Early-music group Stile Antico stretches itself

The early-music group ventures into the new, a challenge without a conductor

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      Stile Antico has taken a bold step beyond its comfort zone. Since forming 12 years ago the U.K.–based vocal ensemble has focused exclusively on works of the Renaissance and Early Baroque periods. But on its latest release, Passion and Resurrection—music for Easter Week by English, Flemish, and Spanish past masters—the group includes a specially commissioned piece by contemporary British composer John McCabe.

      The text of “Woefully Arrayed” is ancient, but McCabe’s music is resolutely modern in character and makes unfamiliar demands on the singers. “It’s rhythmically complex, and there are quite a lot of changes in tempo, which obviously poses challenges for a group like us without a conductor,” says tenor Andrew Griffiths, reached at his London home. “There are problems of intonation, because the chords are often very dissonant. Generally, singing 16th-century music, the chords aren’t clashing, so we had to really work on tuning them.

      “Also, if you take a piece by someone like [16th-century composer] Thomas Tallis, there won’t be any performance markings at all,” he continues. “You have to work from the words and music and create everything else yourself, which gives you a lot of freedom. In John McCabe’s piece, like all modern composers he’s put much more into the score in terms of the dynamics, accents, colours, and characters that he’s written. So when we started working on it we almost felt it was cramping our style, because we’re so used to making all those decisions ourselves.”

      Stile Antico’s 12 singers—three basses, three tenors, three altos, and three sopranos—have evolved a democratic way of working together that’s richly satisfying for them, though very time-consuming. “With a new piece, we’ll sing it through several times before we even start trying to have ideas about it,” says Griffiths. “And we have an awful lot more rehearsals than most groups of our type. All of us come in with all sorts of ideas, and there’s plenty of discussion. We try things in many different ways, and just let them marinate. In a sense we have 12 conductors rather than none.”

      The members of Stile Antico need to focus with great concentration on each other and the music. “You have to hold a lot of different things in balance—to think as a singer but also as a conductor,” Griffiths explains. “You have to simultaneously keep an ear inside the ensemble and an ear outside, trying to monitor the effect that you’re actually having. And you’ve got to get a balance between internal listening and projecting—even visually—to the audience. It’s one of the most difficult things for us. When you’re producing the sound yourself it’s much harder to get an overview.”

      The unusually close, almost intuitive rapport between the singers also allows them some degree of improvisation. “In our favourite performances we get that,” says Griffiths. “It’s not only about being spontaneous yourself, it’s having an idea of how somebody else might be spontaneous, to know what the parameters are going to be, and to know when it might be going too far. We understand each other as singers and can change things in the moment, which can be very exciting.”