Paul Hillier in Conversation

Paul Hillier is a multi-award winning choral director, renowned world-wide for his superlative performances of a wide range of repertoire. With a catalogue of over 100 recordings, since the 1970s he has been at the forefront of early music and, latterly, of new music in particular; often combining the two with highly inventive programming across musical periods and cultures.

In 1973, Paul formed the Hilliard Ensemble, devoting his energy to the quartet for many years before moving to California in 1990 where he formed the Theatre of Voices. Between 1996 and 2003, he was Director of the prestigious Early Music Institute at Indiana University, but found he missed the performing life, and so returned to Europe to take up the position of Principal Conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in 2001, which he held until 2007. During that time he moved to Denmark and also became Chief Conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen (2003), a position he still holds.

Paul has strong, longstanding ties with some of the key composers of our time, including Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, about whom he has published books (1997 and, as editor, 2002 respectively), together with numerous anthologies of choral music, for Oxford University Press.

In 2008, amongst other projects (and having been awarded an OBE in 2006), he became Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the National Chamber Choir of Ireland (now Chamber Choir Ireland), which he will conduct in two concerts at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival to include the UK premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach: an Irish Colloquy (scored for chamber choir, guitar and two bodhráns; co-commissioned by the Choir, premiered in 2010, and recorded by them to critical acclaim).

Paul took time out of a busy schedule of rehearsals ahead of the Festival to talk with Steph Power about a range of topics from minimalism to Acallam na Senórach, to Schoenberg.



Steph Power: As a choral director, you’ve been in the vanguard of both early music and contemporary music: two areas of repertoire which may be distant historically but which, in stylistic terms for many composers writing today, have a close musical kinship. How has that ongoing relationship, as it were, between these musical periods developed over time for you?

Paul Hillier: I’ve always had those interests – I suppose it just never occurred to me not to – and I’m also strongly interested in everything that happened in between those periods; it’s just that I got hooked into doing more early music than anything, especially with the Hilliards. Once you get known in one area you tend to get asked to do the same thing over and over, naturally enough. And then I started to do more new music again in, I suppose, the ‘90s. As I’ve gone into just conducting rather than singing, new music has become, I would say, the main thing for me rather than early music.

I think the reason for that is that I just enjoy working with composers and presenting music that people have written today. It just seems to me the very natural thing to be doing. In literature, we all read some books from the past, whether it’s a hundred years ago or much older, but it’s the new stuff that grabs our attention, and it’s the same with music – except that somehow there’s this idea that tends to be around, that a lot of new music is difficult and therefore people don’t want to come and hear it and so on. I just don’t believe that, although I certainly recognise that those inhibitions – if we can call them that – are there. I think people are misleading themselves actually, and a lot of new music is much more easy to enjoy and listen to than it might appear.

I wonder if that perceived difficulty with new music began to change for audiences in the ‘70s when the sensibility, if you like, of minimalism began to emerge? – Though I think ‘minimalism’ was and remains a very problematic term, but nevertheless it seems to have stuck!

Yes – I certainly think that minimalism had a very positive influence and it’s been a bit of a gateway for people into other kinds of new music. On the other hand, there are still a lot of people involved in new music who look down their noses at what is referred to – as you say, with difficulty – as minimalism. So in a sense it doesn’t solve all the problems, but I do think it’s provided a way in for a lot of people.

It’s interesting that the rise of minimalism seemed to coincide with a huge surge of interest in ancient music – medieval music and so on.

I think that’s true. Somehow I’d inherited all that stuff and was doing it anyway – I was following my instincts you know, and then suddenly I realised that it does, in many ways, all tie together rather well, and rather a lot. But it wasn’t planned that way.

No, I’d suppose that things that turn out to be of the zeitgeist are probably never planned! It’s a fascinating subject – that bridge between ancient and modern – and it relates very particularly to Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach.

Yes, it’s interesting because we haven’t done the piece for at least two years I think, if not longer. I’ve just been looking at it and remembering the piece, as it were, and getting back into it. It’s always different when you go back to a piece – we did it for quite a lot of performances too, and so have already performed it over quite a long period. But inevitably, one’s perception shifts a little bit in the intervening time, and I think the thing I’m most struck with, actually, is how well made the piece is.

Yes, it’s beautifully written.

It’s a completely tonal language that Tarik uses, and yet there’s a certain freshness about it – it’s not like a lot of new tonal music where you feel, oh well, they’ve just ignored what happened historically. I do feel with Tarik that he knows full well what’s going on, that this is the way he writes. And I think just from the technical point of view it’s a remarkably good piece with a lot of stuff in it – and of course I wouldn’t say I’d forgotten, but I’d stopped thinking about the piece, so it was interesting to revisit all those things – both the way Tarik writes for the voices, and the way he writes for the guitar and puts the two together and so on. It’s very fresh and very imaginative.

Originally, I commissioned a smaller piece with the idea that we would then expand it into a much larger piece. Of course that’s actually what happened – which is quite nice because often those ideas don’t get followed through. But this one did I’m very glad to say. So we had a ten-minute piece which was performed quite a few times, but just in Ireland, and then this longer piece was written with the addition of the guitar; the original was a cappella and then Tarik modified some of the material and built this much longer piece, which is basically a short concert by itself.

What I was looking for was a piece that told a story. I’d reached the point a few years ago when I decided that one of the problems with presenting new choral music – let alone new music, but new choral music – to audiences, is that a lot of the pieces don’t really connect with them; not because of any difficulty in the music, but because there is no narrative, there is no reason for the audience to be interested in the text. You know, with another setting of ‘Kyrie’ or whatever, the music has got to be very good to grab people. So I started asking composers for pieces that quite simply told a story in some way or other, and of course that’s exactly what Acallam na Senórach is – it’s a set of stories in a way. And of course the piece is tailored for the Irish identity of the Choir but, having said that, not all the singers are Irish and certainly only a few of them have really an idea of how to speak Irish. So it’s a piece that other choirs can also do, and are doing.

Part of the universal appeal of the piece, it seems to me, is to do with that bridging of time and change through a mythology which is particular but has a wider resonance. It traces the 12th century Irish text, Acallam na Senórach, which takes us from the pagan times of ancient Ireland, with the old warrior kings and the belief in faerie and so on, to the era of Christianity with the coming of St Patrick. So much of the piece is about a dialogue between those two very different worlds.

Yes absolutely – you put your finger right on it. It’s the sense of dialogue that interests me in this piece. And also, it’s very dangerous these days I think, to write a purely Christian piece which relies on, well, being Christian! Because obviously, the majority of people are no longer involved in that – unless it’s a Christmas piece perhaps. But people can connect to Tarik’s piece without necessarily going the whole way towards the particular belief. It is a piece of history, it’s not a religious tract as such.

No. And Tarik uses the guitar and the bodhráns – the frame drums – as part of the narrative process. The guitar is almost a character in its own right; it’s the instrument of the otherworld and of magic, that is capable of putting people to sleep or of waking them up.

Exactly. It’s also the instrument that gives the singers a rest [laughs] – which in a piece of that length also becomes something to think about!

Yes indeed!

The other interesting thing is that the drums were only added rather late in the day. At one point we had the two players in – they’re traditional players – and Tarik had them just improvise. We didn’t use the improvisation – it was fantastic, but it threatened to take over the piece, it was so long and of itself – but it was a wonderful step and I think having them in there is not just a piece of traditional music colour, but sets the stage in a very powerful way.

Perhaps that’s also part of the work’s universal appeal, in that all cultures seem to originate musically with voices and then with drums –

– and a lot of cultures have some kind of plucked instrument, if only just to play along with telling stories. I think that’s a very good connection, yes.

On the surface, a harp might have been a more obvious instrument for the context, but the guitar part also carries Arab and Persian influences, which speak to Tarik’s own wider interests and background.

Yes, with a harp it would have become a little bit more clearly a kind of Irish colour piece – that would have been dangerous. I mean it would have been interesting too, but the guitar was the wiser choice.

That idea of the local and the global co-existing within the narrative is interesting; as you say it’s a long piece, but I think what sustains that length is both the focus on and breadth of the narrative.

– and by global, meaning the idea that the piece is using ways of telling a story that are common to different cultures.

Perhaps that might be one of the legacies, too, from the ‘70s and ‘80s; with people becoming more aware of non-Western musics and other traditions from Orthodox chant to Ghanaian drumming and so on?

Absolutely yes, we want more – more pieces with drumming of that kind, though I haven’t been able to do anything about it yet!

Would you agree that, although we in the West have started to show more respect for other cultures musically, we still have a long way to go in considering them on equal terms with our own, generally speaking?

Yes. I think the trouble is that so many other musical cultures are sort of borrowed, but then it doesn’t go beyond that and we get this kind of ‘world music’ which is fusion. And I personally am not the slightest bit interested in ninety-nine percent of it – but I am strongly interested in hearing regional traditional music from different places – it’s a whole different thing. But when it just becomes a way of adding colour then I fall asleep.

That seems to me a hang-over from the bad old days [including Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for example] where music from other cultures was used to add ‘exoticism’ rather than being respected in its own right.

Exactly. I’ve worked with Steve Reich a lot and he always makes the point that, although he was strongly influenced by African drumming for example, he’s not writing imitation African music, he’s writing his own music. There are certain technical things that are connected but there’s no fusion involved. And I think Steve’s kind of approach is the one that interests me strongly.

Who do you think are the younger – Western – composers who are carrying on directly from Reich in that regard?

Well, off the top of my head there’s the Bang on a Can group of composers.

David Lang, Julia Wolfe…

…and Michael Gordon. In fact we’re doing a piece in Glamorgan by Michael and one by David. It was Steve Reich who put me on to them years ago, and so they are the next generation. Although unfortunately they’re no longer – like most of us – as young as they used to be! But from the younger generation still, there are a lot of brilliant players I must say, who now take this sort of music in their stride; it’s no longer difficult for them – or at least that’s the impression they give – so this is a progress too.

In terms of other repertoire, I’ve read that you’re interested in doing some Hindemith and Schoenberg. Is that still on the cards?

Oh yes, I’m planning to do various works by both composers. I’ve always been very interested in them, but it’s been a question of priorities. I’ve realised, though, that unless I make the choice to actually do it then I won’t get round to it! And I think both composers are difficult to programme; again, because of the perceptions that people have about what their music is like, which I don’t think is really true: Hindemith is not dry and Schoenberg is not difficult. Well, he can be, but it’s something else when you actually get involved with the music. He was a composer who tended to write under inspiration – it’s not as if he’s writing music by numbers. He writes from emotion, and that’s really what the audience has to connect to I think.

And Hindemith, now there’s a man who spent a lot of his life performing renaissance music and you can see the impact on his own; it’s not imitation early music, but you can see the connections there. Though I don’t think that’s the reason I’m doing it – but obviously that’s a fact, too, which is interesting to me.

Musical barriers can be so false and unhelpful can’t they? With minimalist music for instance, I think people often don’t see the rigour in the writing there, certainly of the best composers. And on the other hand, with Schoenberg, people often ignore the sheer expressivity of his music because they’re so fearful of what they see as the ‘maths’ of it!

Yes that’s true! I think one of the problems, though, of doing a lot of new music – where it is difficult – is simply because of the time versus money element.

Rehearsal costs for one thing!

Just having the amount of time at your disposal to do it properly. And that’s getting more difficult, not less, as time goes on. So the money’s falling away and one has to be even more committed for the sake of it.

Sadly, yes – would it were otherwise.

Just to return briefly to Tarik’s piece, if I may before we finish, it feels a very interesting work for you to be bringing to Wales; it’s a bardic piece if you like, being performed in a country which, of course, has its own rich bardic history of music and poetry – where Cymraeg is a living language and is also expressed through a strong choral tradition.

Yes, I hadn’t thought of that connection actually, and the piece is in a mixture of Irish and English so is in a sense bilingual. I don’t think there are people in Ireland who would speak only Irish.

As in Wales, where perhaps a tiny few older people might speak exclusively Welsh now.

When I stop to think about it, it’s a long time since I was in Wales – it will be interesting to come back. I have sung at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival actually, but it was years and years ago – maybe even thirty years ago!

Well, it will be good to welcome you back to Wales, and fascinating to see how Tarik’s piece is received, together with the Choir’s following lunchtime concert. Many thanks for talking with me.

It was a pleasure.


Banner photo by Benjamin Ealovega