EXAUDI – The Choir that Sings Microtones!

This UK based vocal ensemble overcomes some of the most challenging choral repertoire to date with vigor and style.

How does your choir bond as a group?

Primarily through the repertoire – we do work that almost no other vocal ensemble touches – the more ‘crazy’ ends of the contemporary vocal music spectrum. This makes every concert a thrilling and often risky enterprise. There’s nothing better for engendering group bonding, and we’ve become very close in our 17 years together.

QUICK FACTS

Choir Name: EXAUDI
Location: London
Style: Contemporary (experimental and avant-garde) and early (Renaissance and early Baroque)
Number of singers: 9
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Choir Madness: something you do with your choir that others might find bizarre or strange!

Well, one of our specialisms is singing microtones. We love quartertones and Just Intonation and have also performed several works in 1/5-tones, giving a scale of 31 notes to the octave. To be honest, though, a lot of our repertoire would be described as bizarre and strange by a lot of people. We’re happy to challenge people’s ideas about what music, or even singing, ought to sound like.

EXAUDI working on the microtonal music of Nicolà Vicentino (c.1550).

A challenging performance and how you faced it.

Without exaggeration, almost every concert is challenging. Our repertoire is a high-wire act at all times and I don’t think we’d get the same fulfillment from it if it weren’t. We face this by being totally relaxed in the build-up to the concert – professionals have to learn to deal with pressure and we thrive on it, I think.

A favorite piece of repertoire & why

I love so much of our repertoire and am very proud to have commissioned dozens of new pieces for the group. One that stands out is Michael Finnissy’s madrigal cycle Gesualdo: Libro Sesto, which he wrote for us in 2012-13. (We originally asked him for a single madrigal, but he wrote seven!) It’s a fantastic, passionate, extreme piece, wonderful to sing and intensely moving and powerful in performance.

A juicy fact about a composer/arranger you love to tell your choir members

Pretty much anything about Gesualdo is juicy – if you like your juice particularly dark and tortured.

A favorite inspirational quote

My favourite quote at the moment is that old one that ’80 percent of life is showing up’. Nothing to do with EXAUDI especially but good to remember when times are tough.

What was a very special performance and what made it special?

So many to choose from, but an early highlight was our performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s explosive modernist masterpiece Missa Brevis at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2006. We were a bit wet-behind-the-ears to be taking on such a challenging piece on at that point; the whole UK press was there, the composer was there and the BBC was recording it. Serious pressure! That was 14 minutes of the purest adrenaline, finishing with a soprano top E (!) fading to niente. That live performance came out on commercial CD last year and I still get tears in my eyes listening to it remembering the excitement and exhilaration we all felt collectively at the time. The Guardian called it a ‘performance that you know will be etched on your memory forever, such [was its] intensity and power’ – well, the reviewer has been right so far!

A turning point in the life of your choir?

So many, really – the Ferneyhough was the single major breakthrough concert. I’m tempted to say, though, that it was when we got our first (small but significant) grant to fund our activities, took on part-time administrative staff and an agent, and began to dream bigger.

An emotional moment you had in a performance?

Last year we performed a concert in the magical Abbaye de Royaumont in France last year finishing with Monteverdi’s heart-rending Rimanti in pace. Several of the singers were in tears at the end – it was a sublime moment and hugely emotionally charged.

An emotional moment in rehearsal?

A more testing moment came in 2012, when we were rehearsing for a high-pressure gig in the Wigmore Hall in London – our 10th-anniversary concert and our debut in this prestigious venue. We were on a residency learning Gesualdo madrigals, which are really hard to pull off and require a lot of discussion and negotiation between the singers in order to finesse the interpretation (I don’t conduct the early madrigals, it’s pure chamber music). Metaphorically, blood was spilt that week, and emotions ran high over the approach we were taking. Looking back, I can see we were inexperienced in this very challenging repertoire, unused to working without the final say of a conductor, and rather tense about performing on such a pressurised occasion. But we pulled through and the experience toughened us and ultimately helped us to grow as musicians.

EXAUDI rehearsing a Monteverdi work at the Fondazione Pietà de’ Turchini in Naples.

What is something you do in rehearsals that surprises new members?

Most of our newcomers these days are fairly battle-hardened professionals so I guess they’re not easily surprised. What continues to surprise and delight me, though, is the relaxed and happy atmosphere we are able to work in, whatever the challenges of the repertoire. We do about 12-15 projects a year and each time we meet up again everyone is genuinely pleased to see each other and work together. As the director, I’m proud we’ve created something that seems to make everyone involved so happy and fulfilled.

What was one lesson you learned from being in a competition?

We once entered a competition. We came second to a brass quintet who pocketed the prize money and promptly split up. Seventeen commercial recordings and hundreds of concerts later, we, however, are still going strong. Maybe it’s a parable… (We could have done with the £5000 though.)

What is your audition process?

Pretty standard amongst UK professional groups, but with a new-music twist. We ask for a baroque piece and a contemporary piece, we send them an excerpt of something hard to learn, to see if they can master difficult notes, and we give them some sight reading.

Written By
James Weeks is a composer and conductor specialising in new music, based in the UK. His music is performed and broadcast worldwide, and four portrait discs of his work have been released to date: Mala punica/Walled Garden (2017), Signs of Occupation (2016), Mural (2015) and TIDE (2013). In 2002, he founded EXAUDI with soprano Juliet Fraser, now regarded among the world’s leading new music vocal ensembles. As well as maintaining a busy international touring and recording schedule with EXAUDI, he is in great demand as a guest conductor with European new music ensembles. He is currently Associate Professor of Composition at Durham University, UK.