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Memory Palace

2016 is all about pumping iron with my memory muscles. I seem to have signed up to a succession of projects which require mammoth efforts of memorisation. In January there's a full concert of Gesualdo madrigals wth Solomon's Knot Baroque Collective at Aldeburgh, and a filmed programme of C20 French repertoire with I Fagiolini. February onwards will be dominated by John Eliot Gardner's epic St Matthew Passion tour, also fully memorised, in which I'll be singing both chorus and some of the arias. Then there are two further Solomon's Knot tours on the continent, Bach in Germany and Thomas Linley in Switzerland, before returning to Aldeburgh for another outing with the Gesualdo madrigals. Looking towards the end of the year, SK are likely to be touring the B Minor Mass, again completely from memory.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm hugely looking forward to each and every one of these crazy full-commitment jobs, daunting though the prospect of getting all of those notes into my skull is. There's something tremendously satisfying about this way of working. Of course, there's the danger aspect of it all - the total lack of a safety net. It's a highwire act, and the adrelenine rush is of an higher order. But there's more to it than that. The requirement to memorise a piece like the Matthew Passion forces the performer into a level of engagement with the piece which goes way beyond what one has when the concert is performed with scores. There is no choice but to spend hour upon hour upon hour studying the text and the music, thinking about it, finding the emotional and intellectual heart of it, internalising it, making it part of your mind and body. By the time the performances come around, the piece is 'yours'. You really own it. You've spent so much time with it that inevitably you have something real to express. No longer are you thinking about how others have done it in the past, no longer are you worried about whether what you are offering is 'kosher', no longer are you worrying about technical insecurities. You know what you need to express, and you have spent so much time with it that your mind and your body know how to express those things. It becomes natural and vital, like a fully engaging conversation with a stimulating friend.

I know this all sounds a bit ridiculous. It's not like all singers don't have to memorise thing sall the time. Like most of my colleagues, I sing opera and recitals and auditions, and all of this is by heart. It's normal in our business. However, there is something about internalising a 3-hour Bach oratorio, or a concert-length sequence of Gesualdo madrigals, that feels qualitatively different. The music is so complex and extended, there are so many twists an turns, one has to be so accurate... and on top of all this, it has to be human, unpretentious, emotionally engaging, dramatic. It's just a great big job, full of challenges and rewards.


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