Interview with Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini
A circus artist suspended between heaven and earth on a narrow ribbon. A capella vocal music. A cathedral. What do these things have in common?
Everything, to I Fagiolini. That particular match of elements was the vision of Perth Festival director Jonathan Holloway, and it brought the British vocal ensemble to Australia for the first time in 2012. “How Like An Angel”, which brought I Fagiolini together with Brisbane-based acrobat group Circa, went on to tour UK cathedrals to thundering applause.
“I think the way we look at music is interesting,” says group director Robert Hollingworth. “As far as the brand of British renaissance music groups is concerned, we’re not a very British group. Perhaps we are closer to British theatre than we are to British renaissance vocal groups. We’re certainly very British in that we’re good at innovation, and at seeing things in an unusual way.”
Mainland Europe, says Hollingworth, is often bemused by his ensemble’s lack of conformity to their expectations of a stiff-upper-lip formality.
“I’m interested in music with a social context. I like looking at music that was written for special occasions or to amuse people, because it tells you a lot about how people listened to music and a bit about the social setting.”
Other past projects have included “The Full Monteverdi”, a dramatized madrigal evening set in a restaurant around the idea of six couples breaking up, and “Tallis in Wonderland”, a performance/sound installation that theatrically deconstructs the concept of polyphony.
For their inaugural Musica Viva tour, Hollingworth plans to dramatise two central works: Giovanni Croce’s “Il gioco dell’Occa”, or “The Game of the Goose”, and Clement Janequin’s “La Chasse” (“The Hunt”), a viscerally descriptive and somewhat scatalogical account of a deer hunt.
“The Game of the Goose is a board game which you can still buy in shops in Europe today. We’ve done a simple staging of that, with people playing the board game.
“In the Janequin, we only meet the animal at the very end. We spend most of the piece looking for him, and finding his droppings, and seeing what state they’re in. Coiled nicely, and steaming, which means he’s in a good state. It’s full of sound effects, dogs barking, horses’ hooves, so it’s quite good fun. It’s a nightmare to memorize – I think we’re the only group ever to have done that.”
For Hollingworth, the drive to present musical works in dramatic stagings comes from the urge to communicate their content more effectively.
“There’s that Thomas Beecham quote: ‘The English don’t like music; just the noise it makes.’ We try to get people to really involve themselves in the whole piece. I think a huge issue for choral groups, given that we spend a lot of time in the 16th century, is accepting the fact that most of this music was not written to be sat down and listened to. It might have been written for a social context, or for the pleasure of those singing it, which is quite a different thing, or to be performed in church. And polyphony, of its very nature, is difficult to follow. My life in the last years has been trying to work out how to present this music to an audience so that they can get inside it.”
Though perfect intonation is important to I Fagiolini, to the extent that they spend considerable amounts of time on tuning perfect intervals, the passion of the moment in a live performance counts for more, says Hollingworth, than clinical refinement. For him, polyphony is an endless journey.
“I’m very strong about singers in polyphony finding their own line from beginning to end. This is influenced by things that happen along the way. It’s like light travelling in space – the other singers are the planets which bend the light because of weight and gravity, but there’s still a beginning and an end. There has to be direction.”
Though an avid researcher into the specifics of period performance practice, Hollingworth believes that today’s performers cannot escape the pressures of context and taste. Performance venues are larger, requiring a different vocal technique, and some things we know for certain to be historically accurate, like portamento, or the act of sliding from one note to another, are rejected by today’s performers because they are considered bad taste.
“We try to kid ourselves that we can do everything as they did before, but we know that part of it is still down to taste. And I think we should just embrace that. On stage you have to make sense of the music for an audience now.”
The second half of the concert features Poulenc’s “Sept chansons” for eight solo voices – “Erotic poetry” by Paul Eluard. Sometimes it’s just like a series of blurred black and white images. But it’s so expressive. Monteverdi and Poulenc are the two composers who really draw me out.”
Hollingworth has no difficulty in finding points of reference to Musica’s four core values of quality, diversity, challenge and joy.
“You can’t excuse a lack of quality. If we’re tremendously entertaining but we sing like dogs, I’m sure we won’t be asked back.
“You need diversity in programming. When you’re singing with a vocal a capella group you need variety, and I love to put a South African piece beside a Monteverdi Madrigal beside an erotic setting by Poulenc beside a communal dog turd chanson from 1528.
“I think it’s important to keep challenging the singers – you have to keep them fresh. And I think we’re particularly good at that in I Fagiolini. That’s why I adore Monteverdi, because you never reach 100%. But it’s lovely to aim at it.
“Music-making ought to be about sharing, actually. And that leads to joy.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini