Theatre of Voices’ Jerusalem repertoire includes a piece by 14th-century French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut, who was described by British musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson as “the last great poet who was also a composer.” That given, one presumes that the texts of the works performed by Hillier’s ensemble are possibly as important as the music.

Hillier concurs but says the confluence requires some off-stage input from the performers too. “The text is all-important. The text is not just an understanding of the words but also the context in which they are written, and this connects to other things. In most pieces the words are extremely important because they help you to perform the music.”

That also involves digging into the origins of the music and the text, and the cultural and historical environment in which the work was created, before Hillier gets around to organizing the concert in question, and before the ensemble members consider how to actually sing the material. One salient example of this is a new work that another ensemble which Hillier oversees, the Ars Nova group from his adopted country of Denmark, will be performing in the very near future, and which somewhat enhances his connection with our part of the world and culture.

Shortly after Hillier’s visit here, he and Ars Nova will premiere a new work by Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran – “Das Was Geschah” (That which Happened) – for which they will be joined by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet. “Das Was Geschah” is a compelling work, with the music set to texts by Jewish, German-speaking, 20th-century Romanian poet Paul Celan, as well as passages from Genesis and Job. True to his comprehensive work approach, Hillier says “Das Was Geschah” drew him into Jewish culture.

“It is going to be a very powerful concert, especially as we have the saxophone quartet too. The piece encouraged me to study the background of the biblical texts – I like to know what I’m doing when I work on concerts. There are texts in Hebrew, Latin, German and English. It is quite a varied program.”

Incidentally, the Danish ensemble takes its name from the ars nova style period in music which was centered in France and the Burgundian Low Countries. Chronologically the period stretches roughly from the preparation of “Roman de Fauvel” (1310-1314), a poem accredited to French royal clerk Gervais du Bus and best known for its musical arrangement by Philippe de Vitry in the ars nova style, until Machaut’s death in 1377.

Since, as Hillier points out, the words carry so much weight in conveying the meaning of the work, language barriers can be a problem. Then again religious affiliations can help here. “When we are performing sacred texts, one assumes that some of the parts will be more or less familiar to the audience, although what significance they have for people you never know. There are lots of works where the text is all-important, and we have done some, for example, in France where I wasn’t sure if the audience would understand what we were singing, but it was a huge success. You can’t always know.”

That said, there are always subtexts that are even harder for audiences from different cultural backgrounds to get, even audiences that speak the language of the songs. “Humor is a hard thing to convey if the audience is not conversant with your comedic baggage, and subtle English humor is particularly difficult to convey. For instance, in America they may not always understand some humorous content that is specifically English.”

What about audiences in Hillier’s adopted country? “Actually, the Danish sense of humor is similar to English humor, so the Danes get it, although I’m not sure it works in the opposite direction.”

DESPITE HILLIER’S insistence that the sound of his work takes precedence over the visual, some pieces draw other skills from his merry troupe of singers. “We do engage in a small amount of improvisation and works by, say, [20th-century composer-poet-philosopher-artist] John Cage that sometimes take on a more theatrical form. Then we can take some liberties in the interpretation. But it all stems from the score, and when it invites that sort of approach. The program we’re bringing to Jerusalem is more conventional concert music.”

Hillier also says that, in general, his audiences have no problem with listening to early material and contemporary music at the same concert, even though they may have a preference for one or the other. “They are definitely receptive to that mix. It seems to work, and not just intellectually. I think they understand there are good reasons for having different kinds of music in the same program. But we do have purely contemporary programs too, although less concerts of exclusively early music.”

Working with living composers involves its own dynamics and, naturally, can lead to works being commissioned specifically for the ensembles Hillier leads. “Yes, I do commission contemporary works, although it can sometimes be difficult to get promoters interested in works by composers who may not be famous. But, of course, we can’t go on performing the same repertoire over and over again.”

Although contemporary music may often suggest an artistic offering that is more difficult for the general public to ingest, Hillier says he is not looking to challenge his audiences too much. He adds there are also always certain practicalities and realities to be addressed.

“Collaborating with the composer is an interesting process, where we can discuss the kind of work I am looking for. But I focus on composers who will communicate to the audience. I pursue my own musical interests, but I am not looking for music that is difficult to sell as an idea. Packaging and presentation is important, and I am not interested in heavy-duty modernist programs where everything is hard work to listen to.”

Still, that does not entail a blanket circumnavigation of less than completely consumer-friendly material or pandering to the lowest common denominator. “Music by John Cage, for example, is hard to sell in most places, but we try to present it entertainingly. And we don’t go down market. We have to be careful about that.”

While some adventurous composers and musicians talk about educating their audiences, in an effort to draw them into the worlds they may not normally consider, Hillier says he largely appeals to the heart rather than the brain. “Educating people may be a spinoff from what we do, but that’s not the reason I do it. I only do music that excites me and, therefore, I can expect others to be excited by it. There may be an intellectual element to it, but it’s primarily initially an emotional response I look for.”

Earlier this year Hillier followed up his 2007 Grammy for Best Choral Recording with a second Grammy, this time for a Theatre of Voices recording of The Little Match Girl Passion by Jewish American composer David Lang, which is based Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” together with a selection of choral works by Lang, sung by Ars Nova.

The Little Match Girl Passion is based on the format of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, although it is really nothing like it,” Hillier explains. “It’s a recasting of the Andersen story and is a powerful emotive piece.”

That appears to be a recurrent theme with Hillier. The Jerusalem audience should be prepared to be moved.

The Theatre of Voices-NYYD concert will take place at the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theater on June 8 at 8 p.m.

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