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 Interview, Tom Herring on The Waiting Sky

Hailed by The Tallis Scholars' Peter Phillips as "the a cappella sound of the future", British chamber choir Sansara have been steadily amassing awards and accolades since winning the London International A Cappella Choir Competition in 2015; their début recording in 2017, Cloths of Heaven, also won critical acclaim.

They now turn their attention to the huge wealth of repertoire connected with Advent and Christmas, with an eye-catching selection of works old and new (some very new indeed) that ventures a little off the festive season's extremely well-beaten track, including several pieces commissioned by the group themselves, in an innovative programme that ranges across the centuries.

I spoke to the group's Artistic Director Tom Herring about the bold repertoire choices on this album, and the group's particular affinity for new works.

Like many other vocal consorts, you’re pairing the Renaissance with the contemporary. What is it about these two periods that exerts such a draw on groups like Sansara, as opposed to pre-Renaissance pieces or works written in the centuries between Byrd’s time and our own?

As the question implies, the pairing of early and modern music is nothing new, particularly in the choral world. However, what we find most exciting about the combination - and reason enough to keep exploring it - is the narrative potential that unfolds when pieces written centuries apart are heard side by side, possibly for the first time. It is this process of recontextualisation that enables pieces from different eras and sensibilities to enlighten and transform each other in new and often surprising ways.

There is a directness in the musical gestures and expressivity of so-called ‘early’ and ‘contemporary’ music which makes the combination of the two feel very natural. These characteristics are particularly appealing to us, as we always aim to communicate with clarity and integrity. This expressive transparency can become clouded by the imagery of Romantic poetry, babbling brooks and weighty metaphors in non-sacred repertoire of the Classical and Romantic periods. It is notable that the majority of self-defined early music ensembles are the most proactive in the commissioning of new work: a link that speaks for the aesthetic kinship between old and new.

Programming in this way is also comparable to certain modernist ideas, and specifically those of poets such as T S Eliot, who wrote about the constant process of ‘amalgamating disparate experience’ and forming ‘new wholes’. For us, this is both a textual and musical process, as pieces from across the centuries collide and fuse together. Where possible, thematic links between pieces are aligned with harmonic transitions and segues, of which there are several on The Waiting Sky.

Five of the works recorded here are by your Associate Composers, Oliver Tarney and Marco Galvani. Can you tell us about the process of working with them – is the working relationship when they’re writing their pieces for you very hands-on, or do you tend to leave them to their own devices?

We’ve been very lucky to work with our two Associate Composers over the last few years and the process varies from piece to piece. Galvani’s The Oxen is an example of a piece that has undergone various transformations in its lifetime, evolving via several performances until we reached the final version that we have recorded. Tarney’s triptych of The Waiting Sky, Balulalow, and The Wise Men and the Star is also something that has evolved over the last few years, building outwards from Balulalow, which was the first piece to be written. In contrast, Galvani’s On Christmas Morn was originally commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Classic FM for performances by The Sixteen in their 2017 Christmas programme, and we are proud to include it to round off the programme.

We’re looking forward to continue working with both of our Associate Composers, as well as other emerging talents such as Rhiannon Randle, whose stunning O Magnum Mysterium features on the disc. We are also honoured to have Sir James MacMillan as our New Music Patron, supporting us in this work.

Listening to these new works, there are a lot of glimpses of familiar tonalities – Whitacre, Muhly, Howells and more besides seem to appear momentarily and then disappear. Would you say there’s any kind of definable “school” emerging among this generation of composers, with identifiable common qualities?

I wouldn’t go so far as to describe new choral music as forming a particular ‘school’, but there are shared characteristics that have become prevalent which do perhaps suggest a hint of an emergent ‘style’. Part of this sound is the approach to dissonance and form in a generation of composers following the Spiritual Minimalism of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, fusing this language with the melodic charm of composers such as John Rutter. It is fascinating and exciting to collaborate with young choral composers today, working as they are with such a rich choral inheritance.

The interleaving of Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, In dulci jubilo and Hieronymus Praetorius’ expansive Magnificat is a glorious musical tour de force. Do you worry that Praetorius’ idiom, which you acknowledge would quite probably have been augmented by instrumental doubling of the vocal lines in contemporary performance, loses something of its power when presented by voices alone?

Whilst an a cappella performance of this piece may lack textural variety and depth provided by a range of period instruments, it also takes on its own sonic identity and parameters. We have tried to capture the range of textures and articulation in the music in a way that shows the breadth of vocal expression and colour of the choir. This potential to do that with this piece is unique in the programme and it is one of my favourite tracks for that reason.

Following this album centred on Christmas (and the seasons before and after it), do you envisage other recordings in the future with a unifying seasonal theme?

Possibly! Seasons do provide a useful backdrop for recordings, although this is of course a well-trodden path for choirs. We are working on a range of collaborative projects which provide opportunities to present our work in less traditional ways. Watch this space!

Sansara

Available Format: CD