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lake crescent, olympic national park

(This is the fourth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous, post go here; for the next post, go here; for the complete series, go here.)

Peter’s laid back manner extended outside the rehearsal room too. In a long and memorable conversation some of us had with him (in a pub, naturally, he’s English after all), a number of topics were discussed. Along the way he encouraged an enthusiastic undergrad who wanted to start a Renaissance choir, saying that 16 was a good size for a group, because it allows you to do double-choir pieces with 2 voices on each part, and that was a good entry point. I said to the undergrad, “Wow, but you are just a kid” and remembered only later that Peter was himself an undergrad when he started the group. The “kid” also brought up the book “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care),” which I clearly need to look up, maybe it’ll clarify the A-flat and A-natural comment too. At some point it transpired that Peter is a big cricket fan, and an elected MCC member[1], and so we discussed the Ashes, which were ongoing, and also Sachin Tendulkar (naturally). (I do have to point out that his Ashes prediction was off though. England, who were 2-0 at the time, went on to win 3-0, and not 5-0. That was some serious wishful thinking, Peter!)

A variety of topics got touched on that evening. There was a discussion about music in prisons, since one of the summer school participants directed choirs in Juvenile Hall, and whether criminals, or anyone else, could be taught to appreciate something that they hadn’t grown up around, and whether it could help correct their behaviour. (There was a little bit of curiosity about someone like me, who had grown up with very different music, but was now singing in choirs. If only they could see my confused YouTube history!) It wasn’t all about music though — we talked about fried eggs in England (where they’ve always known how to fry eggs) and in Japan (where they have mastered this foreign dish, and now do them the exact same perfect way always). Someone asked Peter where he bought his jackets, and, coming back to music, there was a question (from me, I admit) about how he gets his singers to produce the sound he wants. (More on this below.)

But the thing he said that made my evening (well, apart from the statement that he was a Guardian reader, like yours truly) was how a month-long vacation he took to India in 1989 was his best vacation ever, and that he would love to do that again, but his schedule did not allow it. We talked about the places he visited and didn’t visit, and when I said something about the Taj being wonderful inspite of the chaos all around it, he said emphatically that he had actually loved the chaos. Frankly, I’m not sure there is a better way to endear yourself to an/this Indian than to say that. It is a sentiment that is always good to hear and which I hear quite rarely, whether I’m talking to western people who have visited India or to Indians themselves. And through it all he polished off some food, multiple sides of greens (with an enthusiastic “More greens!”) and a few drinks. It was a very pleasant evening, and I know for a fact that he charmed the socks off at least one person other than me.

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Peter’s demeanour (and floppy hair) give him an avuncular air that he may well have had even 30 years ago. He said in passing more than once that though he went to Oxford as an organ scholar and was also a bass, he wasn’t particularly good at either, and thought it best to start a group instead. I have no evidence either way about the “wasn’t particularly good” bit, but it strikes me that researching the historical aspects of the Renaissance reportoire, (re)discovering composers and pieces from that period, bringing to life music that sometimes hasn’t been performed in as much as 400 years, and generally being lost in that world really does suit him[2], perhaps more than being a performer might have. Working with his band of singers to give concerts around the world and popularize the style and its music is what drives him, and has from the beginning. I would imagine that the logistical and mundane aspects of his work are not insignificant (for instance, there was an email recently about TSSS Seattle taking a break in 2014 to do some financial reevaluation, and of course, there is a lot of time spent travelling and organising things), but the payoff of producing in the real world the sound of the ideal choir that he has in his mind is clearly worth it to him.

The image of a 10-person choir, standing in a semi-circle with the conductor in front has been with Peter from the very beginning, circa 1973. The sound he was after was inspired by a well-known group of the time, called The Clerks of Oxenford, but even after he could hear the ideal in his own head, it was a long time before it became clear how to consistently obtain it. The group is famous today for its clarity and balance between voices, its expressivity but also its precision, which relies on pure tones and very little vibrato[3]. When I asked him what he says to his singers today to obtain that sound, he said that a new singer coming to the group is most likely in their twenties and has heard the Tallis Scholars sound on CD all their lives, so they already know what he wants[4]. All the struggle to capture the ideal sound was in the early days. Though millions of listeners are already perfectly content with their sound, Peter believes that the best years of the group are ahead of them, and the average sound of the group actually has room for improvement, though, I suspect, its best sound doesn’t.

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[1] I seem to have reached a strange point in life where the people I know to whom the name Peter Phillips means something have no idea what “elected member of the MCC” is, and those to whom “elected member of the MCC” means something have no idea who Peter Phillips is. Oh well.

[2] While roaming around some of the nearby National Parks after TSSS, an analogy occurred to me that I quite liked. While other directors are content to go up and down the (deservedly) popular and exciting trails or climbs such as Half Dome and Mt. Whitney, Peter is off in some backcountry no one has explored much at all, and comes back with reports of what wondrous sights he has beheld.

[3] I can easily imagine minimizing vibrato being a big challenge back then, and perhaps even now, if my amateur choirs are anything to go by. I always hear too many singers trying too hard for it around me. As an Indian who came to choral
singing very late in life, I feel lucky that my default method is to have minimal vibrato.

[4] Even better, the London singing scene is so well tuned(!) that the same singers change their style when singing for different groups because each conductor’s preferences and each group’s style are well understood on the professional scene.

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