Peter Phillips on the joys and perils of touring, and why the Tallis Lamentations beat that Allegri Miserere.

I started the Tallis Scholars when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Oxford. I was an organ scholar and I had a chapel choir I could experiment with a little bit, but the limitations of a minor chapel choir meant I couldn’t really go for it. So I got the best people I could find and put on concerts of the music I wanted to do, which is precisely the sort of polyphony we still do now. 

There were some choirs at the time I thought were OK, but I quite quickly developed an idea that we could produce a special sound, and that sort of ideal is what I’ve been trying to get ever since. That’s what I try to do onstage: to take the sound that got stuck in my head in November, 1973 and try to recreate it. The sound of the Tallis Scholars hasn’t changed very much over the years, we’ve just got a bit nearer to that ideal.

The Tallis Scholars’ sound hasn’t changed very much, we’ve just got nearer to the ideal

What I like most with polyphony is when it gets extremely complex. All that counterpoint between the parts means it’s essential that you hear them, and to hear them properly you’ve got to have voices that don’t distort in any way. That’s why the vibrato is not big. A little vibrato is nice, a bit of colour is nice, but not too much. I like the sound itself to be attractive, seductive even. When the overall sound picture is seductive, it draws people in. When you hear a complex motet for the first time, you won’t get much out of it, but you’ll carry on listening if you like the surface sound. Hopefully you’ll then be drawn under the surface to see what’s going on, and that of course is where the interest lies.

When I’m not working, I go on elaborate, off the beaten track holidays. I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, for example, where I’m unlikely to get a concert – and certainly not now! I love languages and cultures and how they work. I enjoy meeting people and eating – I’m very good at eating – and I take cooking ideas and foodstuffs home. I also love touring. I’d say the group is closer and closer knit these days. It’s slowly got younger again as some of the original singers from the early ‘80s have left and I’ve replaced them with much younger people. The atmosphere is terrific. I think we all realise the history of it all, and how we want to keep the standard, not just up, but higher than before. 

We’ve been to many unusual countries, like Morocco, for example, where we sang outdoors with the sun beating down on my neck and the trees dropping things on our copies. And we’ve been to Japan 15 times! My latest idea is to go to Antarctica and sing in the open air. The wind might be a bit intrusive, but someone wrote that we’d sung on every continent except Antarctica, which is true, so I just thought why not? Once I got the idea I began to factor in other exciting things we could do while we’re there. The BBC is keen on a documentary about it as well.

In Australia we do two programmes: one of popular repertoire and one of current hits. The obscure pieces interest me most as people may be hearing them for the first time – things like the Phinae Lamentations – and then there are modern pieces by Pärt and Rutter. Of course there’s the Allegri Miserere – it is what it is and people love it, but I don’t feel we are advancing knowledge of Renaissance music by doing it. The thing about something like the Byrd Masses or the Tallis Lamentations is that they never bore me, no matter how many times we sing them, which isn’t always the case with the newer music we do.

Although the Tallis Scholars has recorded a lot over the last 40-odd years, there’s a huge amount still to be done. Every time we do the Missa Papae Marcelli, I realise we could have been doing a completely different mass by Palestrina – one that no one’s even heard. There’s an enormous amount of music still to be discovered, and I’d love to bring it out in the public domain and record it and make it famous, but I guess we’ll never live long enough to do all of that. 

The composer I’m most interested in right now is Josquin. That’s our big project at the moment, to record all his masses, of which there are 18. He died in 1521, so we want to get them out for the anniversary. It also describes the career of the Tallis Scholars, as we started out with two of his masses on one of our first discs. After that, we’ve got all the motets to do. Josquin is just the most incredible composer, as everyone says.

The Tallis Scholars sings in Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth from October 30-November 8