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VOCES8 interview feature on Syndicated 'New Classical Tracks'

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Paul Smith and his younger brother Barnaby, the founding members of the vocal ensemble Voces8, fell into choral music by chance. Says Paul, "We were moving from the Lake District in the north of England down to London in the early '90s. Our parents were meeting at Westminster Abbey to go house hunting, and they saw a poster on the wall saying, 'Could this be your son?' and a picture of the choir underneath it. And as they hadn't found a school for us to go to, they decided we might as well have an audition. They gave us one singing lesson each and off we went to the audition."

And before they were even teenagers, they met two future members of Voces8 at choir school. While singing in the Millennium Youth Choir, Paul and Barnaby met four more singers. On a whim, they decided to enter an international choral competition in Italy. So they needed a Latin-style name, and Voces8 was born. The singers in Voces8 were raised in the English Cathedral tradition, but their influences don't stop there. The Swingle Singers, the King's Singers, jazz ensembles like Take 6 and pop music all play a role in the repertoire Voces8 chose for their latest recording, Eventide.

Barnaby (Barney to his friends), explains that as a singer, you can offer a heightened sense of emotion, "but as a performer, we can give something more to our audience because we're a singer and we have that individuality. So we wanted to translate that onto CD. And actually we thought the best way to do that was to choose this time of day when people are being most reflective or when people arguably need a greater moment of reflection. So with Eventide, we wanted to keep it simple and beautiful and just showcase as cleanly and purely as we could the voices within in Voces 8."

Barney says the recording begins with music from the ensemble's British tradition,"Te lucis ante terminum" by Thomas Tallis. "We wanted to do Tallis with a twist," Barney says. "So we chose to arrange his music with an added instrument. So we took the plainsong thread of his music and translated that into a sort of soundscape and added a saxophone over the top of that. And in the middle of the track we also give the Tallis rendition of the hymn tune, 'Before the Ending of the Day,' so it's a very good way to start Eventide."

Two pieces by Patrick Hawes appear on Eventide. Hawes is a contemporary British composer who Barney says has been very successful in the UK. "He is a composer who is based around enchanting melody and sort of filmic soundscape harmony parts," Barney explains. "So his settings - they draw the listener in. They're very beautiful, very tranquil. They also include instruments: 'Reflexionem' has the cello and 'Quanta Qualia' has the saxophone. As well as some soaring sopranos and the harmony is written always in eight parts, so it's very deep and very sonorous."

Voces8 have established a wonderful working relationship with Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. Barney says Gjeilo's arrangement of the piece, "Second Eve," for eight voices is just incredible. "He's inspired by imagery," Barney says, "and he saw a photo of Mt. McKinley, in Alaska. And the sun was setting in the photo and of course when the sun is hitting the snow-capped peaks, it throws out a whole range of colors and the mountain itself in its full glory is magnificent, and that translates itself into an exceptionally rich vocal score. It's an incredible piece of music. He plays with the listener for four or five minutes, using Marian chants. And then at the end, there's just an incredible arrival at a brilliant chordal passage which has a chanting alto through the middle. It must be one of my high points of the CD."

I told Barney one of my favorites on this recording is "Benedictus" by Karl Jenkins. "Yeah, well, I think the beauty of Karl's work is that it's often incredibly minimalist in its setting," Barney replies. "And obviously it's incredibly powerful and a popular piece in its original orchestral form, but surrounding that beautiful soprano melody with simple voices rather than orchestra almost increases the fragility of the textures and makes it even more innocent."

More than 20 years ago, on a whim, Barney and Paul Smith fell into the world of choral music. This impromptu adventure has become their life's work as singers, and also as educators. Paul has written a textbook about the Voces8 method, which is used in almost a thousand schools already.

Whether they're in the classroom, or on stage, Paul says it's all about doing what they love, with people they really care about. "But originally, it's totally grown out of friendship," he says, "and that friendship forms such an important part of our ethos as a group. When we stand on stage we're very fortunate to have a good time with our friends - and of course, making a career from that is a great pleasure indeed."  

LISTEN TO THE   VOCES8 interview  on 'New Classical Tracks', Syndicated on PRI's Classical 24 & Minnesota Public Radio