An entire class of English vocal ensembles, sometimes placed under an "Oxbridge Sound" umbrella, specializes in early music. Among the prestigious ranks of the Gothic Voices, the Tallis Scholars, Pro Cantione Antiqua, the Oxford Camerata, and the Sixteen, longevity and musical versatility place the Hilliard Ensemble in a class almost of their own. Named for the great Elizabethan miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard, and not for their longtime director, the Hilliard Ensemble grew out of the musical vision of baritone Paul Hillier, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, and his friendships with three other singers (two of them from Oxford). Their intention was to explore the then less-heard musical riches of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Their musical odyssey has covered music from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, with a strong interest in late twentieth century vocal music as well. Though Paul Hillier himself left the ensemble in 1990 to take American academic positions at the University of California at Davis and then at the Early Music Institute at the University of Indiana, the core membership has remained otherwise fairly consistent: countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, and basses Michael George and later Gordon Jones.
The Hilliard Ensemble's work under Hillier's direction centered on English and "Netherlandish" music. Notable recordings include pathbreaking performances of Leonel Power and the Old Hall manuscript, a large selection of music from the Continental generations influenced by the English style; the "Contenance Angloise" (Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin); and excellent renditions of later English composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. As an example of their many departures from this Renaissance main road, however, the Hilliard's catalog features a musically powerful and quite controversial 1989 recording of the music of Perotin. At all times, Hillier and his singers performed almost exclusively one on a part (in contrast to the "choral" Tallis Scholars), with a characteristic full and resonant vocal production, and impeccable tuning. In addition, Hillier's individual approach emphasized historical pronunciation; he performed Latin texts by English composers, for instance, with regional Anglo-Latin dialects, thereby significantly altering the very sound of the music.
During Hillier's tenure as director, and even more spectacularly through the 1990s, the Hilliard Ensemble also devoted significant energy to the presentation of contemporary classical music. A large number of ECM label discs containing the tintinnabuli music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt have featured the ensemble, as did a 1995 recording of the music of Giya Kancheli, Abii ne viderem. A two-disc compilation from 1996, A Hilliard Songbook: New Music for Voices, presented the results of several years of the ensemble's direct commissions and Hilliard Composition Prizes; among the composers represented are Morton Feldman, James MacMillan, Ivan Moody, and Joanne Metcalf. A fascinating collaboration between the Hilliard Ensemble and jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek yielded the 1994 Officium, bridging the centuries with esoteric flights of saxophone improvisation above the hyper-resonant landscape of the Hilliard group singing chants and spiritual motets -- a musical nexus that nearly defies description. And these certainly do not represent the final chapter in new sounds that the Hilliard Ensemble will bring into the world.