William Byrd’s Music is Like a Portal to Heaven

Kieran Brunt and Elizabeth Alker discuss translating the Renaissance composer’s work for Byrd Song.

Elizabeth Alker is the host of BBC Radio 3’s Unclassified; Kieran Brunt is a classically trained singer, composer, and producer based in London who composes for the vocal ensemble Shards and performs in the electronic duo Strange Boy. Last year, Elizabeth commissioned Kieran to record a piece of music inspired by the Renaissance composer William Byrd, and from that piece Kieran ended up composing an entire Byrd-inspired record: Byrd Song, which is out this Friday on Erased Tapes. To celebrate, the two caught up about the project.   
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Elizabeth Alker: Well, first of all, congratulations on the announcement today of Byrd Song

Kieran Brunt: Thank you. 

Elizabeth: This is a new record inspired by the music of William Byrd, the English Renaissance composer. I just was so thrilled to see in the announcement this morning that this all started last year when we were doing an episode of Unclassified on Radio 3, that was inspired by William Byrd for the anniversary — was it the anniversary of his birth or his death? 

Kieran: Death, 400th.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we were marking the anniversary of his death, and there were a few commissions for composers such as yourself to write music inspired by a work by William Byrd. What appealed to you about looking at the music of William Byrd and writing something that was inspired by him?

Kieran: Well, it’s funny: I used to do so much choral singing, and I still do, but I don’t sing old repertoire anymore, really. So immediately, the idea of being able to sing and engage with that music again was such an enticing thing for me. Creatively, a lot of what Shards [has done] recently has been trying to run as far away from the choral tradition as possible and see what new spaces and what new ideas we can have for the idea of a choir singing. A lot of what my idea for the group is, is trying to take a choir and put it in the spaces that bands exist in, so a lot of our stuff is amplified with drums and electronics and that kind of thing. So then being prompted to turn back to this tradition — which I do love so much — and [figuring out] how can we fold those things into the music that I normally make with Shards was a very appealing idea. And then when I sat down to do it, it was just so much fun. 

Elizabeth: Was that the first time that you’d thought about marrying those two traditions? This ancient tradition, and then also what you’ve been doing with the group, looking at how choral music exists in a contemporary context?

Kieran: One hundred percent. I slightly wonder why I hadn’t thought to do it sooner, but it’s so nice when you receive commissions like this — they often lead you down creative paths you never would have thought of otherwise. And of course, it makes perfect sense. 

Elizabeth: I was going to say, because when you hear it, it makes complete sense, doesn’t it? I was listening to “Agnus Dei,” and there’s something about the modal harmony and the text, which is so old, that works so well with the electronics and the obviously much more contemporary production style. It feels like the end of a journey for you rather than the start of this journey.

Kieran: Yeah, that’s that’s a good point. 

Elizabeth: Or, not the end!

Kieran: It feels like a culmination. And it’s something I’m now thinking about, Well, what else should we do? What else is next? When I sat down to do it, it did take quite a while, actually, the first one. Because a lot of Shards, I think of as very pictoral. My other project, Strange Boy, is all about storytelling and words and narratives, whereas this, often I try to be a bit more abstract, like painting these semi-abstract paintings with the music. What we do is often wordless, and it took quite a while to get into it, but when it clicked, I was like, Now this is interesting. What I’ve done with the album is try to make something which really clearly is, “Oh, that’s actually William Byrd, this is somebody playing with Renaissance choral music,” as soon as you hear it. But hopefully then something that sounds very much like it’s from today. 

I’ve been playing around a lot with microphone techniques, and recording with two very close small condenser microphones — these little tiny microphones that they use a lot for live classical performances, because they’re kind of omnidirectional. I stumbled upon this little trick of putting two of them — which normally you’d have quite far away from people — really close to the singer. And so then you get this quite weird, very hyperreal, close sound. Any little movement of your head, it captures, so you can hear the tiniest sounds. Then processing that and making that sound really electronic, something just clicked with that and these Latin texts. 

Elizabeth: Wow. So that was just experimentation with the technology then, bringing these two traditions together.

Kieran: Yeah. It just really was about finding the aesthetic, basically. I think with that first commission, because it was such a nice celebration — also, it’s such a personal thing for me, because this music is the first music I ever sung. I didn’t do any singing, really, until I went to secondary school and was thrown into the choir, and William Byrd was what we sang every day. So it was very meaningful and very personal, so I really wanted to make sure I found this aesthetic world to inhabit.

Elizabeth: The way you describe that, the intimacy of the recording, I think it feels like you fully are inhabiting that world. It feels like you’re almost inside it.

Kieran: Oh, I’m glad. I think for me, that’s also a thing which is sort of part of the Shards aesthetic. Because often when you hear a choir, you’re never really that close to them. I mean, sure, if you’re going to hear someone at the Wigmore Hall or whatever and you sit front row, you will be, but mostly you’re not. In a chapel or a church, the choir is a sort of beautiful, angelic whole that you experience, and as part of the acoustics. A big part of what I wanted to do with Shards is, “What if we hear what it sounds like to be right up close to everyone at the same time?” This idea of this aural intimacy is really interesting to me, and I think you kind of can illuminate different aspects of the music by doing that. Hopefully that’s what this record is going to do — show that music in its pure form, but in a more intimate and close up way.

Elizabeth: You say that you had to spend some time to find the aesthetic that felt right for you, that was the right expression of your experience of Byrd. Where did you start then, on this journey? What did you focus on in terms of his composition, or him as a person, or the time that he was writing?

Kieran: With a lot of [the songs] — especially the ones where I’m sort of riffing on little ideas, or I take an idea and develop it and flip it on its head — I’d have the music up. I might write a synth part that was playing on a loop, and then I would sort of improvise while looking at the score. I think the song “Sanctus,” there’s a section which is actually pretty much entirely three parts from one movement, for about half a minute or something. So a lot of it was just literally spent improvising, but sometimes semi-improvising, if that makes sense. And just staring at the music.

Elizabeth: And the shapes.

Kieran: And the notes, yeah. It was actually quite fun. It was quite a strange experience using something which is so set. I’d maybe sing one thing, and then my eye would be caught by another bit later in the song. So I was sort of combining the beginning of one line with the end of another, maybe changing it a bit to make it fit what was playing underneath it. It was really fun, and just creatively such a different thing to how I normally work.

Elizabeth: And what about Byrd as a person? Because he was a Catholic in Anglican England, and a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Were you considering the time, the person, the spirit of Byrd, and what he was kind of going through?

Kieran: Yeah, one hundred percent. I do a little bit of teaching every week at a school right next to Hampton Court Palace, where William Byrd was a member of the choir. So I’m around the architecture and the space a lot. For me, I’m always drawn to the drama and the theater and the really emotive side of music; that’s always the thing that appeals to me. When I make music, I always try to make it very emotional. Really thinking back to singing “Ave verum corpus” — probably the most famous motet by Byrd — I can remember where I was in the church with my school choir, and the boys behind me singing this little tenor and alto part, “Miserere mei.” I remember just thinking, Oh, my gosh, that is so beautiful and sad and emotional. It really is that immediate, the music. So that’s always really resonated with me. And then coming back to it, looking at it as source material, it’s so appealing. What it must have felt like for Byrd to have been such a devout Catholic at this time — He must have so clearly thought that his gift as a musician was from god, and that it is what he was sent here to do. 

Elizabeth: There’s such a sincerity to it, isn’t there?

Kieran: Oh, yeah, and it’s so tragic. 

Elizabeth: The risks that he took, and to make the music under that pressure—

Kieran: One hundred percent. This idea of writing music that could that could get you killed, essentially, is something that is such a profoundly important thing. What’s amazing is that he obviously had that in his heart, but then he managed to put it down in music, and it still translates to this day. The piece “Civitas sancti tui,” the one I chose first respond to, is just so sad. For him, this idea of Jerusalem was such a such a strong metaphor, of a kind of spiritual place that he was banned from going to. But also in the minds of Christians in those days, Jerusalem must have seemed like this far away, totally foreign, distant place — an idea. Luckily, I’ve been to Jerusalem once. I was brought up as a Catholic, and I don’t really practice my faith now, but I was so struck by the just the feeling of being there. 

Elizabeth: It’s a really spiritually charged environment, isn’t it? I’ve been as well. 

Kieran: Yeah. It was really just so profound. So I was really trying to think of that, and what this idea of Jerusalem and Zion would have meant to someone like William Byrd at that time. A lot of the pieces are kind of hazy, just trying to paint this sonic picture of a distant, imagined, kind of tragic landscape.

Elizabeth: I think you captured so much of the emotion that you imagine Byrd was feeling when he wrote this. I want to talk a little bit about the ambience as well, because obviously it’s electronically produced and the vocals are processed, but I think you get a sense of perhaps the spaces in which Byrd was writing for as well. I know at Lincoln Cathedral, he was the organist, choirmaster, and the Chapel Royal as well. Did you want to give people a sense of perhaps where this music may have been originally performed? 

Kieran: Yeah. I think for me, it’s a mixture of trying to do that, and also then trying to not, if that makes sense. Trying to find a happy, slightly blurred middle ground. 

Elizabeth: It’s nicely quite disorientating for the listener, because you feel like you’re being brought into this space, and you’re also like, “But this is not really what it is…”

Kieran: Yeah. That’s always the version of ambient music that I’m interested in — this idea of the kind of half-awake, half-present. The liminality of things is really interesting to me. I’ve never been very good at making that kind of clear cut or clearly organized sonic picture. I always quite like things which are blurred and things fading in and out of the background. And I work in the church, you know — my studio is the crypt space of a Victorian church here in London, so I spend so much time in church. I think I spend more time in church than anyone who actually goes to the church does. [Laughs.] So I’m working in this vaulted underground room, and I have to go upstairs to make phone calls because there’s no signal, so I spend so much time just walking around in this neo-Gothic space. I think the vibe of being in these old, beautiful, striking buildings is a big part of what I do. 

Elizabeth: It’s where you exist. 

Kieran: Yeah, and where the whole record was recorded. A lot of the close electronic stuff was done in my downstairs space, but all the choral bits with the other singers were recorded upstairs in the church, and the piano as well. So definitely the church is present.

Elizabeth: What do you think Byrd would make of it? Thinking about the musical landscape as it is now, and the way that churches like the one that you work in have been converted, it’s hard to imagine…

Kieran: Yeah, I wonder. He’d probably be horrified. [Laughs.]

Elizabeth: He was ahead of his time though! He was bold. I think he would have been open to new ideas.

Kieran: In terms of the narrative and that kind of thing, I hope that if he listened to it, he would he’d be like, “OK, this is someone who’s really thinking about what I’m trying to say in my music and then trying to develop from that place.” I guess I’m just wondering if I think of Byrd as an innovator. I see him more as a sort of technician, rather than pushing boundaries… But that said, English Renaissance choral music is, I think, the most exceptional music from that period of time. There’s that whole period where classical music was in Germany, and the continent was doing everything, so I do wonder what was happening in England at that time. London was such a big hub for music — so many important pieces were written for here — but in terms of the compositional output, in terms of the classical canon or whatever, there’s hundreds of years of… I mean, Victorian choral music had its place, but it’s not really for me. It’s nothing like this. These [Renaissance] composers — Tallis, Byrd, Orlando Gibbons — they were making music which is the absolute best of its kind, I think.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I did have a question about the production as well. Do you want to talk a little bit more about after the record was produced, or what you were using to create the final results?

Kieran: Yeah, sure, I mean, the thing you probably notice the most when you listen to it is there’s a lot of autotune, and this kind of hard tuning — which, again, was a slightly unexpected thing. In my head, if I’m trying to put beats that are punky about choir music, people spend their entire lives devoted to trying to sing as perfectly in tune and balanced and blended as possible, so the idea of just using a piece of software where you just click on and it does it for you sort of seems a little bit heretic. I think it helped me make the voices sound a little bit alien and inhuman and otherworldly, which I really wanted to do. In a lot of production, I try to make things sound sort of real, but not real, and I then just muck around with that. I really found that when you then have a whole piece — the track “Domine Deus” is literally an excerpt from Byrd’s “Mass for Five Voices,” and it’s just me singing all the parts with this autotune effect — when you have it like that, it quantizes the tuning so much that it really emphasizes the mathematical-ness of the music. I think it’s also just really beautiful as well, when you’re having everything so electronically perfectly in tune. 

A big thing about Byrd’s music, it made me realize, is there’s so many elements of counterpoint, which are echoed in the electronic production. Just the idea of delay, right? Hearing one thing and then the same thing again — that’s all over Byrd’s music. There’s some aspects of the music where I have the Byrd version of that, and then behind that we’re multiplying it more. So just kind of playing and seeing which elements do the patterns overlap, and where they don’t, and sometimes leaning into the fact that they don’t.

Thinking about whether Byrd would have liked it or not, I pushed some slightly jarring harmonic tensions in there, which I think Byrd would probably have thought was the devil appearing in the music, as they did in those days. [Laughs.] There’s a kind of strange piano thing where there’s a four or five second delay of the same piano piece played over itself. The cadences sort of collide and you hear one cadence over another one. I’m sure any real music buffs will be squirming when they hear those, but I really like that tension. 

Elizabeth: It’s interesting that you say that, and that you describe the auto tuning as otherworldly, because Byrd’s music — you could say it has an otherworldly, perhaps celestial quality, particularly to hear it performed live. And then for you to capture a different kind of otherworldliness is again that sort of strange bringing-together of these two worlds where they fit and also are opposites. 

Kieran: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I’ve always found my music always looks towards the infinite and the unknown in a way. I sometimes try to not, but it always ends up having this slightly existential kind of thing. I think that’s definitely something I tapped into with his music. I’m really fascinated by the history of music, and how obviously the way that we listen to music and how much music we can hear now is so different to even 100 years ago. The way that music is performed and disseminated now is just totally different. In Byrd’s day, the only places you would hear music, presumably, would be in church. Or if you were very wealthy, in a court, or maybe in the theater. A town square, in the pub — these are the only places you’d hear folk musicians. And choral music, church music — you’d be hearing heaven. People would have really thought that this was like a portal to this other kind of celestial universe. That’s something that’s really moving to me. I hope that we’re engaging with that in the music.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I think you capture all those things. So congratulations, it’s beautiful. And thank you for this chat.

Kieran: Thank you so much. Cheers. 

(Photo Credit: left, Annika Wallis)

Kieran Brunt is a classically trained singer, composer, and producer based in London, who studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Since then, Kieran has become one of the most sought-after collaborators in his field, working with Terry Riley, Michael Price, Luke Howard, Anna von Hausswolff, Nico Muhly, Clark, Erland Cooper and Nils Frahm, who invited him to arrange and record the vocal elements of his breakthrough album All Melody. Kieran is the composer for the vocal ensemble Shards, whose new album Byrd Song is out on Erased Tapes April 19, 2024. He also performs in electronic duo Strange Boy, who released their debut LP Love Remains on March 1 via Groenland Records.

(Photo Credit: Annika Wallis)