Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?
I was crazy about Beethoven as a child and I listened to everything. My Dad taught me and my brother the piano and we learnt simplified piano transcriptions of some movements from Beethoven symphonies. I also was transfixed by Elizabeth Soderstrom’s voice, and after hearing her in ‘Capriccio’ my brother smuggled me backstage to meet her. She was so nice. I was lucky enough to study with her. I didn’t really choose to do music, I just assumed that’s what I would do. The moment that blew me away was at school hearing ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’. I used to like frightening myself by listening to it with the volume up in the dark! Also’s Ligeti ‘Lux Aterna’ and ‘Requiem’. I was totally transfixed by the colours, textures and extremity of the vocal writing.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I wanted to be Freddie Mercury. I still want to be Freddie Mercury. I also loved The Jackson 5, such great performers. I especially loved the horn section in the Jackson 5 songs. When I was growing up my mum listened a lot to the African band Osibisa and Leonard Cohen, as well as Mahler and Mozart.
My brother was an Astro-physicist so keeping one eye on the cosmos was to me a normal thing to do and there was really no separation to me between pure scientific experiment, and music and sound as experiment. My dad was an engineer specialising in radar and brought home loads of bits of equipment to play with that made all these great sounds: there was always for me an awareness of pure sound.
Rabbi Rosenblum at our synagogue had a completely amazing high tenor voice and used to make beautiful complex vocalisations from liturgical tunes that I later recorded him singing and memorised. This particular influence led me to a musical trip around the Middle East where I became fascinated by Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish music, and I really enjoyed tracing song lines from the most ancient liturgical chants I could find to present day Christian hymns that began every morning at junior school. I continue to be fascinated by forms of music such as Bosnian Sevdah that combine scales and forms from several different cultures to make a new form.
Then of course there was the classic situation of a really amazing music teacher at school, Mrs Ellefson, who with seemingly insouciant ease created loads of opportunities for a young sound freak to freely explore all kinds of music. When I came to London, I studied at City University where music could be read as a science: you could choose to study sound recording and the physics of music, ethnomusicology and aesthetics and criticism. They called it the ‘consciousness transformation department’! My first professional experiences were with Complicite, then called Theatre de Complicite. That experience really opened my eyes to what was possible physically with regard to singing. My work with Richard Thomas and exploration of comedy in music has been an underlying constant. I love comedy, I love its form. I think it’s one of the noble arts. No one seems to takes it seriously enough.
Rather short-sightedly I’m afraid I never really thought of music as a career in the conventional sense of the word. If I had, my choices and behaviour might have been very different.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Too many to write here, I suppose the biggest challenge is the daily battle with myself. Also the eternal battle with finances.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of my latest CD recording of ‘Lore Ipsum’ by Frederic Acquaviva. It’s an experimental piece based on my voice and the cultural news of the day because culture is the barometer for all that is going on in other areas of the life. ‘Lore Ipsum’ took several years to come to fruition and has I think really benefited from being slowly cooked.
I’m very happy with the collaboration I have with violinist Aisha Orezbayeva. We have been performing concerts of ‘Kafka Fragments’ that have been going really well. However, on the whole I’m usually unhappy with everything I do. When I listen to recordings of myself I want to kill myself. I always try to persuade people to let me re-record.
I find it easier to be pleased with things I’ve done as a director as there is a bit more distance involved. I directed the UK premiere of Kagel ‘Staatstheater’ at Durham university and the Sage and I was really pleased with that. All the details were just right, the timings, the individual performances. It was really great.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Works that are written in the true spirit of creation and experimentation.I think I’m best in repertoire that require a huge range of colours and where the vocal range itself is wide. I enjoy music where the vocal writing is instrumental if it’s a living or dead composer, i.e. Bach, Furrer, Okegham, Aperghis, Barry. I like it when the composer knows traditional vocal technique but consciously reaches for something beyond it. Messiaen is incredible because he combines the spirit of experimentation with spiritual transcendence. I love birdsong and I love the texts he uses. I often work with conceptual artists who experiment in sound which is fascinating because they often have a very strong ideas that can be very pure.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I have a list of pieces I want to perform and a personal schedule for a year of when I want to perform/record them. Often seasons are artist-led so it’s more who I want to work with, performers and composers, then choices are made in collaboration.
Some seasons have an element of ‘chance operation’! In other words a strange and fabulous project can appear seemingly out of the ether.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I like Wiltons Music Hall, the Philharmonie Berlin, Peckham car park, CBSO centre, Venice fish market, Musikverein and Stefansdom. All these places have a very specific acoustic that I really like.In stefansdom the acoustic changes according to where you are.
I also love to perform in art galleries and churches because the space is more flexible.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
My first response to this question is I love to sing things that are totally new, experimental, hot off the press! I like to sing things in Russian because that language has such a wonderful mouthfeel. To listen to, a big treat for me is a massive orchestral concert, maybe Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony, or the concert version of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ in a huge venue that can really contain the sound. For similar reasons I love singing orchestral song cycles where the full throttle of the orchestra is right behind you, rather than in opera where it is contained in the pit.
I love to perform ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ because it is a groundbreaking piece in every way. In the same way I like to perform John Cage’s ‘Aria’ which is another piece that is way ahead of its time and set the bar for solo vocal pieces that came after it. John Cage between 1952 and 1975 I think is fabulous. I love the texture virtuosity and ranginess found in Aperghis’ vocal music such as the ‘Recitation’, ‘Monomanie’ and ‘Tourbillons’. For similar reasons I enjoy singing Mahnkopf.
I like to listen to music where the composer is clearly on a creative quest and where you can hear the struggle and process. Also where the composer has embedded codes and secrets within the music. I’m still a Beethoven fan: I wish he had written more vocal music. I’m also a fan of Chopin’s piano music: he has a totally original voice, his use of harmony is really amazing and I love that he concentrated mainly on this one instrument.
I listen to Carnatic music. It’s fascinating the way the tuning up process is included in the form and isn’t separated. It’s interesting that the music is both spiritual and functional with set times of day to be performed. I also relish the extraordinary length of time over which these ragas develop. It’s one of the reasons I also explore the operas of Wagner or the films of Tarkovsky and also Kubrik’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. I really enjoy that these creators allow the images to hang for a very long time that allows you to completely absorb them.
At the moment I’m listening a lot to the Notre Dame school.
Both Charles Ives and Varese get my imagination going as does Nancarrow.
As a listener and performer, of course Bach is fantastic. I like to try and sing his solo instrumental pieces. I went through a phase when I was a student of transcribing instrumental solos to sing, such as the Brecker Brothers and also Anthony Braxton because I enjoy practising music that really stretches the technique and forces me to expand my technique. I also enjoy singing Sorabji for its insane complexity and sensuality.
I have been really lucky in having composers write for me, who have written especially for my voice. I have a ‘marmite’ voice – people love it or hate it. So for singers with marmite voices, having rep written especially for you is doubly important. I’m incredibly grateful to composers who take on this strange instrument.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Cathy Berberian, Françoise Kubler, Leo Slezak, Kim Borg, Karita Mattila, Pascal Galois, Christopher Redgate, Anton Lukoszevieze, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Pappano, Sylvia Hallet, Samer Totah, Natalie Stulzman, Scott Ross, Roger Norrington (especially conducting Beethoven), Glenn Gould, Mark Simpson.
All the performers in the Occupy the pianos’Pierrot Lunaire line up – I nearly fainted when I saw who was playing.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
An audience member crawling into the stage and trying to set fire to me
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I usually advise young musicians to do everything in the opposite way that I did.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
To be performing ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ on KEPLER – 452b.
I would love to be curating and performing in a contemporary/electro acoustic opera season at the Menaus Opera House.
Also I would like to be in a position to realise projects much faster than I can now.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Endless time discussing ideas with the people I trust the most.
Endless time in a recording studio.
What is your most treasured possession?
My instrument (my body) – though strictly speaking I suppose I don’t really own it, it’s more on loan until it dissolves back into the sub atomic flow.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Listening and eating but NEVER together.
What is your present state of mind?