‘EXAUDI, the extraordinary ensemble of vocal virtuosi’ The Sunday Times

‘12 musically superb and technically accomplished singers’ New York Times 

‘deftly convincing performances of dizzyingly complex works’ The Guardian 

‘the dazzle of EXAUDI’s vocal pyrotechnics’ Financial Times



WIGMORE HALL, 3 February 2015
The Times, 5 February 2015 – Hilary Finch

War in heaven tore the air asunder. The angelic harmony of the virtuous collided with the snarling of bickering backbiters. And then the music went backwards and forwards at the same time in a wild skirmish of musical and mystical warfare. This was Angelorum psallat by one Rodericus (c1400), the climax of a remarkable evening of vocal virtuosity in extreme music, very old and very new. No one does it better than the eight-voice ensemble Exaudi and few other than their director James Weeks would have dared to perform three different editions of a medieval manuscript simultaneously.

Raw and resilient, the voices climbed out of Hell’s abyss and began a 17-minute ritual greeting to the ancestors of Tun Tedja Kauda Puala, Batara Gangga Wan Agong and their ilk. This was Michael Finnissy’s 1981 Kelir, inspired by the eponymous curtain on to which shadow puppets are projected in Javanese theatre. In the composer’s fertile imagination this becomes “a curtain on to which our interpretations of the world and our fantasies are projected”. The work, with its extraordinary vocal demands, tensions and textures, had not been performed since its 1982 premiere — and no wonder.

Not only did Exaudi’s performance of this epic leave one stunned into silence, but their presentation of the UK premiere of Heinz Holliger’s songs from nicht Ichts — nicht Nichts, settings of the 17th-century German mystic Angelus Silesius, was no less outstanding with its skeins of close harmony, words dropping like scattered autumn leaves and time stretched into timelessness.

This unforgettable programme, devised by Weeks with Wigmore Hall’s composer in residence Julian Anderson, had begun with the wonders of Léonin’s 12th-century organum and Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame framing an exquisite performance of Giacinto Scelsi’s 1958 Tre Canti Sacri.


Birtwistle Prom with BCMG, 6 September 2014

The Independent, 8 September 2014 – Michael Church

As Oliver Knussen observes in Fiona Maddocks’s deftly illuminating new book Harrison Birtwistle, even a tiny piece like Dinah and Nick’s Love Song, written on a single sheet of paper, ‘casts a spell out of all proportion to its dimensions’.

And so it did when he conducted it plus two other Birtwistle classics, with contralto Hilary Summers, EXAUDI, and the Birmingham Contemporary Music group. This made a fascinating hour.


Bachtrack, 6 September 2014 – Katy Wright

The complementary other to Verses for Ensembles, Meridian is both a love song and a meditation on the nature of creative activity. Once again, conflict activates the form, with horn and cello as the antagonists directing the action. With passages of calm suddenly surging to powerful outbursts and the dark instrumentation creating a sense of mystery, the piece is simultaneously dramatic and enigmatic.

Contralto Hilary Summers brought a voluptuous sensuality to texts by Thomas Wyatt and Christopher Logue, her luxuriously creamy voice adding to the fantastical aura of the piece. This was furthered by the ethereal interjections of six sopranos from EXAUDI, whose onomatopoetic noises and siren-like swoops supplemented the magical mood. Knussen guided the BCMG in a performance which integrated the narrative episodes into a logical progression, elucidating the tight motivic web which underpinned the piece. Although pared-back in many ways, Meridian is at once alluring and elemental, and the ensemble’s performance was sensitive while also lending the piece a sense of mystery and awe.

Oliver Knussen’s obvious admiration of these pieces shone through in lean yet nuanced performances, while the enjoyment of the BCMG was clear. Although written over 40 years ago, these pieces remain engaging and bold, making the concert an appropriate way to pay tribute to one of today’s most vivid musical personalities.


Earthquake Mass, Aldeburgh Festival, 14 June 2014

Early Music Today – Claire Jackson

Ear plugs are seldom handed out at the concert hall door, but the Faster Than Sound event at Aldeburgh Festival’s opening weekend came with a warning: loud music ahead. The luminous auditory protection did little to deter attendees; the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings was sold out for this late-night performance of Antoine Brumel’s Missa Et ecce terrae motus, newly rendered by Russell Haswell.

The pre-Renaissance masterpiece caused a stir when it was composed in c.1500: cast in 12 parts – triple the usual for the time – its polyphony was thrillingly controversial. Vocal ensemble Exaudi director James Weeks wanted to recreate the original visceral impact of the music for 21st-century audiences. The work’s sobriquet, ‘Earthquake Mass’, is a reference to the Easter plainchant on which it is based. Weeks and Haswell use this as the basis for their reimagining.
The Kyrie is sung according to the original score, the Exaudi vocals glorious and majestic. But before we reach the Gloria, Haswell introduces the first ‘tremor’. Low rumbling ripples from the left of the hall; audience members nervously fiddle with their earplugs. There is a loud crash and we visibly jump. Exaudi begins the Gloria and we stand to attention, our senses pricked, our nerves on edge.

This alternation between song and noise continues. Each movement is separated by growls and feedback. They grow with every interlude; gaining confidence in their acoustic. Lights flash and the tremors multiply. By the end of the Sanctus and Benedictus most audience members are wearing the earplugs, as are some of the singers. Exaudi joins Haswell for the Agnes Dei, a terrifying explosion of sound. Instinct takes over, we cover our ears, our insides shake. As the music reaches its zenith, some audience members leave the hall. The lights flicker. And then there is silence – broken by a cry of ‘Thank God that’s over’. The heckler is voicing collective opinion. Our relief that the ordeal is finished is indicative of the work’s success. The assault on our senses incited fear and extreme discomfort. Weeks and Haswell have achieved the shock-and-awe they sought.

Better integration between the original score and the electronic accompaniment would have improved the work’s overall musicality. But nevertheless this was a fascinating juxtaposition between early and contemporary music. Aldeburgh is still feeling the after shocks.


Tectonics Festival Glasgow, 11 May 2014

theguardian.com (13th May 2014) – Kate Molleson

[…] while Exaudi’s astoundingly well-sung programme included Christopher Fox‘s heady tangle of voices in Preluding and the mesmeric keening of Cassandra Miller‘s Guide. […]



‘Exposure’ CD featuring music by Joanna Bailie, Aaron Cassidy, Stephen Chase, Richard Glover, Bryn Harrison, Claudia Molitor and James Weeks. (See discography)

Tempo (Volume 68, Issue 267, January 2014) – Stephen Graham

Untroubled pathways

EXAUDI is one of the most interesting vocal groups working today. The range of the group’s commissioning of both established and younger contemporary composers is extensive. Its skill in the execution of those commissioned compositions, which tend to the experimental and the complex, is invariably high, with its interpretative style being imaginative, musical and alive to conceptual exploration. Opening a review in this praiseworthy way may not suggest that that much of a critical perspective will be in play in what follows. But that is not at all the case. I simply wanted to set out my stall at the beginning, both to flag up the context and to imply some early (positive) critical reactions to the [recording] under review: EXAUDI’s seven-composer Exposure.

Built around a conception of the voice as the most exposed, most ‘revealing’ medium of music, Exposure works both thematically and musically. Whilst ‘exposure’ is hardly the most specific or original of themes, its sense of risk, of unsettled territories, fits the compositions and the young(-ish) composers it contains rather well.

One of the interesting things about a curatorial exercise such as the one represented by Exposure is how it forces us to hear music as mediated in specific ways, for example by the framing theme or in terms of the surrounding music. This sense of ‘mediated hearing’ is certainly the case here, where, as we’ll see, the pieces run into each other in such a way as to evoke both the disparateness of contemporary music – where rigid ideologies of musical governance present in earlier eras are felt more as historical residues contextualising current practices than as binding guidelines – and also the field’s strange similarities, its generic sensitivity to concept, texture, colour, bodily directness and dramatic unpredictability.

Aaron Cassidy’s A painter of figures in rooms, opening the collection, is a strong testament to the possibility of preserving the visceral and the unexpected in a written composition. Notated as tablature with precise instructions as to voice production (e.g. tongue position, mouth shape and so on) but not pitches, figures leaves much to the creativity of the performers. At the same time, though, the Baconian deformation of its aesthetic infects every moment with a sense of thematic containment, an impression secured by EXAUDI’s invigorated, humorous, alive performance. Crossfades and impulsions create an effect of constantly shifting centres, where at moments we’re in the world of Phil Minton’s Feral Choir (whose method of conducted improvisation is comparable to the Cassidy), and at others we’re in the fantasised jungles of Les Baxter and Martin Denny, always remaining rapt and ready for surprise.

It’s quite a shock to move from there into the frail directness of James Weeks’ Nakedness. Written for the solo voice of the ensemble’s co-founder, Juliet Fraser, this piece has Fraser singing sustained and often piercing pedal points, stretching out in length and intensity with each breath. Generous and rich silences frame each tone, an extension of (musical) consciousness by other means. The economy of the piece, the focus of both its material and its vibratoless performance from Fraser, suggests a host of experimental composers and performers; the Japanese vocalist Yoshi Wada, who likes to perform long single tones in resonant spaces, comes most readily to mind.

With Exposure, we can find re-hearings and cross-fades between the pieces everywhere we look. Bryn’s Harrison’s eight voices, for example, can be heard as a distillation of the Weeks and the Cassidy. It sanctifies the gestural latticework of figures with the churchy intensity of Nakedness. The seemingly most obvious point of reference here, Morton Feldman’s Three Voices, doesn’t really get a look in: its opaque intimacy is nothing like eight voices’ worried upward and downward meshing micro-glissandi, even if both pieces share a tendency toward striated repetition. eight voices is not as intensely engaging as some of the other music here, but its tumbling and withdrawing sounds provide interesting contrasts and correspondences nonetheless.

Richard Glover’s Corradiation, which comes later in the collection, can itself be heard as a distillation of the repetitions of the Harrison and the concentration of the Weeks. Corradiation uses very simple, even ‘exposed’ vocal textures – in this case two voices rising and two falling incrementally in subtly co-ordinated ways – to frame a dynamic movement towards a simple sung octave. This resolution, achieved through microtonal gradation and conceptual simplicity, captures much of the impact of that moment in Ligeti’s Atmosphères when the clotted texture clears and suddenly we’re left with piccolos and then low strings each in stark unison.

Stephen Chase’s five (Ernst) Jandl Songs are something of another proposition, even if their economy and compression of ideas recall aspects of the Weeks and Glover. Setting five of the Austrian poet’s Dada fragments, Chase builds clear, often homophonic textures that pay tribute to the phonemic invention of the poems. The relative simplicity of these textures only really gets stretched out in ‘trost im wolken’, where Chase creates clouds of holding, imbricating notes that semanticize the original textual content vividly. Otherwise, Chase essentially favours a re-projection of each poetic fragment in a subtly different form.

A kind of ‘re-projection’ also dominates Joanna Bailie’s superb Harmonizing (Artificial Environment no. 7), a set of three pieces in which a sextet of voices participate in and re-project three sonic environments heard here in processed field recordings. Bailie’s piece plays off senses of intensity and situatedness extremely effectively. She arches a carousel William Tell with wordless augury and explores the torsions and limits of dramatised mimicry and sonic environmentalism in the Crumbian, whaling ‘birdland’, all the while retaining an obliqueness of intent and motion that is captivating.

This brings me to the final piece. I wrote before about how the nonsense Latin – the place-holder text of the title – and the composite serious/ironic gestures of Claudia Molitor’s Lorem ipsum made for a ‘wonderfully destabilising conclusion’ to a concert I was reviewing. The piece’s effect is the same here, with its cheek pops, hums, garbled claims and granular sonorities closing out Exposure with as much unexpected humour and purposeful gobbledygook as before.

Molitor’s piece suggests a kind of (paradoxical) postmodern authenticity that might be seen as emblematic. Her way, serious fakery and meaningful nonsense, proposes a personal pathway through a fragmented contemporary music field. This pathway might be seen as an escape route from impasses of ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ that used to appear somehow important. And to bring things to a close, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that all of these pieces seem this way; they feel like, or might be seen as, impasses out of situations in which the imperative to move and to innovate is now felt in different registers and with different possible solutions than before.


‘O Tenebroso Giorno: Gesualdo Then and Now’ at Wigmore Hall, 06/11/13

The Times – Geoff Brown (4 stars)

One emerges from an Exaudi concert as if from a Finnish sauna, rigorously scrubbed and massaged, all lingering harmonic sludge swept away. You feel healthy, pure and courageous — though not as courageous as James Weeks’s vocal group in choosing their repertoire. Only the dangerously contemporary will do, or the prickliest old masters, sung unaccompanied with scorching force and no safety net.

Wednesday’s sauna returned to the expanding Exaudi madrigal book, with new commissions slotted between nine madrigals by Gesualdo, whose crazy harmonic progressions and crunched chords can still make your hair stand on end after four centuries. Topped by Juliet Fraser’s stratospheric soprano, the singers steered steadily through every angular leap and chromatic scream before coming to rest in dolorous gravity with madrigals foreshadowing the composer’s death. Gorgeous music, bracingly delivered.

The biggest scrubbing came with the new acquisitions. Stefano Gervasoni’s madrigal of a tortured lover, Amor l’alma m’allaccia, was the most openly expressive, featuring syllable fragmentation, elaborate rolled Rs on the word “amor” and other old tricks from the 1960s. But they worked. That wasn’t so with Christopher Fox’s suo tormento, settings of Dante and Gramsci where the composer’s extreme ingenuity obliterated hope of hearing and feeling the words.

Johannes Schöllhorn’s settings of Pasolini poems offered the widest variety of textures, subtly sculpted. But it was left to Michael Finnissy to crown the night with three extracts from a group of six Gesualdo-inspired settings. In Quel ‘no’ crudel, Fraser and Amanda Morrison looped their vocal lines round each others’, like two snakes mating.Beltà poi offered the barest of intervals, bruising and clashing, then moving on. Finnissy brilliantly transported Gesualdo’s romantic agony into the 21st century.


‘Exposure2013’ at Only Connect Theatre, 22/10/13

Planet Hugill – Hilary Glover

Having just been to see the Clerks and their experiment into the perception of words in music , I listened to the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble’s Exposure 13 concert at the Only Connect Theatre in Kings Cross (on Tuesday 22 October 2013) with a new (sic) pair of ears.

A brief pre-concert talk gave two of the composers, Evan Johnson and Cassandra Miller, a chance to talk to Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Exaudi director James Weeks about their compositions. Both composers were very down to earth and endearing, and shared something about their compositional process for the pieces performed. But more of that later.

First performed was eight voices by Bryn Harrison (1969-) from 2012. eight voices was his first foray into vocal part music, but is an extension of modular techniques he had used previously in instrumental music. Small phrases of varying length were repeated against each other before moving on to the next loop – similar to ideas used by the minimalist Terry Riley – but without the overall movement and direction. Each of the four sections used the same wordless material, forming a static melancholic block inside which the voices danced around almost in oblivion to each other. Harrison compared the effect to that of the flow of water in a stream ‘an object that appears both static and in motion’. For what must be a very difficult piece, Exaudi made both the content and the delivery seem effortless.

Young turtle asymmetries by Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004), written in 1967, was based on a text culled from an article about turtles hatching in the journal Natural History. Using only the male voices this work was much more open in texture than the Harrison. Half spoken, with long held consonants rather than vowels and a loose canonic treatment of the text, Exaudi managed to impart a ‘turtle-iness’ to the sound. Mac Low was one of the John Cage circle, and it is on this early milieu of experimentation that the newer pieces in the concert have built. It was also easily the most accessible, possibly due to the simplicity and sparseness of the polyphony.

Rytis Mažulis’ (1961-) Codex Lolita was the first of the Exposure 13 commissions. Two sets of text were interspersed: De castitatis thalamo from the 13th Century Codex Las Huelgas and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; and the music uses canonic techniques but with microtonal alterations. The final effect is one of listening to cathedral-like echoes, or the reverberations of a bell, where the pitch of the notes has been altered by the surfaces they are reflected off. Very tightly controlled by Exaudi – the nature of the composition meant that the text, especially the Lolita text, was obscured, becoming secondary to the music.

This concert was the UK premiere of Evan Johnson’s (1980-) vo mesurando, although not written for this concert in particular. During the pre-concert talk Johnson, also not a vocal composer before meeting Exaudi, described how he had pieced together fragments of madrigal, but was more interested in silence – the space where sound should be – as though the music had been ‘wiped out’. Using only four voices the performers appeared to be singing to themselves, sometimes sotto voce, sometimes entirely silently. This conceit, once explained, produced a very interesting effect – one that would work well in a dramatic setting where perhaps the singers were getting on with something else at the same time.

The second Exposure 13 commission, Cassandra Miller’s (1976-) Guide was based on a folk tune Guide me, O thou great Jehovah as sung by Maria Muldaur in 1968. Miller described how she chose this because she wanted to produce a piece that felt good to sing. She also based it on the compositional ideas of Harrison’s eight voices – to be monolithic rather than a journey.

Even before seeing the score the performers were required to learn the Muldaur by heart. The score then fragmented it, providing the performers with pitch and repetitions. The final result was definitely more cheery than eight voices and, after all the constraints of the earlier pieces, Exaudi finally had the chance to let their hair down a little. The choice of tune was catchy, and I found myself humming along after the concert had finished.

The Exaudi Exposure commissions happen annually – the composers have a completely free rein with only the brief that it must be for eight voices. Previous commissions include pieces by Christopher Fox, Joanna Bailie and Robert Fokkens. You can hear some of Exaudi’s recordings here on Soundcloud.


TENTH ANNIVERSARY at Wigmore Hall, 21/10/12

Ten years of singing by James Weeks and Juliet Fraser’s group EXAUDI were celebrated on Sunday. No birthday cake: the excitement lay in forthright voices scaling pitches where only supersonic jets should fly and treating all complexity as a stroll in the park. The occasion marked the opening of an EXAUDI madrigal book: new commissions from composers asked to deliver an Italian madrigal suitable for performing alongside those by Monteverdi and others. A splendid aim, but none of the first tranche had the expressive experimentalism of the old boys. Harmonies in Gesualdo’s Merce! piangendo grido  had the venom of a poisonous snake, while Monteverdi’s Vattene pur, crudel had enough drama for a three-act play. In everything, the clear unaccompanied voices were unprotected if difficulties arose. None did.

The Times

It’s a decade now since the conductor and composer James Weeks and soprano Juliet Fraser brought together a group of young singers, a consort rather than a choir, to perform contemporary music. Exaudi have gone on to build an international reputation, with a steadily increasing list of important premieres to their credit, and have marked their anniversary by guaranteeing themselves a lot more, inviting composers to contribute short settings to a 21st-century book of madrigals.

The first results of that initiative were presented in Exaudi’s 10th-birthday concert. Typically, the programme juxtaposed old and new, with madrigals taken from the third and fourth books by Monteverdi, and the fifth and sixth by Gesualdo, performed with the same fastidious attention to detail, one singer to a part, that the group brought to each contemporary work.

The Guardian

The first rule of music marketing is “Don’t give yourself a Latin name; it will reek of elitism.” Not a bad rule of thumb, but it hasn’t applied to EXAUDI, the vocal ensemble which this year celebrates a decade of marrying the richness of ancient musical styles to the complexities of contemporary music.

This birthday concert accordingly juxtaposed Italian Renaissance madrigals with modern pieces, including four new works, the foundations of what will become EXAUDI’s own modern madrigal collection. Throughout, the singers, sometimes directed by Weeks, sometimes not, demonstrated that vocal purity needn’t override expression, while precision doesn’t preclude individuality: every voice made its presence felt within the group identity.

In madrigals by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, we could hear intimations of the birth, not only of opera, but of everything we know as modern music, classical or otherwise: tunes making songs, songs telling stories, stories laying bare our emotions. Among the premieres, Michael Finnissy’s contribution built a direct bridge between his own language and Gesualdo’s, allowing each to infect the other, while Evan Johnson’s Three in, ad abundantiam unfolded just this side of the point where music and language disintegrate.

The most impressive of the modern pieces, though, was not an EXAUDI commission; Salvatore Sciarrino’s Three Madrigals, dating from 2008, makes three cultures clash: the work pays tribute to the Italian madrigal tradition by setting Sciarrino’s own Italian translations of Japanese haiku in a musical language that is both archaic and hyper-modern. Certain vocal sounds resembled birdsong or simian ululation, others evoked the wind. This was music stripped back to prehistoric basics. In certain circumstances, nearly two hours of madrigals, sung mostly in Italian, would be considered a cruel and unusual punishment. Not here.

The Evening Standard

Exaudi means “Hear!”, and it’s a fine name for this eight-voice vocal group, which approaches its twin loves of new music and Renaissance music with the same missionary zeal. James Weeks, the group’s director, wants to show both can seize our hearts and minds with the same immediacy. To prove it, he’s conceived the idea of a brand-new “madrigal book”, containing newly written madrigals by living composers. At the group’s 10th anniversary concert on Sunday, we heard the first four of them, alongside madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi…

…So did those old Italians knock the moderns clean out of the ring? Not quite. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Tre Madrigali (actually not part of Exaudi’s madrigal book) conjured poetically telling vocal sounds to illustrate its fleeting Japanese texts. The most moving of the new works was Michael Finnissy’s adaptation of a Gesualdo madrigal, his three added vocal parts adding a mournful commentary to Gesualdo’s original. Here, as elsewhere, the performances were a marvel. At Exaudi’s previous concerts I’ve sometimes felt their focus on pinpoint accuracy got in the way of other musical values. Here correctness was swallowed up in riveting emotional engagement.

The Telegraph


‘Exposure 2011’ at Kings Place, 3/10/11

Having ‘completely missed’ the Boulez love-in at the Southbank this weekend, I thought I might try EXAUDI’s premiere-heavy programme of contemporary choral music at Kings Place. I have to say that it has been some of the best money I have spent on a concert all year. The group manage the wild frontiers of avant garde choral music with a mix of good singing, fearsome musicianship and (very English, this one) wit – if the music fails to stun or seduce then the audience laughs with the musicians, not at them. There is no chance of being bored… I think part of the appeal of this concert was watching the group perform: the discreet clatter of tuning forks in particularly awkward chicanes; sideways glances, usually for synchronisation, occasionally in fear or fun; the rigorous beat of James Weeks maintaining the structure. It must surely be a very different experience simply hearing the music on record or in broadcast. Either way the singing would be just as fine.



Quincena Musical, San Sebastian, 27/8/11

En Donostia la música contemporánea sigue siendo para una minoría, aquélla que o bien está sumergida en áreas de composición, estudio o interpretación vanguardistas o, por contra, mantiene un interés por estas líneas actuales de expresión. Está claro que a menudo esta música cuesta digerir, pero lo que es indudable es la complejidad que habitualmente encierra su correcta ejecución. Esta dificultad se mantiene y enmuchos casos se incrementa cuando hablamos demúsica vocal. En el concierto que cerró este ciclo, el laureado coro Exaudi tuvo que trabajar de lo lindo para sacar todo el jugo expresivo a las obras que presentó, lamayoría de temática religiosa. Partituras ciertamente difíciles que, aun a riesgo de generalizar, compartieron complejas texturas polifónicas,matices variables y sorpresivos, interválicas exigentes, momentos de impacto sonoro, grandes desafíos vocales, dinámicas exprimidas al límite y largas notas mantenidas hasta lo imposible. Con unas sonoridades siempre afines al significado de los textos, el coro causó una gran impresión, salvando con nota todas estas dificultades en un repertorio que incluyó una obra de Erkoreka, muyagradable, y un estreno por encargo de Quincena; ‘Vocem Flentium’ de Alberto Posadas. Una pieza también exigente, con músicamuy acorde a la letra y fuertes pasajes de tensión que exigió un buen control de la respiración y gran expresividad.

El Diario Vasco


Arvo Pärt with Endymion at the Wigmore Hall, 8/7/11

A plain and potent late-night concert… One Arvo Pärt work followed another, from the chord sequences of Fratres to the measured sorrows of his Stabat Mater setting: music of rapturous, daring simplicity, vigorously etched by a string quartet drawn from Endymion and three of Exaudi’s fearless voices… The tenor Simon Wall stood his ground, mostly on one note, in the Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song) of 1984. Other Exaudi colleagues joined him in the moving Stabat Mater, a work where time seems to stand still. The spellbinding sound of Juliet Fraser’s soprano beaming in, laser-like, from on high will remain for a long time.

The Times


Everlasting Light’ at Aldeburgh Festival, 24/6/11

Strange things happen at Aldeburgh. On Friday evening I was sitting with around 100 intrepid souls on a grassy sand-dune outside Sizewell nuclear power station, trying to ignore the wind-blown rain, while a choir sang (among many other things) the Requiem Mass of Jean de Ockeghem, written around 1461… And why were we listening to choral music in the evening rain? Because this was the musical component of a new site-specific multi-media event, evoking the excitement of nuclear power in its early days. So of course it had to take place in the shadow of a potent symbol of that age. Everlasting Light was conceived by the designer and film-maker Netia Jones, and as with her previous Aldeburgh events it was a conjunction of film and performance artfully placed in a landscape. It began at the Sizewell Refreshment Cafe, where we watched nostalgic 1950s film of Arthur C Clarke predicting a future where everyone would communicate instantly. Then we were guided past dilapidated boat-sheds to another spot in the dunes, where the choir [sic] Exaudi appeared, looking just like characters out of Mad Men. They sang fascinating Renaissance madrigals about cosmography and the Sybilline prophecies, and eerily apt modern music by Ligeti. Finally we and the choir pitched up in front of Sizewell, sinister in the violet evening gloom. Suddenly Jones’s film projections of scientific imagery magically appeared on its blank wall, and what was all-too-solid and grim seemed to melt into air. The strange haunted atmosphere and the romance of that far-off age came together in the most magical way.

The Telegraph


Howard Skempton portrait with BCMG, 27/02/10

EXAUDI performed four choral pieces with stunning purity of sound, which allowed the music’s radiance to shine out with full force. Skempton sometimes disarms by being deceptive and surprising. But there’s nothing so disarming as being straightforwardly ecstatic, as his lovely setting of Shelley’s ’Voice of the Spirits’ proved.

The Telegraph


Poppe Interzone with EIC, Festival d’Automne, 4/12/09

La conception plastique imaginée par les deux artistes de la soirée dans l’espace modulable de la Cité de la musique était déjà un spectacle en soi ; dans Interzone. Lieder und Bilder, fruit d’une collaboration entre la vidéaste Anne Quirynen et le compositeur allemand Enno Poppe, les sons vont agir en interaction avec l’image grâce à l’installation de huit écrans vidéo formant un cercle lumineux au-dessus de l’ensemble instrumental. Enno Poppe imagine un « Big Band » haut en couleurs (accordéon, saxophones, vents et percussions) cerné par deux synthétiseurs/orgues Hammond, un dispositif mixte dont il est coutumier pour sonder l’univers micro-intervallique – du quart de ton au sixième, voire huitième de ton! – servi ce soir avec une rare précision par l’Ensemble Intercontemporain rejoint par l’excellent Ensemble vocal anglais Exaudi.


…La précision vocale et la beauté sonore des cinq solistes de l’Ensemble Exaudi sont un plaisir en soi au-delà des méandres poétiques d’un texte en anglais difficile à assimiler au premier abord. Les voix sont pleinement en accord avec la finesse d’une musique aux attaques tuilées, aux intervalles jusqu’au huitieme de ton et aux raffinements sonores jusqu’alors insoupconnés. Leur musicalité est un ravissement.



‘Exposure’ in The Cutting Edge series, 29/10/09

In a back alley south of the South Bank and east of Waterloo East sits The Warehouse, a converted performance space that every autumn plays host to the Cutting Edge concert series. The programmes are dedicated to new and experimental music, music that would otherwise more likely go unperformed and unheard. This year the series was expertly launched by the vocal ensemble Exaudi, one of the most sensationally gifted vocal groups performing in the UK at the moment. Exaudi have swiftly gathered a dedicated following, and the concert started 20 minutes late as the organisers hurriedly arranged some extra seating to accommodate the unanticipated numbers of people turning up on the night. Most of the pieces were by young composers and were still very much at the “research and development” stage but the ideas showed a great deal of promise none the less. Encouragingly, some distinctive and original voices are starting to come through.

Gramophone Magazine

The vocal ensemble EXAUDI opened Sound and Music’s The Cutting Edge series of concerts at The Warehouse last week with a typically enterprising programme of new and newish works by young (and youngish!) composers. Led by their director James Weeks, EXAUDI’s performance exhibited technical poise alongside real elegance in interpretation that befitted their obvious passion for the music…



Cage and Machaut, fuseleeds Festival, 30/4/09

The week-long blitz of contemporary music that was fuseleeds09 offered many attractions, but nothing could match the intimate surprises of this early evening gig by Exaudi, the British vocal ensemble that delights in programming the unthinkable — such as John Cage and Guillaume de Machaut. On the surface, 20th-century music’s biggest smasher of traditions and the 14th century’s deftest polyphonic weaver of hymns to courtly love were never meant to co-habit. Yet by picking from Cage’s rambunctious catalogue only the simplest, sparest and in most cases shortest pieces, Exaudi’s director James Weeks made a triumphant case for letting the two lie side by side.

The Times

Fuseleeds is a festival that aims to expand the definition of contemporary music. The vocal ensemble Exaudi expand the definition to over six centuries, in a programme that interleaves work by the medieval master Guillaume de Machaut and the modernist icon John Cage. The pairing isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds. As the guiding spirit of ars nova, the 14th-century avant garde, Machaut’s radical new harmonies must have seemed every bit as arresting as Cage’s use of prepared instruments and the music of chance was in the 20th century…

The Guardian


Rihm and Lassus, Aldeburgh Easter Festival, 22/3/08

…a perfectly judged short concert, given by the outstanding vocal group EXAUDI. The centrepiece of the hour-long sequence was the first complete performance in this country of Wolfgang Rihm’s Seven Passion Texts, settings of the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week, which he completed two years ago. Around them EXAUDI’s director, James Weeks, had arranged two sequences of Orlande de Lassus’s passiontide motets, some to the same texts that Rihm’s cycle uses. It made a wonderfully contrasted and concentrated experience. Weeks’ fascinating programme notes drew comparisons between the richness and occasional grandeur of Rihm’s six-part writing and Bruckner’s motets, but in fact the frame of reference is wider still, with an expressive control of dissonance and an emotional directness that are very much Rihm’s own. EXAUDI conveyed all that with a confidence that belied the technical challenges the singers were meeting so effortlessly. It was hard to imagine this music better performed, and there could be no better context in which to hear it.

The Guardian

On a windswept, stormy Saturday afternoon above the swollen Blyth estuary there was to be found an hour of perfection. Weather patterns, musical patterns, a superbly attentive and almost cough-free audience with a group of superb singers in the incomparable setting of Blythburgh church – such were the ingredients of this golden hour. The singers of the justly celebrated EXAUDI compelled instant attention with their secure treading of the sometimes rocky harmonic paths of Orlande de Lassus…if Lassus is occasionally rocky then Rihm is often – vertiginous? To begin a devotional piece quietly with such grating dissonances requires musicianship of the highest order and nerves of the toughest steel…James Weeks and the members of EXAUDI will know from the atmosphere and the response that they delivered something special and this review can only hint at what those lucky enough to be present experienced. At the risk of repetition, perfection.

East Anglian Daily Times


‘NOW’ [‘Exposure’ prequel] at Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust, 28/11/07

On Tuesday, contemporary vocal ensemble Exaudi gave a startling object lesson in just how flexible the human voice is. They huffed, puffed, popped and even sang a programme that encompassed the extreme demands of such radicals as Luigi Nono, Wolfgang Rihm and Michael Finnissy… The microtonal eccentricities of reclusive Italian aristocrat Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Canti Sacri sent a chilling ring round the voluble Greyfriars acoustics, amplified by the mind-blowing dynamic range of this eight-piece ensemble… From the barely audible esotericism of James Saunders’s #281107 to Finnissy and Nono, Rihm’s Quo Me Rapis and onwards through the new works, Exaudi made this challenging repertoire seem easy and, more importantly, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The Scotsman


Italian programme at Aldeburgh Festival, 9/6/07

EXAUDI – 12 musically superb and technically accomplished singers, 4 women and 8 men, directed by James Weeks – first set a contemplative mood by singing plainchant. This was followed by Three Tenebrae Responsories by Gesualdo, the aristocratic composer of intensely chromatic vocal works…EXAUDI’s performances here were luminous and haunting. They captured the murky mood of the music, which, in the reverberant acoustics of the beautiful church, dating partly from Norman times, had a hallucinatory effect. Luigi Nono’s astringently beautiful Sarà Dolce Tacere (1960) concluded the program. Do all the singers in EXAUDI have perfect pitch? I doubt it. Yet how else to explain that they were able to find and hold the pitches during the skittish, leaping passages of this complex 12-tone score?

New York Times

In the afternoon the EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble returned to Orford Church, scene of their triumph at last year’s festival. Following the Italian theme, they sang Gesualdo and Monteverdi, and then jumped feet first into the 20th century with pieces of mind-bending complexity by Sciarrino, Castiglioni, Scelsi and Nono. This is music that few people are likely to hear more than once, but if that one time is a performance by EXAUDI they are not likely to forget it. Where else are there sopranos like these, guaranteed to hit the notes other choral singers cannot reach?

The Financial Times


Spitalfields Winter Festival, 18/12/06

This Spitalfields Winter Festival concert kicked off with Tallis polyphony at its most exultant in the 20-minute Gaude gloriosa Dei mater. Four hundred years and one hour later, we ended with a cough — the final notated sound in the panoply of siren cries, shouting, whistling, and glissandi that make up the angry, fearsome Xenakis score Nuits, dedicated to political prisoners. To successfully combine both stylistic extremes in the same concert takes stamina, skill, bravery and cheek. No problem for EXAUDI: James Weeks’s young vocal ensemble, 12-strong in this manifestation, has never sought the easy life. A different aural jolt arrived with the selection from Michael Finnissy’s Seven Sacred Motets of 1991. We usually think of Finnissy as a fiendish creator of barbed-wire jungles; yet, driven by his faith, he stripped himself down in these marvellous pieces to several florid vocal lines arching over insistent drones. Music of contemplation, this; but music with teeth and sinews. EXAUDI easily found the eloquence and beauty in what on the page might seem spare, even arid. It was all over, without an interval, inside of 70 minutes. If only more concerts were like this: focused, no fat, risky and brilliant.

The Times


Michael Finnissy at 60, 23/8/06

EXAUDI’s concert was a real highlight in a weekend of extraordinary performances. Rather than simply being a pastiche of sacred modal music Finnissy completely inhabits this sound world, and you do not have to share the composer’s faith to recognise the conviction in the music. On the evidence of this concert there cannot be many vocal ensembles around who can touch Exaudi.

New Notes


Ferneyhough Portrait, Aldeburgh Festival, 11/6/06

There are some performances that you know will be etched on your memory forever, such is their intensity and power. The EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, a group of young singers conducted by their founder James Weeks, sang Brian Ferneyhough’s 1969 Missa Brevis with thrilling commitment and immediacy, revealing this masterpiece of modernism to be among the great settings of these archetypal texts. As with all of Ferneyhough’s music, the Missa Brevis teems with complexity and extremity: words were pulverised into syllables or atomised into screams and whispers. The Gloria ended with an existential shout and the Kyrie began with a vision of a musical abyss, the basses at the bottom of their register and the sopranos attempting to scale stratospheric heights. But Weeks and the EXAUDI singers somehow alchemised all this ferocious technical difficulty into music of shattering directness. The terrifying textures of the music created a sense of awe and wonder: by throwing out traditional ideas about how these texts should be put to music, Ferneyhough’s piece created its own kind of transcendence. The final seconds of the work were astonishing, as one of the sopranos held an impossibly high note for an unfeasibly long time. It was a moment that symbolised the transfiguring power of this “short mass”.

The Guardian

As for [Ferneyhough’s] Missa Brevis (1969), the chamber choir EXAUDI’s superconfident rendering under James Weeks at Orford Church was a bang-smash hit and left me feeling that this wildly uninhibited but cannily calculated work is as much a 1960s icon as Stockhausen’s vocal Stimmung from the previous year.

The Sunday Times

What looked in advance a heavy-duty programme of music ancient and modern – rapt unaccompanied choral works by Obrecht and Ockeghem alongside ferociously aggressive new pieces by Brian Ferneyhough – went exactly as one might have expected until the last 20 minutes. That was when the EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble launched themselves into Ferneyhough’s jaw-droppingly difficult Missa Brevis. As individual voices sparred with each other in complex combative groups and sopranos soared to stratospheric heights that one would have thought out of human reach, the adrenalin level reached fever pitch – and not just for the audience.

The Financial Times

If Irvine Arditti’s feverish playing of [Ferneyhough’s] Unsichtbare Farben was gobsmacking, EXAUDI’s performance of the impossibly difficult and wonderfully effective Missa Brevis took the breath away.

Classical Music Magazine