Interview: James Weeks on Exaudi

First published by Sounds Like Now, May 2017

EXAUDI turns 15 this year, and — so often the way with birthdays — its cofounder and director James Weeks is taking stock. “We’re in a position to influence a considerable swathe of contemporary vocal writing and possibly make a tiny but noticeable dent in our corner of music history,” he ventures. “What are our values, and our vision of the human voice?” A recent anniversary celebration concert at the Wigmore Hall in London offered a fairly good answer to those questions. The programme contained 16th century Italian and Franco-Flemish madrigals by Arcadelt, Marenzio and Giaches de Wert as well as works by Sciarrino and Weeks himself.

It’s an old/new mix that characterises the EXAUDI repertoire — and the EXAUDI sound. This ensemble is pristine and passionate in early music and brings the same qualities to contemporary music. It prioritises beauty over novelty, clarity and elegance over extended techniques and theatrics, and has thereby attracted the kind of composers who share similar aesthetic leanings. By offering a vision of the human voice that is refined and airborne, unhistrionic but still expressive, this ensemble has made a marked impact on the way associated composers have written for voices over the past decade and a half, resulting in a body of new work expressly designed for the EXAUDI sound. In other words, they have already made precisely the ‘dent’ that Weeks was describing.

When we were emailing back and forth to arrange our interview, Weeks admitted he would rather not dwell too much on the past. “I guess I feel that now we’re very much not a fledgling ensemble any more, those foundational aspirations seem like old news,” he confided. “It would be nice to move on.” That impulse to keep newness the main event is typical, but he was easily coaxed to do some reminiscing. And it’s striking that the group’s foundational aspirations, though shaped to a large degree by instinct, remain unchanged today. “I want our repertoire to reflect composers who are trying new things,” Weeks says. “I want to find music that is radical. I have consciously tried to keep our remit wide. Not only Feldman, not only Wandelweiser, not only New Complexity.” And yet there is a focus.

The initial idea came from Juliet Fraser: soprano, cofounder, organisational fiend and, until three years ago, effectively the administrative manager of EXAUDI. “We had worked together at Cambridge,” Weeks recalls. “Me conducting, she as an oboist. She was brilliant to have around because she would always get the notes exactly right. Then as I was finishing my master’s at the University of Southampton, she called me up. ‘Let’s start a vocal consort for new music,’ she said. Neither of us had a clue what we were getting ourselves into.”

The founding ethos? “To sing the most out-there vocal music we could get our hands on!” At the time — 2002 — there “was nobody doing this stuff, except the BBC Singers, and we wanted to be smaller, more like a consort.” The activities of Terry Edwards’s London Sinfonietta Voices were fizzling out, and Weeks and Fraser recognised a niche that needed to be filled. Meanwhile the integration of early music was very much a personal one, to do with Weeks’s own background as a musician. “I had done my time in choral music,” he jokes. “A chorister in Oxford, an organ scholar at Cambridge. If you’re in the middle of Byrd polyphony at the age of nine… well, it’s not an experience you can forget. So I guess I was looking for a way to marry my expertise in choral music with my double passion for contemporary music and early English vocal music.”

Getting the right singers was both tricky and not tricky. “To begin with we took whoever we could find who could just sing the notes,” Weeks says, laughing as he admits, “actually, we’re not specialists at all! Our singers arrive pretty inexperienced in contemporary repertoire. If they haven’t done it with us then they probably haven’t done it anywhere else, not in the UK, at least.” The statement is less blasé than it might seem, though. For starters, ‘just’ singing the notes requires musicians who are technically accurate, virtuosically controlled  — singers who can deliver demanding music with uncomplicated, unshowy finesse. Most of the singers whom Fraser and Weeks turned to back in the early days — and the ones they still work with now — share a strong background in early music. “We were looking to groups like The Cardinall’s Musick, the generation of early music ensembles after the Tallis Scholars who brought more passion but still the clarity of a consort. The idea that singers were listening, blending, but not losing their individuality. Early music is so integral to the EXAUDI identity,” Weeks says. “To our sound, to our repertoire, and to the way we shape new vocal writing.”

One thing to note — and he emphasises this several times — is that EXAUDI is definitely not a choir, nor a chorus, nor a group of vocal soloists. “We are a consort,” is the terminology he arrives at. “Or vocal ensemble, that’s the thing.” And the issue of extended vocal techniques is, he says, a red herring — “or at least it’s not the whole story. Contemporary vocal music can also be beautiful Laurence Crane 7th chords.” While he admires pioneer avant-garde vocalists — we discuss Cathy Berberian, Linda Hirst, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk — he says he finds their approach, especially the first two of that list, “more of a 1960s/70s thing. Theatrical, gestural extended sounds.” EXAUDI can do extended techniques when required, “as long as I can convince my singers that they’re not going to destroy their golden vocal chords. You come across some singers who are willing to shred their voices. Not mine! It’s also about educating composers around how to treat voices well. To recognise that writing ten minutes of fortissimo whispering is not a very constructive idea.”

EXAUDI’s reputation grew quickly. Four years in, they were asked to perform Brian Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis at the Aldeburgh Festival for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. “That event was a major challenge and a major platform,” Weeks remembers. “It was exactly the kind of extreme music that we wanted to be doing.” They developed a repertoire around Sciarrino, Rihm, Posadas, Crane, Eötvös, Ayres, Poppe; they recorded discs of music by Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Weeks himself. (Weeks says he thinks of himself “primarily as a composer, not as an ensemble director who also composes,” and although he wrote regularly for EXAUDI from the start and still does, he’s cautious in that regard. “It was never a vehicle for my own writing. I was always good for a cheap or free commission. I reckon one every five years is about right. It lessens Exaudi if I do too much.”)

By 2008 he and Fraser had secured the team of singers that has more-or-less seen them through to the present. In 2009 they launched their annual Exposure concert, a crucial platform for commissioning composers including Aaron Cassidy, Bryn Harrison, Joanna Bailie and Cassandra Miller. Elsewhere the ongoing madrigals project sees the commissioning of new Italian madrigals to partner the existing renaissance repertoire. To date there have been ten such commissions, and many have gone on to inspire larger cycles. Christopher Fox extended his original madrigal into three pieces, while Michael Finnissy has turned his into a seven-piece set. Again, that dent.

“Recently I’ve begun to hear more people talking about the ‘EXAUDI sound’ or of something or other being an ‘EXAUDI sort of piece’.” After we speak on the phone, Weeks emails me with more thoughts. In particular, he’s been mulling over the ensemble’s identity issues. “I was quite surprised at first, as I had thought of us as an ensemble that adapts quite readily to a very wide range of vocal and compositional idioms, but actually even if that is true, it’s also true that (especially viewed from abroad) there is something particular (maybe particularly English) about the way EXAUDI listens and blends that isn’t the same as other new music vocal ensembles.”

“Maybe we do have a definable vocality,” he acknowledges. “It definitely relates to the early-music consort (but I would say to a Monteverdian madrigal group rather than a sacred-music choir) and to a general preference for singing rather than vocalising noises and the ever-extending catalogue of ‘avant-garde’ extended techniques.” He admits that he finds a lot of what is happening on the Continent post-Lachenmann “very passé”.

“I think this is also relatable to my interest “— and this is strikingly audible in EXAUDI’s latest release, a recording of Weeks’s own Mala punica on the Winter & Winter label — “in vocal archetypes. A sense of primal magic in the human voice making stunning(ly beautiful?) sounds, of the idea of the voice alone weaving some kind of magic spell on a listener. For EXAUDI as trained classical (but not necessarily operatic) singers, there are a number of ways we can try to get at this, and we want to find composers who can somehow unleash that force (of persuasion, or seduction) within the voices in some way or another.” Seduction through beauty: it’s the oldest Orphic trick in the book.

And yet not everyone is in agreement. Weeks tells me about an encounter he had with the Italian composer Pierluigi Billone during a residence at Royaumont in France. “We were working with a lot of young composers who were all grappling with this issue,” he recalls. “Pierreluigi told us that if classically-trained singers in groups like EXAUDI or the Neue Vocalsolisten (which are very different groups already!) won’t experiment with making much more extreme sounds (in his case, he wanted raw, earthy, almost animal sounds, but it could be other things – senza vibrato is an endless bone of contention) then sooner rather than later there won’t be a use for them, as music moves on and away from the sort of vocalities we can achieve.”

Billone did acknowledge that the EXAUDI sound is “amazing,” but suggested that “it’s not the kind of vocality” he’s interested in. “He said it’s not the future of vocal style. He suggested that, for him, individual singers with very particular, unique voices was the way forward. Maybe folk singers or untrained voices of some kind.” Paradoxically, that description brings to mind the aforementioned pioneers from decades past — the Berberiens and Hirsts and Monks and La Barbaras.

So which outlook is progressive and which is old news? “I find Pierluigi’s challenge to us really fascinating,” Weeks offers. “It was a personal reaction from someone who has drunk deeply from the idea that there is a linear progression of music. And as a composer I do have a lot of sympathy with that position, even if I fundamentally disagree about EXAUDI being aligned with the past. But it’s certainly quite an interesting question: as the new music scene continues to split into the many rivers of Cage’s famous ‘delta’ metaphor, how much of the exciting, radical, progressive activity taking place can we be a part of? And is it the most exciting part? Billone isn’t the first and won’t be the last composer I admire greatly who just doesn’t want to write for us. This may also come to be a question for instrumental groups, but it’s an issue exacerbated in voices because of the fragility of the instrument and the vast range of different vocal expressivities.”

“Eventually,” he adds, ”I’m coming round to a realisation that we just have to do our thing(s) and get on with it. There are things you are and things you aren’t. Having said that, I think it’s really dangerous to start defining precisely what you are and aren’t because that removes the crucial grey area where much of the most important work is going to take place and deprives you of the chance to grow. I often feel melancholy when I realise that a particular tone colour, technique or vocal style is just beyond us as we currently are (often this happens when composers ask for folk or untrained sounds), but there we are. One solution for me is to work also with groups of untrained voices in other contexts, like my ongoing relationship with CoMA musicians. Another solution is for us to be as open to change as possible.”

“This whole issue reminds us that we can’t stand still and be complacent – whatever we’ve achieved as artists, as an ensemble, in the past, we have to keep questioning ourselves and our practice and work with composers to find new ways forward. I’m interested in the becoming rather than the already there.”

15 years in, Weeks is sanguine about the technicalities of running an ensemble. On a personal level, he’s still working through the mechanics of having a young family in Gateshead, a new full-time teaching position at the University of Durham, a composing career and the artistic and administrative oversight and minutiae of running EXAUDI. “Yep, I do all the admin now…” he groans. “When we started I would do the artistic stuff and Juliet took care of the admin. She was heroic. But now she has pulled back to focus on her solo career and she’s just a singer in the ensemble, as it were, but a singer with some pretty fierce opinions…” Vindication for Fraser’s move has already come in the shape of a stunning disc of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices, released earlier this spring on the Hat Hut label.

Weeks talks through concerns around funding, time constraints, the knock-on effect of credit crunch on the entire mature period of EXAUDI. “It’s never been easy. Nothing comes easily in British contemporary music. Nobody hands you anything on a plate. Regional festivals are less able to take a risk on us since the credit crunch. Lack of regular funding means it’s hard to plan ahead. We put on that 15th anniversary gig at the Wigmore Hall and not a single broadsheet critic turned up. I used to get angry about that kind of thing: when will we be trusted? When will we earn our spurs? Now I’m just a touch melancholy.”

At the same time, he’s something of an idealist. He doesn’t want to become institutionalised, he recognises the dangers of becoming a go-to, general-purpose new music vocal ensemble. “Maybe we don’t want to make ourselves particularly useful… I mean, we do our own thing. Are we seen as the new music establishment? Or are we a group that is interested in the next new thing? We want the funding, but we don’t want to become staid.” Again, he mentions the Neue Vocalsolisten here: “they rehearse for seven hours a day, but for us that would kill the magic.” He mentions Plus/Minus Ensemble run by Joanna Bailie and Matthew Shlomowitz as a more attractive model, with its “open ethos and keeping of fingers on all the right pulses.”

So where do that leave EXAUDI now? More or less exactly where they want to be. “I think we’re reaching an artistic peak,” Weeks begins, then catches himself. “Oh god, can I say that in a way that sounds less wanky?!” Maybe the projects speak for themselves. In June EXAUDI goes to Paris to perform Posadas and Victoria with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and to Aldeburgh for a programme called Chromatic Renaissance exploring meantone and other tuning systems. In July they’re in London and Hull performing Laurence Crane’s Pieces About Art. In September they’re at the BBC Proms with Cassandra Miller’s Guide and at the Royal Festival Hall for Nordic Music Days. In November they take Italian madrigals to Luxembourg, Milan and Naples. There’s also a new disc of Michael Finnissy works, already in the can.

Even if ‘the becoming’ is what interests him, even if Billone’s challenge to define the future of vocalality is still ringing in his ears, Weeks ends our conversation by reiterating his fundamental trust in EXAUDI’s ‘already there’. “That archetype of someone standing up and making a beautiful sound?” he says. “I don’t think it will go out of fashion.”