- c 1968-2000 (Creation)
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Electric Phoenix was formed in 1977-1978 by four members of the vocal group Swingle II, Linda Hirst, John Potter, Simon Grant and Terry Edwards. Terry was Swingle II's manager and sound projectionist and at first fulfilled the same role in Electric Phoenix; the other three were singers, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass respectively. With the recruitment of the Canadian soprano Karen Jensen, a post-graduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, the standard quintet format for Electric Phoenix was established and remained the group's basis for the roughly 20 years of its lifespan.
The group was created in order to fulfil a specific and radical ambition: to establish a completely new repertoire, absent from the world of contemporary music at that time, involving the new vocal production pioneered by composer Luciano Berio among others, microphone singing and electronics. This repertoire would radically advance contemporary compositional and vocal techniques; and the development and invention of specific new electronic technology was envisaged in line with the then rapidly-expanding world of synthesis and electro-acoustics. The name Electric Phoenix (Electric because of the intention to sing on microphone and use state-of-the-art electronics and Phoenix because the group saw itself as rising from the ashes of Swingle II) was invented by John Potter.
Electric Phoenix was not the only ensemble researching advanced vocal music at that time. At the Center for Music Experiment and Related Research in La Jolla, Southern California Debora Kavasch, Linda Vickerman, Edwin Harkins and Philip Larson had formed the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble (EVTE) in the mid 1970s (Philip Larson would perform Berio’s Sinfonia with Electric Phoenix in Las Vegas in 1989). EVTE was an acoustic group who did not use electronics, only microphones. Two young composers working with EVTE later became closely associated with Electric Phoenix: the Englishman Roger Marsh and the American William Brooks, both at La Jolla at the time, Marsh a Harkness Doctorial Fellow, Brooks on the teaching faculty. Marsh composed Not a Soul but Ourselves for EVTE, Brooks his Madrigals. Both became staple repertoire items for Electric Phoenix – indeed the British group (in a spirit of friendly competition) managed to give the world premiere of the complete Madrigals, EVTE having only managed to learn Nos 1 and 4 so far. Both Marsh and Brooks went on to compose further works for Electric Phoenix. Sometime in the 1980s EVTE ceased to exist.
At first the group adopted a policy of as often as possible inviting rock musicians to contribute works: it was thought that musicians from the world of pop would bring a fresh voice to the contemporary concert repertoire, and that their familiarity with electronics and recording techniques would produce interesting sonic ideas which might elude more conventional composers. Accordingly Morris Pert of Brand X and David Bedford, a concert composer who worked extensively with Mike Oldfield and others, were commissioned. This line of research ran dry, however, because the group found difficulty locating rock composers with the discipline and notational skills necessary for an Electric Phoenix commission.
Luciano Berio was always a figure central to the idea and ambitions of the group. The experience of performing his vocal music was a strong early inspiration for its formation. Later, Berio was to choose Electric Phoenix to perform Sinfonia (often himself conducting the work). The group performed this work in all 78 times, with many major orchestras including the Leningrad Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, La Scala, Concertgebouw, BBC Symphony, Philharmonia, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Berio also authorised the revival of the 5-voice version of A-Ronne. It was always hoped he would accept a commission for a new piece, but, as with Swingle II before, despite several promises no new work emerged and Electric Phoenix had to content itself with performing existing pieces, which it did many times: Sequenza III (also recorded by Linda Hirst) A-Ronne (recorded in its 5-voice version) Sinfonia (recorded three times by Electric Phoenix, with Riccardo Chailly, Edo de Waart and Semyon Bychkov) and Cries of London.
Finally in the late 80s Berio announced a new piece, Canticum Novissimi Testamenti II, which went through several versions before settling to an ensemble of 8 singers, 4 clarinets and saxophone quartet. This work, wonderful as it is, was not the one Electric Phoenix had hoped for, using larger forces than the group could logistically manage, and it was performed by London Sinfonietta Voices.
Electric Phoenix’s first concerts were in 1978 in London, following a feverish bout of commissioning. A major breakthrough was the support of Henri Pousseur, an established composer of international reputation whose acceptance of a commission from an unknown group lent weight to its aspirations. Early financial assistance from The Arts Council of Great Britain and Logica, a computer consultancy, was also vital. During the next twenty years over three hundred recitals were given in major new-music venues, festivals and concert halls in Europe, Scandinavia and North America. Aided by the American agent Kenneth Wentworth, the group toured America and Canada seventeen times between 1981 and 1995.
The personnel of the quintet changed very little over the years, with only three sopranos, three mezzos, three tenors and two basses gaining full membership. In 1979 John Whiting joined Electric Phoenix as its sound projectionist, Terry Edwards moving onstage as the bass singer. Because of the American Whiting's wide knowledge of recording and electronic techniques a much fuller technical basis was established for the group, and within a year he was able to supply a fully-equipped rehearsal and recording space in October Sound, his new studios in the basement of The October Gallery in Holborn, London.
Although Electric Phoenix existed primarily as a quintet of four singers and a sound projectionist, it expanded when necessary to perform particular works. An octet was regularly assembled for works by Berio and a sextet was formed in 1983 to prepare performances of Stockhausen’s Stimmung. This version was perhaps unique in observing the composer's original intention that the fifty-one 'models' which form the piece should appear in random order, chosen secretly during performance by the singer leading each one. The erotic poems which appear in the work in German were translated into English and French, also in accordance with the composers wishes.
Sixty-two new works were performed by Electric Phoenix between 1978 and 1997. These included commissions from established masters such as Henri Pousseur and John Cage (who came to the October Sound studio one memorable day in 1988 to work with us) and an extraordinarily inventive younger generation of composers including David Bedford, William Brooks, Neely Bruce, Rolf Gehlhaar, Daryl Runswick, Kaija Saariaho and Trevor Wishart. At the new music summer school in Darmstadt in 1986 an exciting collaboration began with the Kronos String Quartet. Three specially-composed works (by William Brooks, Barry Guy and Daryl Runswick) were performed and later repeated in the United Kingdom and USA.
Electric Phoenix largely succeeded in fulfilling its founders' aspirations. Composers were unanimous in their enthusiasm to receive a commission from the group, as can be seen in the list of performances that follows. The group was constantly in demand, crossing and re-crossing the European and North American continents visiting all the major new-music festivals and giving school, University and composers' workshops. It performed in many celebrated concert halls, including Vienna Musikverein, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Finlandia Hall Helsinki, IRCAM Paris, Royal Albert Hall, Usher Hall Edinburgh, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York. It is also worthy of note that the group travelled without road managers, taking their equipment with them and setting up and tearing down on every occasion themselves.
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