So Laurie, tell us the story of Musica Secreta.
Deborah started Musica Secreta in the beginning of the 90s, middle of the 80s to investigate music for the ensemble in Ferrara. We started working together in the middle of the 90s, and I got a big HRB grant to investigate performance practice in Ferrara in the 1570s and 1580s. That was when I officially joined the group. Meanwhile, Deborah had made two recordings of nuns’ music (a recording of Cozzolani and a recording of Vizzana), and she got involved in Brighton Early Music Festival and things went from there. I got interested in this book of Alessandro Grandi, and we wanted to make a disc out of it, but we also wanted to bring it into the concert hall but not as concert music. We wanted people to hear the music, but we were already, back in 2006, fed up with the idea of just standing in front of people and singing. We got some money from the Arts Council and we had someone write a play which was then filmed and projected, and we sang behind the scrim where it was projected, lit from the back.
How cool! Kind of like a modern enclosure.
Exactly. It was kind of ahead of its time, but it was a nice project and we recorded the CD. When we were recording the CD, this novelist got in touch with me just before we started recording, and said “I’m writing a book about nuns, and I know nothing about nuns’ music. Someone told me you’re the right person to talk to.” So she came down to Southampton and I put her in a wimple and I said “this is what the world sounds like when you’re in a wimple,” and she went “oh, well that’s unusual.” I sent her home with lots of things to read and things to listen to, and asked her to come along to our recording session, which she did. She decided then he was going to make one of the nuns in her book a singer. That’s what led to our next CD, “Sacred Hearts, Sacred Music” where we produced a soundtrack to the novel.
Would you say that Musica Secreta as an ensemble is engaging with ideas of performance of music as an intermedia performance?
Well, we never really felt comfortable with the standard concert setting because music means so much more than that. Music reflects and is reflected in every aspect of a culture. It’s very difficult to get listeners to understand music on its own terms, and so much of what we sing is filtered through two separate but linked traditions: through the early music revival and through the English Choral tradition. So when we try to do something that is contextually correct but which jibes up against one or both of those traditions, we have to do something extra to help the audience understand what we’re trying to do.
So, changing the lens a bit?
Yeah. When you’re looking at this music, you’ve got to see it from the point of view of the people that are making it to start with. It’s sometimes, but not always, in a listener-performer relationship. Back in 2006, when we were singing Josquin and Palestrina with just female voices, it felt… dangerous. A little bit dangerous. What are the Josquin mafia going to say about this?
Yeah! On the one hand, singing with other women this year it has occurred to me how uncommon it is to sing with other upper voices, but it’s not felt dangerous. We have a lot of thanks to offer to you and ensembles like Papagena.
Well, there aren’t that many still!
Especially without male directors, which changes the game completely. Well, I certainly feel like I’m very glad that Musica Secreta has shifted the overton window a bit.
We certainly tried. I love what Papagena do, I’ve worked with them a little bit (I’ve given them some scores) but they do a full range, whereas we stick ourselves firmly in early music, so it’s a different kind of thing. I’m glad you mentioned the male director issue, because women directors of early music ensembles, particularly renaissance music, are so few, even on the continent.
I’ve seen this reflected a little bit in scholarship on English nuns. So many assume that figures like John Bolt and Peter Phillips were the main directors in St. Monica’s and Our Blessed Lady respectively. They were there certainly, and certainly taught and played, but only for a very short period of time. For the most part, men were forbidden. It’s very odd that people focus on them, and I think it’s partly because they only see men in leadership positions, and therefore find it difficult to shift the lens.
I wonder if it’s a chicken and egg type situation. But their names are familiar because they are musicians who have published music. Because they have names, the way history is written (and has always been written) has been by isolating male figures and putting them in the context of where they have authority. That’s another thing that we try to undo with the group and the sort of thing that I try to undo with my scholarship, because I don’t recognise the stories that have been told when I look at the documents; I look at the documents and I see something quite different. The notion that you need to have a conductor, you need to have a director of music, is something that comes from the Anglican choral tradition, and the fact that many of the same people were involved in the early music revival, particularly as groups started to record and become a part of the music industry. So you’d have the Kings Singers, then Peter Phillip;s came out of Oxford, Harry Christophers comes out of Oxford, they bring with them choral scholars who have been trained in certain ways of singing and certain ways of responding and needing a conductor and the anglicised chant. When Deborah and I look at it, we don’t recognise it as the way of making music that we want to do and the way the music demands. We don’t have a director in concerts- Deborah might provide a tactus in concerts briefly, that’s about it.
I suppose to a certain extent this issue is quite unique to England, as a result of institutions. One thing I found in my research for my bachelor’s dissertation was that over 90% of directors at cathedral choirs are from Oxbridge, with ⅔ of that number being from Oxford (this was in 2017). Of course, Oxford didn’t allow women until the 70s and 80s, so you already have this way of thinking that is practically based (45 minutes of rehearsal and then perform) that doesn’t really leave room for questioning authority. People are usually only in an institution for a few years (with of course, some exceptions), it’s not like a convent where you are at one institution for the rest of your life, often from childhood, doing the same thing over and over again.
Yep. You don’t have the same kind of relationship with the music. You’re just reading the notes, which produces what Bruno Turner calls “the all purpose English sound,” and it just kills polyphony stone dead. It’s this wash and it’s this sound that has made lots and lots of money.
A lot of it is tied into an English identity to though, isn’t it? The money that they make isn’t just “oh it’s good music,” it’s tied into a wider structure of a national identity that they’re trying to sell that relies on colonisation and higher value of English cultural products.
I hadn’t actually thought about that. We had thought very deeply about the sound of early music ensembles and who that has been codified by particularly the Tallis Scholars, and how other groups that tried to do things in a slightly different way have gone by the wayside. It might be just because the group has ran its course, and one of the things about the Tallis Scholars is that Peter Phillips has just never stopped. Either way, the big names have built a standing, they’ve built a career, they’ve got a particular brand.
Do you think it’s a post-production issue?
Well, I think there’s a reluctance to move too far from the norm. Whatever else these conductors are, they are businessmen. They are all men, and they are good at their business. So that’s part of the music business, is you change things but you never change things enough.
I see what you meant now when you say it felt dangerous. It’s not just singing as women independently, it’s not just taking up space, it’s a challenge to the whole paradigm, the whole infrastructure. Maybe that’s the way women’s voices always have been. Our voices are a challenge to the whole system. I’ve certainly noticed, being the youngest person here, I’ve definitely noticed it’s been a real challenge (more than I thought) to trust myself and allow myself to make mistakes and have my own voice and that’s fine, but also be pushed to try new things with my voice.
Women always have to be twice as good at what they do in order to make any progress at all. I certainly have the perception that women are not cut so much slack. If a woman makes a mistake, or makes a bad decision, the system is not nearly as forgiving. Not only do you have to be really good at what you do, but you have to have the answers ready to be challenged. You have to think of the questions, and for me, the first question everyone is going to ask is “why is it okay for women to be singing this music? Would nuns have sung this music? It’s all in tenor clefs!” Sometimes that question comes from genuine curiosity and wanting to get it right, not necessarily challenging, but even in the manuscript from Verona, where there are whacking great big pictures of nuns standing around a choirbook on the front page, there is, for example, a very eminent musicologist who says it cannot be for nuns. But there’s a picture of them singing this! There’s a picture of women singing a Kyrie in the middle of a Kyrie! ”
Can you talk a bit about how women’s art is often posited as a “shtick,” or a novelty item?
Yeah. Then there was the review in the BBC music magazine that accepted the music was by Leonora [d’Este], and called the dissonance “quirky,” and said that a “rosary of 16 motets for women’s voices is bound to sound a bit monotonous after a while, but they do vary the texture.” I thought “how many discs have been made with just men’s voices, and who would ever question or say something like that?” And I think discs with male voices are great! But the very fact that we bring out this distinguished recording with amazing music, the fact that it’s all female voices for the whole disc, someone will say something like that without understanding the gendered subtext, which is… what? That reviewer would never say that about the Orlando Consort just because the voices were male. It wasn’t our performances, it wasn’t the music, it wasn’t anything, it was just the fact that it was women’s voices.
One more question: do you foresee more womens’ ensembles coming into the choral world, and if so, what advice would you give to them?
Firstly, they are. I’m in touch with people from five different continents buying scores by Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, and I anticipate that there will be more women doing this professionally and otherwise. What I see happening perhaps more is women in an established mixed voices groups doing a special programme (for instance, Schola Antiqua in Chicago). However, there are also all women ensembles going off on their own as well. It’s happening in Australia, Canda, Buenos Aires, it’s happening everywhere. What I would really like to see is for those groups to take what we’ve done and use it as a starting ground for creating their own spaces in the concert scene so that you can have all female groups putting on polyphony and rising on merit. It’s not a novelty act, right? We’ve got all these all male groups, and they take up so much room. There are mixed voice ensembles that also take up a lot of room, but women’s groups do not take up room. Lastly, for me, you have to combine scholarship with the music. You can’t just read it from an edition that was prepared from an opera omnia that was prepared 50, 60 years ago and sing it with 45 minutes rehearsal.