What happens when you ask an experimental German composer to create a show for you?
Vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble reveal all
'This has been a seismic shock' ... I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh festival
We are not known for our presentational pizzazz. In fact, we have even been likened, on stage, to a bunch of undertakers. We usually have four music stands arranged in a semicircle and nothing much changes throughout a performance, except for the music. So to find ourselves, a vocal ensemble, taking part in an unashamedly theatrical work - which requires us not only to sing but also to recite complex texts by TS Eliot, Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Maurice Blanchot, while actually moving about a stage - has been a seismic shock.
Memorising is not something we routinely do. Even if we don't look at the music often in some of our regular pieces, the score is still there in an emergency. David James is the only one of us with experience of the operatic stage. Some of us have never been involved in any kind of stage work whatsoever - and were quite happy with that state of affairs. And then there's the challenge of delivering speech, learning about intonation, accent and timing, things actors spend their whole careers grappling with.
As a group, we're best known for our collaborations with composers Arvo Pärt and Jan Garbarek, which have given us a reputation for being willing to try out new ideas. Several years ago, our record company ECM suggested collaborating with Heiner Goebbels, the German composer known for his experimental work. Although Heiner's initial response to the idea was positive, there followed an ominous silence, which did not unduly concern us, as deep down we were rather sceptical of the whole concept. Then, late in 2005, Heiner requested a ticket for one of our concerts with Garbarek. Again, silence. Had he, we wondered, even attended?
Two months later, we heard from him. He had seen us and was now keen to meet. He proved so charming that many of our immediate anxieties were allayed. Heiner had especially liked our use of the space in the Garbarek performance, which had presented him with a variety of ideas that he was eager to explore. So we went to Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in Switzerland, to work with him for a weekend in April last year, really just to see what would happen.
On that occasion, he didn't give us any music of his own. Instead, we sang through some of our own repertoire, trying to perform it off by heart while doing things on stage: sitting at desks, reclining on chaises longues, or fiddling with various props. David did some DIY and Steven Harrold played pool with cues that had seen better days - we were just using whatever props happened to be lying around, while we continued to sing. Heiner watched and listened intently. We moved about the stage a lot and were often quite far apart. I think it was interesting for Heiner to see if we could still sing our music without the ensemble and tuning suffering. We loved the whole experience.
The next time we met was for two weeks in March earlier this year. Heiner had chosen texts and written some music. Staging had been built, and there would be three scenes. Now we had some actual music to focus on and some difficult chords to get right. We rehearsed the work, entitled I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, all day. In the mornings, we were presented with new material, which we would sight-read, and which would then be incorporated into the afternoon rehearsal. Every afternoon saw us on set - with the complete lighting and wardrobe teams in attendance - doing our utmost to reproduce the morning's work while being told how to move around the stage.
Usually, we have a good idea of what we are aiming for in a final performance right from the start. We sing through the music, often in a hotel room on tour, basically following instructions on a page and focusing on technical difficulties such as the tuning of chords. But with Heiner, nothing was fixed. Throughout that entire fortnight of rehearsals, he was observing in minute detail what worked and what didn't, and continuously making adjustments to his score. Even as we write now, with the final rehearsal period imminent, the music is probably still not fixed. We await musical changes, maybe new material, maybe cuts to the first drafts. We don't yet know.
For most of us with no operatic experience, there's been a lot to learn. Singing or speaking at the same time as moving and using props was quite a challenge. Simple things, such as not walking at the same pace as what you are singing, takes a bit of getting used to. From day one, we were expected to be in full costume for the afternoon session. Because the set was also fully prepared and lit, it felt like one live performance after another. Even so, the recent final costume fitting sent shudders through us. We suddenly realised there was no turning back. The four slightly sloppily dressed undertakers will be on stage at Edinburgh, but this time in smart, handmade suits. This is completely different from anything we have ever done before. We're excited - and terrified.
I Went To The House But Did Not Enter is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from tomorrow until Saturday. Box office: 0131 248 4848. The Hilliard Ensemble are Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, David James and Gordon Jones.
The Guardian (GB), 27 August 2008