The thousand and one lives of Juliet Fraser

Interviews 13.05.2022

We hear Juliet Fraser sing more and more often in France: at Ircam, at the Cité de la Musique, at the Muse en Circuit, at the Gmem in Marseille... Between two concerts and after a magnificent version of "Skin", a composition by Rebecca Saunders conceived for Juliet Fraser, we discuss the threads woven by the musician: her career as a soloist, and her activities as curator of a festival in London and co-artistic director of a label dedicated to today's music.

Juliet, what is your relationship to France, to French institutions and composers? You have sung the music of Georges Aperghis, Gérard Grisey and more recently Pascale Criton...
Actually, I think my relationship to France is in constant evolution. The fact is that I speak French, and honestly it's the only language I speak, apart from English. And as soon as I had the opportunity to work in France, I took it. So I have a special relationship with this country.
In 2008, I decided to spend two months in Paris. At that time I had already created the vocal ensemble EXAUDI (it was in its 6th year of existence). It was a special time in my life. I was looking for a new direction.
I took these two months to take stock: I dropped everything in England for a while, I came to Paris to rest, meet people, and think about the kind of life I wanted. It was very important for me. At that time, I remember, there was a meeting atIrcam for a project with EXAUDI and the ensemble L'Instant Donné, around the creation of a piece by Gérard Pesson. It has remained in my memory, because at that moment, something undoubtedly moved.
Then we worked together several times, EXAUDI and l'Instant Donné.
Then there was the collaboration with Royaumont, and with Ircam, which was a very important institution, both for EXAUDI and for me as a soloist, since in 2020 I sang Rebecca Saunders' piece "The Mouth" (for soprano and electronics). Apart from this strong link with Ircam and Royaumont, my experiences with the CNCM (Centres Nationaux de Création Musicale) are much more recent: I have just worked at La Muse en Circuit, at the Gmem and at the Théâtre Garonne, but invited by the Gmea. It's great to discover these teams and this musical system, because it doesn't exist in England. It's all new for me!

Did you learn French at school?
Yes, and I spent several holidays in France when I was young. And I love Paris! I have a fondness for France, although I also have quite strong relationships with other countries, like Germany and Austria. It's like a patchwork ... I have connections and friends all over Europe. I feel like a European musician!

Can we talk about your collaboration with the composer Pascale Criton on her new piece with orchestra "Alter"? What texts do you sing?
There are three texts; one in French (a few words from Pascale), one in Arabic, and one in English written by me. Pascale chose some words from an essay ("Inside Out") that I wrote during the confinement, at the end of 2020. We have worked together quite a bit over the last few years, but the research is still a bit unclear, as she wanted to write a solo piece with electronics for me first. This piece was supposed to be premiered first, but it was postponed. In the end, all our exchanges mix the ideas for the two pieces, and it's a bit of a blur ... It seemed to me, however, that Pascale's research was always on the side of sound, the sensations of sound, and acoustic phenomena.

I suppose you sing micro-intervals, because Pascale Criton's universe has been exploring this space for some years now?
I imagine you have already done this type of work with other composers?
Yes, I have sung many pieces with microtonal systems. Often, in this type of approach, the effects of the micro-intervals are unexpected, or at least very different from what you can read on the score. But I must say that Pascale has a particular approach to microtones. What she is looking for are the beats between stable sounds and sounds that are very close to each other, but which move a little. I like to do that!
By the way, I have a bit of trouble with equal temperament. I never understand why the voice should be "limited"; you can sing any kind of interval!
I always think in terms of feeling, even though it's a very intellectual system. In reality, this exercise of feeling in relation to something else - this rubbing - is something very physical, very sensitive, and I like that!

Juliet, for me, you are not a singer like the others, insofar as you like to analyse music and talk about your practice, your commitments to creation. You represent the opposite of the typical image of a singer. You have written several essays on music, we have several interviews with you, several podcasts. You mentioned the back and forth between the intellectual and the sensitive, and finally when we sing today's music these two aspects are often linked!
That's true, but at the same time I think we always have this balance between the intellect and the sensitivity. I think this is the starting point of musical practice! Because when you're rehearsing at home, you're more involved on the rational side - you criticise yourself, you deconstruct, you make decisions, you try things out - but when you're performing, you have to let all that go, to enter another dimension, governed by instinct and sensation. So there's always this tension between these two sides, this weird combination.
What you say about my approach to music is for me the natural combination of these two perspectives, but at the same time, I think it's important to talk about practical things, concrete things, to give a three-dimensional image of an artist, because there is always this kind of mythology around singing: the image of the diva, the singer, the soprano... and I hate that! In fact, I want to show something much more human, and also more complex.

To come back to Pascale Criton, and her process of working with the performers, I know that it is important for her to work hand in hand with the musicians; it is almost a process of composition with several people, and often the music is only realised on the day of the creation in concert. Is that how you experience it?
Yes, that's exactly it! And even though I've received the score of his new piece, I feel that it will only become reality when I sing it on stage: it's so complex, there's such subtlety, the details are so fine! And there are sounds that I can't imagine yet, because they will be the result of all the lines played by the instruments... I imagine that even Pascale must have doubts about the final result! Indeed, experience tells me that music is built up to the last moment...

Can we talk about another collaboration with a French musician, since we are talking about France? I'm thinking of your duet with the double bass player Florentin Ginot and the creation in gestation: "We are all lichens"?
Florentin and I met in 2018. We did a big play by Rebecca Saunders, with Musikfabrik. In this piece there was initially a small part for voice and double bass, which gave us the idea to do a big project together. We started our research in 2019, but for reasons we know, it will only happen this year!
For 'We are all lichens' we commissioned the Czech composer Martin Smolka and the Polish multidisciplinary artist Anna Zaradny. It's on tour now, and it's become a very special project. Last year, to prepare ourselves, we also did a small duo project in Aberdeen with the music of Pascale Criton and part of Martin Smolka's new piece; a kind of laboratory, before the big project this year. In June, we will also propose a portrait of Georges Aperghis.

What is your relationship to the music of Georges Aperghis? I believe you have sung his Recitations?
Oh yes, I have! I have sung the "Recitations", like almost all singers who want to explore contemporary music! And for me, as for many singers, it is a piece that opened up an incredible field of possibilities. I think it was in 2010, or something like that... I remember the first time, when I gave a solo recital in London, with only contemporary music. That was a turning point for me. I had reached a stage where I had to decide: "Can I try to be a soloist? Is this what I want to do, to be alone on stage?
Because until then I was part of ensembles like EXAUDI, or other ensembles and choirs; I sang a lot of contemporary music, and also baroque or renaissance music ... but in truth I was a bit frustrated. So with this solo recital came the moment to ask myself this question: "do I want to be a soloist, and what does that mean?"
And the work I did on the "Recitations" was very important for me, because there was something very special to me in this score. It was like a secret that suddenly revealed itself, or a puzzle that took shape: I started to sing the score, I repeated the formulas, once, twice... and suddenly, the character or the spirit of the "Recitation" revealed itself! It was as if a beast, a living organism was hidden in the sounds, something very specific and clear, which suddenly revealed itself, and I loved it! And I really like the combination of precision and freedom that is characteristic of Aperghis' music. Apart from the "Récitations", I also sang the "Monomanies", but otherwise I didn't sing his music much.

So you decided at some point to embark on a solo career. When you present your work and your field of exploration (I'm referring to your official biography on your website page), you mention "the gnarly edges of contemporary music". That's quite a specific way of doing things!
It's true, it's a bit special! But often what you read in a biography annoys me so much... In this formula, there is my poetic side, and also always a desire for precision: I try to formulate these "professional" considerations in a personal way. "Gnarly edges" is a poetic formula; it means "knotty" - it's said of the hands or of a tree - so it's a bit of an image of something organic, which transforms itself, and which doesn't have an obvious beauty at the beginning...

Something that resists and requires willpower, desire to make it your own, and stubbornness?
Yes, that's it! Above all, I like it to be an unexpected expression that is difficult to define, so the opposite of a cliché.

You also write that you like to sing music that is "brand new", and works written especially for you. We know that you are a very active sponsor! Does this mean that you listen to a lot of music, that you are always on the lookout for new directions in music?
Yes, whether it's for the programming of existing works or for commissions, the research takes time and energy. But it is absolutely necessary, when you have your own ideas, your own desires.
Commissioning pieces is a way of shaping, of 'sculpting' repertoire, and of giving a platform to artists who interest me, but perhaps don't have a space yet - or to trust my flair! I can't just lie on my sofa and wait for a new repertoire to come along! (laughs). I want to follow my interests.

Perhaps also to ward off the fact that sometimes programmers tend towards a form of uniformity?
Yes, maybe! Honestly I think it's just a matter of being active rather than reactive, having my own ideas, and also creating collaborations or creative relationships, in which I can invest myself. Because it's exhausting to work with someone! (laughs) So in my opinion, it's better to be able to choose, to be very engaged in this process.

You like to create new works, to discover, but that doesn't stop you from singing and re-singing Rebecca Saunders ' "Skin"; this summer you will sing "Skin" for the 20th time! Is this the piece you've sung the most?
Yes, after Messiah (laughs), and I love it! By the way, I spoke earlier about the importance of Georges Aperghis in my career, but first I have to talk about Rebecca Saunders, who is perhaps ten times more important to me. 

How did the meeting come about?
In fact, she chose me! It is really thanks to her that I became what I am today. I knew that she had chosen me for this play, even though a festival had tried to dissuade her, saying that nobody knew me, and that a star was needed. But she is as stubborn as I am (laughs), and she stood her ground! So I got the opportunity to work with her, and she wrote 'Skin' for me in 2016. We did four or five sessions together in her studio in Berlin. The first time, I was very anxious! I sang her little pieces, pieces by Aperghis, Enno Poppe and others, and very quickly we moved on to forms of improvisation, experimenting with a few gestures - we explored the registers of the voice, on this or that vowel - and "Skin" was written like that, with my voice in her ears. So it was really tailor-made. That's why it suits me so well! 

Like something you've always worn?
Yes, it is. But I must say that my voice has changed over the years. It took me a long time to fully embody it, to find everything I was looking for in it.

Do you talk together about this evolution?
Not really! Perhaps it emerges in spite of everything in the fact that her latest piece "The Mouth", also written for me, is very different. It's probably also due to her own evolution, to the evolution of her artistic desires, or maybe it's a combination of our two paths. What is certain is that there are things I can do today with my voice that I couldn't do four or five years ago. So I was able to make different suggestions to him for "The Mouth".

What exactly has changed in your voice in the last few years?
Basically, it's the body that changes. I'm getting older; I'm stronger. Today I'm 42, I'm not the same as I was eight years ago! We know that the body, and therefore the voice, changes; it's not like a clarinet, which doesn't move. We all have to negotiate with these physical changes (hormonal, health, old age...); it's part of being a singer. On the other hand, you have to take into account the technical work, because there are also things that change. I've done a lot of work in the last few years, and I can do things technically now that I couldn't do before. And I think I have a bit more courage now! It's because of this that I was able to make proposals to Rebecca for "The Mouth", which I would never have dared to do before. It's also a question of self-knowledge, and confidence in my instrument.

A form of insurance?
Yes, it is! When I first met Rebecca, I was in a different place. It must be said that "Skin" was a turning point for me in relation to the questions I had previously raised: "Can I be a soloist, do I want to? These questions had become almost obsessive, because I felt that I couldn't procrastinate for long, and that I had to make up my mind quickly, if I wanted to change direction. There is a terrible pressure on young musicians - especially women - to prove themselves "before it's too late". This year 2016 was very special: I was torn between a kind of terror and joy, and it was difficult to live... I was like "on the edge" of my possibilities, so I didn't know, if I would be able to honour the creations I had dreamed of for so long. But little by little I found the strength for it.

Why this fear? Because psychologically you are more exposed as a solo singer than as an instrumentalist?
In reality, it's a combination of factors. When you are used to singing alongside musicians you know very well (the experience of the vocal ensemble), the situation changes radically when you feel alone on stage. There are also a lot of 'little things' that change: you travel alone, you arrive at rehearsals alone. There's no one to be vulnerable or honest with. All that is a huge change!
Also, there's the expectation that others have of you, the whole "mythology" of the singer: what I have to be as a soloist, how I have to behave...
So I suddenly found myself in a completely different world and way of making music. And even if I wanted this change, it was a real break! Then you get used to it, but it takes time...

It's a bit of a taboo subject, isn't it? It's rarely discussed...
I'm afraid so.

What about your duets? The one with the pianist Mark Knoop for example, or with Florentin Ginot?
In this regard, it's true that I still consider myself a "chamber" musician. Those are my roots, both as an oboist and as a singer. This idea of being part of a small ensemble is always what I loved! So even though I'm a soloist now, I've kept that mindset. I still try to feel like part of an ensemble, in the way I sing and listen too.

Even when you sing solo with electronics?
Ah, that's the hardest part of course, but I find solutions! What I really like is being "forced" to listen. As soon as I listen, it relaxes me a bit, it keeps my mind busy.

In a way, it's a distraction?
Yes, because I'm in a situation of listening rather than "projecting". So duets for me are the possibility to have this chamber music relationship, this spirit during rehearsals: to have fun, to make decisions together, to make magic on stage, to take risks, to share all that... So of course, you have to choose the right partners, but I've been lucky so far! Mark is great, and Florentin too...

How did your love of music develop? Were your parents music lovers?
Yes, there has always been music in my family. My parents were in a way untrained musicians. They sang, my mother played the viola... There was this musical environment. And then there's this story, true or fabricated, told by my mother: when she was pregnant with me, she went to listen to Beethoven, a composer she adored, and it seems that I kicked her belly to the rhythm of Beethoven's music! (laughs) 

You could have become a percussionist!
Certainly not, because I can't do two things at the same time, I have a melodic brain! I first played the cello at the age of five, then the oboe, and finally I chose the voice.

At what age ?
When I was twenty. So quite late. And I didn't have a traditional education...

The adventure with EXAUDI continues for you? Are you still singing in the ensemble?
In principle, I still sing with them, but it's complicated; often my agenda fills up before that of EXAUDI. It's a bit sad sometimes, but I still try to keep going, because it's my baby! When I sing Gesualdo's madrigals with them and all our repertoire, which I know very well, I don't feel alone at all; it's my family!

Today you sing mainly contemporary repertoire, but you have also sung a lot of early music. How do you view this repertoire today?
When I started singing, it was sacred music in church choirs at university. We sang music from the English tradition: Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, for example. We sang several times a week for Vespers, and all the masses: it was this type of music. And as soon as I started singing professionally, it was a continuation of that tradition, in the English choirs. For example with the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner: there, we sang a lot of Bach and Mozart. And afterwards, with Philippe Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale Gent, I sang a lot of polyphony: the music of Orlando de Lassus, Victoria, Morales, and Gesualdo. These works are treasures that cannot be ignored!

If you don't sing these songs anymore at concerts, do you ever hum them when you get up in the morning?
No, I don't! I don't sing in the morning...(laughs)
I admit I miss it, but I'm currently thinking about how to keep old music in my life. I'm organising a party with some friends from London: we're going to sing this music, and have a drink!
More seriously, I'm thinking about the possibilities of mixing early music with contemporary music in my concert programmes as a soloist. I don't know yet how, but there are many possibilities! EXAUDI has always worked in this direction. But I want to take my time to find connections, bridges. I want to do it in an intelligent way.

Can we now talk about the eavesdropping series you initiated? This summer there will be no edition, but a small event related to this series is planned in Aldeburgh, before the fourth edition next year?
Yes, indeed, I will be presenting two artists from previous seasons. It's a great opportunity to reach a different audience and to showcase elsewhere eavesdropping is something special for me; it's an event that is evolving in spirit and form. It's not really a series anymore, but more of a platform for other artists, and it's very exciting for me to play that role! What I want to do is to give them the support that I needed as an artist to develop: it's a kind of curator who knows very well what other artists want and gives them both a form of "control" and possibilities to act.

This platform consists of several events: concerts, conferences, symposiums?
Next season, it will be a festival with concerts, a sort of conference (we changed the formula a little), and a podcast - I do interviews with each artist. We are also currently thinking about other, more educational forms (workshops, training). For example, at the end of last season, we did a workshop on unconscious bias. I would like to repeat this experience. The idea is to offer this training to intermittent musicians who are not supported by institutions or organisations and who do not have access to this type of training.

It's a six-day festival, with all kinds of creative music, including improvised music?
Yes, it's a great mix! And it's always a bit different.
Every night I give carte blanche to two artists, and I try to find combinations that are a bit strange, or interesting, or even close to each other for each night. The field is vast: it can be improvisation, contemporary classical music, electro music, turntables. I'm also thinking of introducing spoken words.
In other years we've had quite a few artists who do things close to RnB, jazz, folk... So the focus is very broad.

Is decompartmentalising important to you?
Absolutely, and also to be able to realise that the borders between experimental genres are often very thin and that they can be porous.
Sometimes the terms we use to talk about music are too limited and may not speak to those who listen, because they don't take this porosity into account. In reality, in eavesdropping, I program what I want to hear, it's a way to create a slightly unexpected experience for myself!

How about the all that dust label, yet another extension of Juliet Fraser? It's a three-way venture with Newton Armstrong and Mark Knoop, it's a small independent label founded at the same time as eavesdropping in 2017. What is the ethos of this label?
At the beginning of this work for the label, there are the complicated stories I had with other labels, which left me unsatisfied.
The idea was mainly to create something for other artists that was more suitable, more flexible, less expensive, and gave them more control in the process. Newton and Mark and I have a long friendship. We each have our own skills, we complement each other very well. And working as a trio allows us to get out of certain dead ends.
We've planned for three years, and we're already in the sixth year of the label. We'll see how things evolve, but it's a huge job, especially for them! They do the recordings, the mixing, the mastering... I'm more active on the business side, communication and promotion. But it's an adventure, and it's a pleasure to work with the artists, and to bring something to our little community.

What crazy dream do you have for the future, Juliet?
Honestly, I'm already very happy with what I do. I feel nurtured and lucky. But, if I had a dream... I'd like to create a course for advanced singers who want to explore or develop a contemporary vocal repertoire. This doesn't exist in England: there's a gap!
There are also a few contemporary music academies for instrumentalists, initiated by ensembles, but there are very few for singers, and it is very difficult for students at the conservatoire to find a way to explore this repertoire. Everything is still very compartmentalised, blocked even, in the conservatories. I would like to change that, but it will take some time.

In France it doesn't exist either! Except for the initiatives of singers like Françoise Kubler, Valérie Philippin or Donatienne Michel Dansac...
Indeed, because the impulse comes from singers! These are personal initiatives, initiated by musicians who have lived through this experience, this lack. Such a training did not exist for me, nor probably for Donatienne or Françoise. That's why I want to help those who want to explore this rich and vast world. What I would like to do at the same time is to break the taboo that consists in thinking that singing music that was written after... let's say... 1923 (laughs), is dangerous for the voice; that it will sign the end of your career, all these ridiculous ideas that irritate me enormously, because they are motivated by fear, and do not correspond to reality.

There is still a long way to go to change mentalities?
Yes, for the moment, prejudices are tenacious!
Fortunately, there are residencies such as Royaumont in France, or Britten Pears Arts here in France, which change attitudes. But in the more traditional institutions, we are still far from it. The aim is to recognise what creation offers to those who explore it: it is the promise of a great adventure, and of a wonderful liberation.

Interview by Anne Montaron

You can listen to Juliet Fraser on June 1st at the Philharmonie de Paris in Zig Bang by Georges Aperghis

Photos © Dimitri Djuric
Photos © Herve Veronese