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In his first novel, Time will Tell, Donald Greig spins a web across three worlds of early music; the composer (Ockeghem), the academic (an isolated American called Andrew Eiger) and the modern vocal ensemble (the pun-tastic Beyond Compère), but it is not – according to the author himself – a roman à clef, but rather a springboard from which he launches into a series of beautifully observed episodes at a point when these different camps become temporarily intertwined.

The plot centres around the discovery of a ‘new’ Ockeghem motet by the academic. Things begin to unravel, however, when he approaches the charismatic Emma Mitchell, the young director of Beyond Compère, to organise a performance. Throughout the novel, as more of Ockeghem’s life is revealed, a dialogue opens up between past and present, between art and life.

Greig writes with verve and a wit capable of summing up characters with a single devastatingly accurate observation. Interestingly he steers clear of ex-Oxbridge stereotypes preferring to remove his characters from the traditional homeland of early music performance groups and place them in an ensemble specialising in the son et lumière approach (which can go wonderfully wrong). Greig captures beautifully that bittersweet post-university decade in the lives of his young musicians where hopefulness still outpaces reason and touring is an adventure. Emma Mitchell would give Emma Morley (David Nicholls: One Day) a run for her money.

Greig’s great achievement in this book lies in the way that he closes the gap between the medieval composer and the modern performer. He humanises the distant past so that we can empathise with Ockeghem in a way that mirrors Greig’s own achievements as a singer. For those in the know, there is a delightful smattering of musicological asides and some devastatingly well observed choral insights. However, this is not a book solely for specialists and demands no prior knowledge of early music.

A first novel is always to be greeted with special interest but when the novelist is already a celebrated artist in another medium I find that my curiosity is piqued. Those who enjoy early music will already know Donald Greig as a familiar voice; he is a frequent singer in The Tallis Scholars, a founder member of The Orlando Consort and a singer with Gothic Voices. He has also contributed to writings in the field of performance studies. Donald Greig is a modern Renaissance man!

Edward Breen Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing