As Purely, Cleanly and Simply as Possible (1/2)

David James and the Hilliard Ensemble have given the first performances of many major choral Works by Arvo Pärt. The singer describes their interpretative approach in this interview, raising many interesting pointers for performers of Pärt’s music.

The Hilliard Ensemble perform a lot of early music. Do you use a different vocal technique for Arvo Pärt’s music?
James: As far as performing Arvo’s music and the required vocal techniques go, I can only speak from our experience. After all, we started as an early music group and we applied the principles that guide good ‘early music’ singing – at least the ones we adhere to – to Arvo’s music. Fundamentally, we in the Hilliard have always tried to sing as purely, cleanly and simply as possible. Therefore, all the vowels must be as purely coloured as possible. And this helps good intonation, singing in tune – which is likewise critical in Arvo’s music, because there’s no hiding: in his music, you can’t cover up singing that’s out of tune. And this comes from early music. And you find, if all the elements of a chord are absolutely in tune, then the harmony is what we call ‘locked in’, or ‘in tune’. And suddenly, in what seems to be a very small, simple chord … the overtones start, it blossoms, it becomes a much larger sound, you get these ringing tones, the harmonies start to resonate. Arvo never writes a note or changes it unless it means something, and that’s why I admire him so greatly. Why use ten notes when you can use one to say what you want to say? And that is, at least to my mind, what really sums him up for me, because one note can do it all, if you write it in the right way.

Does Pärt's Passio play a central role for you and the Hilliard Ensemble?
James: Yes, Passio has a very important place in our musical heritage as the Hilliard Ensemble. It was really the defining moment that introduced us fully to Arvo Pärt’s music. And it was performing Passio, coming to know and understand Passio, that sort of sealed our relationship – the realisation that this is really something unique. If you look at the score of Passio and analyse it, it is very, very spartan, very sparse in the sense that there are actually only three keys used. And then at the very end, just for the very end, at the critical moment when Christ is on the cross and is about to die, suddenly,
the four Evangelists come together on one unison A-note. And then there’s this silence, this death – he gave up the ghost, we’d say, his spirit isn’t in him, he gave up his spirit. And then there’s this extraordinary moment when the choir and everybody comes in, in D-major. So this chord comes in and it just goes right through your body! It’s an amazing moment – every time, it sends shivers down my spine. It’s like the richest Brahms you’ve ever heard, and you realise that there is life afterwards. This is the most important moment, the death, but it's actually looking forward, it’s for a reason, it’s a positive thing, and I think that this last page is the most stunning page of music you could ever wish to hear.