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Royal Rounds: David Hurley of The King’s Singers talks to Jeremy Siepmann

October 1, 2012

The King’s Singers (© B Ealovega)

For two generations and more, The King’s Singers have occupied a special place on the musical landscape, first in Britain, then, remarkably rapidly, across the globe. The world around them has undergone transformative changes, tastes and fashions have succeeded each other in the traditional tumble, yet The King’s Singers have held their place in popular affections while maintaining their identity without recourse to trendy affectation—and without artistic compromise. David Hurley, the longest-serving member, has been one of them for twenty-two years and can look back with a unique perspective. He began our conversation by explaining how it all began.

‘The founder members were all choral scholars at King’s College, Cambridge. This was in the early 60s. And they sang together, there, in a line-up that consisted of a couple of countertenors, a tenor, a couple of baritones and a bass. Then in 1968, they were given the opportunity to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in a concert headed by Neville Marriner, and the actual name of The King’s Singers was born on that occasion. They started getting quite a lot of demands for a concert appearances, then radio, and then television, which was fantastic for raising the group’s profile—but this was something of a bittersweet experience, since the television appearances all concentrated on the lighter side of the repertoire, and that was the image that prevailed, though in fact the group had always concentrated on a very broad repertoire.’

Was there, I wondered, a presiding ethos at the outset (the cultivation of particular kinds of music and interpretative styles)? There’s no doubt that the group was almost instantly recognisable, pretty well from the beginning. ‘One of the things that helped create the very distinctive sound of The King’s Singers was working with some extremely talented arrangers—among them Gordon Langford, and a little later Daryl Runswick, Goff Richards and Peter Knight, who was a staff arranger at the BBC. Interestingly, both Goff and Gordon were originally arrangers of brass band music, and they approached the group in a similar manner, trying to get six voices to sing in the same way but at different pitches, creating a wonderful, balanced, harmonious sound, which is always attractive. In terms of the group’s ethos, it would look at all styles of music and see what did or didn’t seem appropriate. For example, within our wide-ranging repertoire, we go from the 15th century right through to the present. That said, there are swathes of music that we just don’t tackle. The baroque for instance. We’re not, really, a baroque group. Where we really pick up again is largely in the 19th century, with the growth of the unaccompanied partsong—a later chapter, if you like, in the development of the madrigal. Pearson, and composers like that, have a tremendously madrigalian feeling. And obviously choral music, both sacred and secular, remained popular in the 20th century. And very importantly, we’ve also been able to commission a huge amount of work. We’ve commissioned works from Berio, Maxwell Davies, Ligeti, Penderecki, big names like that, but we’re always looking for new composers, not just the established names. There are now over 200 commissions that have been done since the group’s foundation.’

All long-standing ensembles evolve, some more perceptibly than others. If The King’s Singers have evolved more at a more modest pace than some, the reasons are not hard to find. ‘The group’s actual turnover, in terms of members, has been incredibly slow and steady over the years, so the changes have been so gradual and subtle that it’s hard to see from the inside, as it were. The sound is remarkably similar, so is the music, and the range of music. But along the way we had new members, for instance, who had considerable experience working with some of the top early music groups. And while we’re keen at least to have an eye on “authenticity”, so-called, we approach all our music in the same way: first and foremost as a piece of music that we’re trying to communicate to an audience. That’s the number one thing, the most important thing of all: that we’re a communications organisation, that we succeed in reaching our audience.’

At least one of their secrets in that department, perhaps, is the fact that they have no conductor. They sing direct to their audiences, without the intercession of a figurehead, so to speak. Fans hoping to sit in on rehearsals, however, will be disappointed if they’re expecting some kind of informal concert. ‘They will. They will. What’s interesting about a King’s Singers rehearsal, is that there’s really very little extended singing—and a lot of chat! The expectation is that we all know the notes very well before we get there. The rehearsal is solely for creating a performance. Sometimes, for instance, when there are bits where it’s difficult to get together, we’ll spend a bit of time working on the rhythms and chording. We spend a lot of time working on the sound. If it doesn’t seem that a particular chord is tuning properly, so to speak, we try and knock it down to its basics, starting with the bottom two voices and then gradually building it up. If it’s a chord with a common chord within it, we try to get that perfect. And then we add in the other notes. That way, you can hear what you should be listening to, which colleague you should be closely relating to within the chord. Even if it’s over in half a second, your ear’s attuned to it. And the work we do on one chord sharpens our ears for all the other chords—the work is not exclusively specific to that particular moment. And to make this work, as I say, there has to be a lot of chat. Obviously you get points of disagreement along the way. That’s inevitable—and desirable—but the point is how you deal with that disagreement. You know, sometimes will say “Well, let’s try it this way tonight, and maybe another way tomorrow,” and it very quickly becomes clear if one way was the wrong way and the other was right. It becomes clear to all. You’ve sorted out the situation, and that’s great.’

Needless to say, The King’s Singers in their four decades-plus have had a great many ‘tonights’. Has Hurley learned a great deal in actual performance that he could not have learned in rehearsal? ‘Oh definitely! We’ve got a quite new singer among us, who joined us in February, and he, obviously, has an awful lot of repertoire to get through that we’ve known and done for years. To me, having been through it, but also watching him go through it, I’ve been struck by how extraordinarily much one does learn in performance. Apart from anything else, you know you have to get through it! I mean in a rehearsal, you can stop. In a recording you can stop. But in a performance you have to go through it, you have constantly to be thinking about the next thing that’s happening. If you start analysing what happened just before, you’ll fall off the rails again.’

The King’s Singers are veterans of just about every music venue going. Always sensitive to their environment, they suit their style and their programmes to the venue of the moment, no less in their recordings than in their concerts. ‘We do our recordings in a number of different ways. We do acoustic recording in larger spaces—churches or halls or whatever—and of course we do studio recordings, and it’s largely the repertoire that determines which venue we go for. Generally, we would record the more classical repertoire as most choirs would, in a space with a good, natural sound, with a stereo pair and a little extra help from another microphone picking up the acoustic from further away, further down the church—without that much specific control over individual aspects of the group. When we do the lighter repertoire, on the other hand, we’ll go into a studio, where we can isolate the individual voices and have full control. We take great care in recording, to make everything as correct as possible. One of the problems, though, particularly with acoustic recording, that are stitched together by editing, is that you can effectively kill the performance. By having too many stitch marks. You can string together a whole load of different performances and yes, at one level, it’s perfect, but it can lack the excitement of a truly spontaneous performance. Interestingly, the Naxos “Pater Noster” recording was done live, with just one patch session. So there are very, very few edits in the finished product. The large majority of the pieces will be as we performed them on the evening. And I love this. Yes, maybe it has a few little lapses, maybe it’s not as perfect as a normal recording, but it’s got the excitement!’

That living for the moment, that combination of discipline and spontaneity, has been a hallmark of The King’s Singers from the beginning. What are the most important things David Hurley has learned, as a musician and as a person, from his privileged years as a member? ‘When I came to the group, I was all about singing the melody. I could sing a melody very well but I’d never really thought harmonically. And I think that’s been the best lesson for me. I sang before I joined The King’s Singers, and I enjoyed my life before The King’s Singers, but my instinct has always been to work as part of a team. And that’s another aspect that has been extremely rewarding. Both as a member of the team and when we’re off the stage, as it were. And that, to me, is extremely important. We get along extremely well offstage, but of course there’ll always be the odd problems and challenges along the way. I liken our relationships to siblings rather than friends. I mean, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. It’s a little bit like that, you have to sort of get on with them, and most of the time there’s a bond between you that’s incredibly strong. Because you’re all in the boat together. And that, I think, is really how the group survives. It has been described by some people as being like a marriage without the sex. I think I prefer the siblings!’

Though he largely masterminded the recorded version of ‘Pater Noster’, Hurley is quick to disclaim credit for the concept. ‘This was originally the brainchild of a former member, Philip Lawson. We’d been talking about the many wonderful settings have been made of the Lord’s Prayer, and it was he who came up with the idea of an actual concert sequence made up mainly of these, but also going through each of the line of the text, and finding other pieces that really illuminated these. The repertoire for the recording, though, is quite different, in several ways, from that original concept. These are words that you mumble. You know, you go to church and you mumble them. But the thing that we found so interesting about it was that there’s a universality amongst people who have a Christian upbringing, or who grew up in a Christian society. This is a text that’s going to be universally understandable. And that’s what we found so exciting. It’s one of the main reasons, I think, that these different settings are so powerful. We have settings by Schütz (one marvellously robust setting by him), by Tavener, a wonderfully stark setting by Stravinsky, and a very different setting by Bernstein, who of course was not a Christian, but in his Mass, he has an amazing setting. Sung by a single voice, it’s almost like a kind of improvisation, designed to make it sound as if the soloist is making it up as he goes along. It has an incredible simplicity to it—and it’s quite unlike anything else on the album. And there’s a wonderful setting by Duruflé: really so beautiful—both sumptuous and simple. In fact simplicity is a feature of all these settings.’

And what of life after ‘Pater Noster’? ‘Well, we’re just about to begin recording a studio album of American songs, and that’ll take us probably quite a bit of time to complete. And we’re also recording an album of a cappella, with a secondary album of orchestral versions. So that’s one rather exciting project we have ahead. Then we’re doing some French Renaissance repertoire—by Richafort and his contemporaries—which is being especially prepared for us, in new editions. Some of this has been rather neglected, but there’s some really fantastic music here. So that too is really something to look forward to. We’ll be continuing with our commissioning, and of course our touring, and even though it may seem a little premature, we’re already considering how to celebrate fifty years of The King’s Singers. That’ll be in 2018. And this year we have a marvellous tour of royal music, called Royal Rhymes and Rounds, alongside of which we’ve set up a round competition, to encourage people to write rounds. Everyone’s invited to send their contributions to us at—and we’ll perform a few of those, though obviously not all!’

And the prospect of having their work sung by The King’s Singers should have the fans scribbling rounds in their thousands. In the meantime, said singers don’t look like having much in the way of time on their hands. As they approach their half-century, they show not the slightest signs of drying up.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

The King’s Singers Biography & Discography


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