The King’s Singers: An Interview with David Hurley

David Hurley is a countertenor for the tremendously successful a cappella group The King’s Singers. I spoke to David ahead of the group’s concert in Oxford on Thursday 20th June.

Your upcoming concerts are celebrating the music of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Sir George Shearing. Do either of these composers have a special relationship with The King’s Singers?

Early on in the group’s existence one of the many fine arrangers that provided arrangements for the group was Richard Rodney Bennett, who was then based in London. He was a very talented musician, who, in addition to his arranging, was a wonderful composer and jazz pianist. He also had success as a composer of film and TV scores. He wrote House of Sleepe for the group in the 1970s, and to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary in 1993, we commissioned him to write another piece. The result was his incredible setting of Sermons and Devotions by the 17th Century poet and cleric John Donne, one-time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Richard also wrote some arrangements for the King’s Singers’ recording with jazz legend George Shearing. Both were by then based in New York, although both came over here regularly. Working with George was extraordinary. Whenever the group performed in New York we would invite George and his wife, Ellie, to our concerts, and they have been friends of successive generations of King’s Singers.

The King’s Singers often share the stage with jazz musicians, and for your next set of concerts you will be performing with pianist Gwilym Simcock and double bass player Malcolm Creese. What problems and benefits does performing with jazz musicians bring for a classically based ensemble?

We have performed with many musicians who use different forms of improvisation. The jazz musicians, such as George Shearing and the wonderful Acoustic Triangle understand our limitations – we need to have our harmony pre-ordained to ensure its integrity. Within this structure we can adapt to the variations between different performances, and you soon come to see the patterns and themes that the musicians catch onto when led by one of their colleagues. In addition to jazz musicians, we have performed with classical musicians who use similar techniques. The early music group, L’Arpeggiata, uses improvisation in its interpretations of Renaissance and Baroque music. Ensemble Sarband, a group of mainly Turkish musicians led by Dr Vladimir Ivanoff use the extraordinary modes and themes of classical Middle Eastern music to “improvise” their music. The first few times we worked with them were entirely baffling, but after a while we gradually began to understand the incredible complexity of their music.

Overall it is very good for us to see how other groups work, and although we won’t be rushing to improvise, it does show a freedom in your performance of music, which is very refreshing.

‘Classical crossover’ acts are often criticised for diluting the artistic integrity of classical music in order to gain mass-appeal. What is your view on the label ‘classical crossover’, and how would you counter such criticism?

We don’t really like the phrase ‘Classical Crossover’. In its 45 years, the group have always tackled a wide variety of repertoire, and each strand of that wide repertoire has both similarities and differences from the other strands. We don’t tend to mix our styles – i.e. we don’t sing our madrigals in the style of pop songs, or vice versa, which to my mind is what ‘Crossover’ is – the opera singer singing a pop song, or the pop singer singing French chansons. There is a subtle difference in the sounds we make in our different styles of music. Of course our voices are best classified as choral, perhaps, rather than classical. We avoid vibrato, and are just trying to use our individual voices to add our part of the single voice of the group. We are rather picky in our choice of repertoire, and will not just try anything. We have to be sure that we can do justice to the music we sing.

Do you think that more classical acts should experiment with performing jazz, folk and pop music?

I think most groups have a good idea of where they want their repertoire to be based. Having said that, you should be exploring the possibilities in all aspects of performance. A specialist early music group may not wish to be as eclectic as a group like the King’s Singers, as that is not their raison d’être. Having said that it is good for all musicians to listen to a wide variety of music. They concentrate in mastering their area of expertise. However it is interesting how many early music conductors have been moving forward in history to examine new types of repertoire. In the choral world it is far less unusual to sing a wide variety of repertoire, from the Renaissance to the present day.

How has the wide variety of songs that The King’s Singers cover fed back to influence your interpretations of classical pieces?

We tend to approach music as just that – a piece of music that has been created to communicate something to the listener. Therefore we are most interested in finding the best way to connect with the audience through the music. We are less interested in being authentic in our performance, and we’re happy to adjust the music to fit our sound and line-up. We don’t ever offer our version as the definitive version. This was definitely the case with our recording of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium. We used multi-tracking recording techniques to layer up the 40 parts of Tallis’s masterpiece, more as an experiment than anything. However when we had sung the last notes we set up the recording desk to play the whole performance. The truth is that most recordings are full of edits, where different performances are stitched together to create the ‘perfect’ version. The techniques we used for this recording come from the world of studio pop recording, so it was interesting to see the technique used on a Renaissance piece.

Generally in concert repertoire we subtly change the way we sing the different styles, almost without realising it.

Often The King’s Singers separate a concert into several ‘sets’; why do you find it helpful to organise concerts in this manner?

This is a technique we have used for most of the group’s existence. It helps the audience concentrate on the particular type of music featured. We don’t always use this 5 set pattern, but you do need some sort of framework – it might be a theme for the entire programme – because we don’t wish to just give a random mix of tunes that leave the audience guessing.

As the longest-running member of The King’s Singers, in what ways do you think that the group has changed over the past twenty years?

The singers in the group seem to have got younger as I stay the same age! The truth is that the philosophy hasn’t changed, but the market is very different. There are still concert series for live performance, and one of the great things that we have experienced, particularly recently, is often bringing a younger audience to a classical concert than many other musical offerings. This is due to phenomenon like YouTube, Spotify, Twitter and Facebook. YouTube and Spotify in particular are great ways for people to experience a very wide variety of musical styles from around d the world. I believe younger listeners have a much more eclectic knowledge of music as a result of this, and this is a great thing. The less good aspect is that more and more people’s music consumption is a very personal thing, enclosed by a pair of headphones. However sharing musical likes and dislikes on social media is a great PR tool for musicians. The King’s Singers are first and foremost a live concert group, and we want to encourage people to join together to enjoy performances.

In the King’s Singers we don’t like a singer leaving, but the richness of the group’s heritage is down to the continuing membership of the group.

The King’s Singers feature two countertenors, including yourself; have you ever found that people can be sceptical or dismissive of men singing in falsetto?

The truth is that the original members of the group experienced most of the consternation amongst certain listeners. These days people seem less amazed by men singing falsetto. As countertenors more and more inhabit the concert platform and the opera stage, alongside the common use of falsetto in pop music, the amusement and surprise factors seem to have diminished (I’m glad to say).

Recently there has been a huge a cappella revival, instigated in a large part by the American television series Glee; do The King’s Singers embrace this popularisation of a cappella or do you distance yourselves from it?

The upsurge of a cappella music is great, and the variety of successful groups shows the popularity of ensemble singing is on the rise. Our style is quite a way from the style popularised in Glee and Last Choir Standing. However we like the variety, and consider it to be a healthy thing. We’re sometimes asked why we don’t have women singers in the King’s Singers. It would be a boring world if all the a cappella groups were the same line-up.

The King’s Singers first summer school is taking place in July at Royal Holloway; why did the group decide to organise this event?

We have done educational work for many years, and have led longer courses, particularly in Germany. We have long been wanting to run a UK based course, and thanks to the efforts of our office at Music Productions we have realised it this year. Royal Holloway  is a great place to run this, and we will be joined by Rupert Gough, the College’s Director of Music. We are hoping to make this an annual or biennial event.

The King’s Singers sang the winning entry of the ‘A Carol for Christmas Competition’ last December; how important is it for you to work with, and perform pieces by, young composers?

I think all commissioning of new music is a good thing, and the Carol for Christmas competition was a great opportunity to give composers of all ages a chance to have various styles of carol performed. One of the categories was a carol for the King’s Singers line-up, and we were delighted with the entries. I was one of the judges (with John Rutter and Stephen Cleobury), and we had an extraordinary number of pieces to scrutinise. The standard was very high.

The King’s Singers also commission new music in a more normal manner, and have chosen both well established composers, and others who show huge potential. You always wonder what will appear, but usually what I imagine is nothing like the reality which keeps life interesting.

J. Wadsworth

The King’s Singers will perform two concerts titled ‘Lullaby of Birdland: A tribute to Richard Rodney Bennett and George Shearing’, at Cadogan Hall in London on Saturday 15th June and at St. John the Evangelist Church Oxford on Thursday 20th June. They will also be appearing at the Stour Music Festival on Friday 21st June and at Portsmouth Cathedral on Saturday 22nd June. The King’s Singers official website, which includes more details about upcoming concerts, can be found at http://www.kingssingers.com/

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