In Conversation: The King's Singers

In Conversation: The King's Singers

On the power of singing.

Jonathan Howard
Cambridge, England

In Conversation: The King's Singers

On the power of singing.

Firstly, congratulations on the album! The tour that you are about to embark on is extremely exciting your fans across the world and will be, I imagine, a great way to share the works you prepared for the recording. Can you tell me about the differences between spending time on pieces in the studio and taking them on tour for live audiences?

There are three key differences between rehearsing in private and making a recording, and performing live in a concert. The first is that - as we’re an unamplified group and therefore have to rely on the acoustics our venues have to carry any sounds we make - we need to adapt to any concert space we’re in. In drier acoustics, what you sing might be crystal clear at any speed, although there’ll be little or no reverberance, whereas in a boomier space, the sound might sound fuller but there’s a chance any more intricate, faster passages can get lost in the echo. That balance needs to be juggled really carefully. The second is that we need to think about whole performances of pieces. We tend not to sing a whole piece through every time we want to work on a small point within it in a rehearsal, and when we record, we’ll record in bitesize chunks, to allow us to focus on particular passages. But concerts obviously involve performing pieces in their entirety, so we really need to think about the shape of every piece as a whole. The final - and undoubtedly most important - thing is that concerts have a live audience who respond to what and how you’re singing. When you’re rehearsing or recording you’re usually performing for yourself. In concert, you need to think about all the things that an help you communicate in the most meaningful way with your audience. We’re talking about body language, facial expressions, holding the silence after a piece is finished, that sort of thing. After all, what’s the point of coming to a concert rather than listening to a recording at home if you’re not going to get something extra?

When you hit the road for a major tour, do you have any tried and tested tips for looking after yourselves and each other, both physically and mentally? How do you ensure you’re performing at your peak everywhere you go?

Our touring schedule is so intense that things do occasionally go wrong. People get a bit sick or miss home. But the most important things we can do is make sure we’re looking out for each other. Are we giving each other enough time to sleep? Are we thinking about everyone else’s needs? We’re such great friends, but we’re also six quite different people. Some of the guys love to chill out in their hotel rooms in order to decompress. I, on the other hand, always want to get outside and find a coffee shop to sit in and watch the world go by. We’re all happiest when we allow each other to do the things that make us individually happy, rather than the whole group being forced to do everything in the same way.

With every new release, The King’s Singers reimagine a capella for new audiences while honouring the great tradition of the form. How important is striking a balance between the old and the new in your programming?

Balancing old and new is everything in our programming. There's an amazing history of choral music all over the world, but we’re determined to show that it doesn’t get consigned to museums, as it’s still so vibrant and dynamic in the present day. But incorporating old and new doesn’t always have to refer to just old music and new music in the same concert. Sometimes presenting something ancient in an unexpected, progressive way can feel really modern, too. The whole point with innovation is not to keep innovating in the same way. Then it’s just repetition - and that’s dull. 

What was the process like in choosing the songs you performed on Gold? I imagine that was a mammoth task, before you had even began learning and rehearsing the repertoire!

Gold was such a fun project because it deliberately wanted to reflect the past and present, as well as giving a flavour of what’s to come in the future. There’s music from the last 500 years, and King’s Singers arrangements and commissions from all the way across the last 50. With so much music to choose between, we wanted to create three CDs that were each beautiful, musical journeys in their own right, rather than just a compilation of music that’s been flung together. As a consequence, there’s likely to be music that even our most loyal fans won’t have known in there - which is absolutely what we wanted!

Education is an important part of The King’s Singers work, both in performance and through specialized programs like your Summer School and Foundation. Why does music education strike such a chord with you as an ensemble and how does it influence the way you program your concerts?

Singing is such a powerful way to bring people together, and because nothing’s stopping anyone from singing - there are no barriers to entry like having to be able to afford to buy an instrument - the possibilities for coming together to sing different kinds of music are endless. We’ll do anything we can to unite people through something they love doing, at a time in our world when it can feel like people are trying to push us apart. 

Having been established in 1968, each current member of The King’s Singers joined a pre-existing group. Considering this, what are the group’s thoughts on joining an already established ensemble and ensuring you blend without getting lost, not only as a musician but more broadly in terms of your individual creative voices?

That’s a really good question. Because there are only six of us, and because our membership changes so slowly, we like to think that we can celebrate the individual without Brand King’s Singers becoming muddied. I think it would be harder if there were more of us, or if we each stayed in the group for less time, as our fans would get confused. But we want to showcase everyone’s personalities, as that hopefully shows that we’re real people with real loves and interests, rather than a group of performing robots. In terms of our individual creative voices, one thing that’s lovely about us is that we’re all equal partners in the group. There’s no one musical director, no group leader. From the moment anyone joins this group, they have one sixth of a say in group decisions. And that’s fundamental for making everyone feel like they have ownership over the direction of the group - and therefore their own lives too!

How fundamental has each member’s prior classical training been to finding a holistic ensemble voice? Has that knowledge helped in working on music that crosses ‘genre boundaries’, like that which is featured on Gold?

What’s great is that everyone has their own strengths, and although there are similarities in how we’ve learned to sing and the sort of groups we’ve sung in, there are also key differences. We speak different languages, listen to different kinds of music in our spare time, read different books, wear different clothes and eat different foods. I do think we’re really good at looking to each other to lead in the areas where we each have particular knowledge or expertise. Because we're a group where we revel in musical and creative diversity, allowing each of these perspectives to be heard is critical for us to make sure we don’t get stuck in a rut, doing things that are predictable or repetitive. In my head, The King’s Singers would die if we only ever did things as we’ve always done them. 

Finally, when you’re not rehearsing or working on other important tasks, where can we find The King’s Singers during your downtime?

Ha! I think you’d get six very different answers if you asked everyone. Some of the guys want to spend as much time at home as possible. They have their families waiting for them back in England when they return from tour, and they want to sit in front of the fire with a lovely home-cooked meal and be in each other’s company. For me, I’m very rarely still. Being in The King’s Singers has given me an extraordinary travel bug, so I’m away as often as I am home during our downtime - and this year I’ve managed to set aside some time in New York, LA, Sydney, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Paris, my parents’ place in Oxfordshire and our family home in the south of France, as well as being in my own home in East London (to give you a sense of my restlessness). When I am in London, though, I worry that I've turned into a bit of an awful millennial cliche: I try to keep fit with daily spin classes, spend a lot of time working from coffee shops, and I go see as many shows, films, concerts and talks as I can. But real treat is sitting in my favourite local restaurant for hours on end, invariably eating too many of the delicious things on their menu and doing a cryptic crossword. I know all the staff and it feels like I’m spending time with family. That’s heaven to me. 

Image by Marco Borggrev. The King's Singers hit the road for their Gold anniversary tour in 2018. Find a concert near you and buy the CD here