Early Music for Breakfast

Digital illustration + text: Haiku on the Least Supper

If you haven’t already crossed paths with Thomas Tallis‘s landmark Renaissance motet Spem in alium, I highly recommend it. It’s a truly astounding piece of European music history, representing the confluence of the political and artistic competition for primacy in that time period; it’s believed to have been composed as England’s answer to Italy’s Alessandro Striggio‘s own, earlier 40-part motet, or possibly to Striggio’s 40-60 voice mass. I’m no musician, but I’ve learned, mostly through witnessing a few performances of the Tallis by different groups led by my husband and his colleagues, just what a feat this piece really represents.

While the creation of Striggio’s works for 40 and more independent voices is amazing in its own right, the 40-part motet he wrote specified that the voices be doubled instrumentally. That is impressive enough. For my fellow non-musicians, think of it this way: a typical piece of music for a mixed choir requires singers to perform different notes and lines of music, often at the same time, so that what is heard is not one single series of notes, one after the other the way we sing by ourselves, but layers of notes that become deeper and more distinctive expressions of the words being sung. Instrumental doubling means that some or all of the vocal parts are supported by one or more instruments “singing” the same notes at the same time. This can intensify the effect of that singer or section’s line, and it can sometimes also help a less skilled singer or choir stay on target with the line.

In any event, the more typical choral works tend to have soprano, alto, tenor and bass voice parts, or singing lines, (or some combination of those) and generally, not more than eight or perhaps twelve different lines intermingling at once. Anything more than that means that every singer in a moderate-sized choir is responsible for knowing and performing his or her own notes, on pitch, at the right moments, and with exactly the right loud-soft dynamics and flow at every point throughout the piece. Being in a choir is a thrill; being in a good choir is a real intellectual and artistic and even physical challenge.

What makes the Tallis Spem so incredible is that it comprises not only forty individual, fully independent singers’ voices all singing their own distinct parts of the song, but indeed, doing so entirely unaccompanied. Every one of the singers has to be spot-on at all times without the support of either a fellow singer or any kind of instrumental doubling. If one singer goes off the rails, there’s the possibility that others will be thrown off of their pitch, timing, or even their place in the whole work. It could well lead to a musical train wreck. Think you’d be intimidated by doing this? I think any sane person should be!

But it’s powerful stuff, when it’s well done. I’ve had the privilege of hearing this feat beautifully accomplished by singers surrounding me in a cavernous cathedral space, and by singers standing onstage in a modern performance hall with a carefully engineered acoustic. I’ve experienced it in art galleries where Janet Cardiff‘s intriguing installation of forty high fidelity speakers on stands are placed in a circle in the otherwise rather bare room, each playing in synchrony the recording of one of the singers in a performance of the Tallis, so that one can stand outside the circle or in the center of it surrounded by the speakers, or can move to stand at one individual speaker at a time, getting entirely different effects depending upon which part of the score is being performed and where one stands in relation to the speaker playing that part.

No matter how it’s done, once you’ve gotten a little of the idea how this piece of music intertwines voices that seem at first to be operating without a clear relationship but then, more and more, to be converging into a meditative, chant-like, layered song, it is quite mesmerizing. There are some recordings and performances out there on CD, iTunes, and YouTube worth a listen, and if you get the chance to visit the Cardiff installation, called simply Forty-Part Motet, do it. Best of all, of course, is if some fine choir nearby offers a live performance that you can attend. It’s rather haunting and ethereal, and made all the more impressive by the knowledge of its complex origins.

Meanwhile, I have given you this bite-sized humorous meditation on the work. A haiku seemed the ideal vehicle for acting as either commentary on or antidote to a choral masterpiece so complicated and virtuosic. And I sort of wonder if, in the process of composing this grand work, Mr. Tallis had any chance to stop for rest or was so deep in concentration that he barely had time to do the Renaissance equivalent of opening a tin of luncheon meat and dining directly from it, pen and parchment in one hand and dripping Spam juice on the other. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that this effort of his was entirely detrimental, let alone leading to his personal version of the Last Supper, since he went on to compose other fine works up until nearer his death some fifteen years later.

Pretty Thievery

You’ve heard of petty thieves; this summer I saw a pretty thief. My husband and I were visiting in Washington (state), seeing family, attending a fundraising event and spending a couple of days at the end of the trip where my partner was doing some work conducting a choir (comprising as its singers a batch of veteran choral conductors and teachers, a handful of whom are longtime friends of ours) in a workshop. It was all quite delightful, with the exception of the horrid respiratory gunk that my guy received as a gift along the way and that cut short the workshop fun. [He has fully recovered by now, thankfully.]

But another unexpected happy thing about the trip was that the fundraiser was held very near a condominium we own that, while it’s normally rented out as a residence—so we’ve not been inside it since we viewed it for purchase—our property manager informed us that we were getting a new renter and our visit sat right in the between-renters gap. So there was this handy opportunity for us to go in and renew our familiarity with the place where we might conceivably someday live ourselves as retirees, not to mention a chance to measure rooms, note the condition of things now that the home was actually clean and unfurnished, and so forth. All useful, along with the visit to that town itself, in reminding ourselves what had attracted us to the locale and the home in the first place.

Another attraction we were reminded of appeared serendipitously on this visit. As we were wandering through the neighborhood and trying to remember exactly how to find our only-once-visited place, we passed a house with beautiful dwarf fruit trees planted along its street side, and there stood a deer, placidly unruffled by either our passing car or the midday sun, casually balancing on two legs to reach up and nab some marvelous, rosy ripe apples and munch them one after another. We stopped, rolled down our windows to enjoy the sight, and listened to birds chorusing in the trees, and vowed never to turn in such a charming miscreant even if it one day dined on our own deck plants.Photo: Pretty Thievery

Sing Comfort to Me

Digital illustration: Wild Daisies 1Sweet is the Song

However cold and sharp the wind may be,

As wild and deep as darkness ever falls,

From utmost edges of the storm still calls

A song that stills, that draws and comforts me—

Though battles rage, the world in sorrow drowns,

And trials threaten life and hope and light,

That gracious call still guides me through the night

As long as I will listen to its sounds—

No danger is so great, no ill so dire,

Nor pestilence and terror so extreme,

That it cannot be mended by the stream

Of melody from that angelic choir—

Now when amid the depths of dark and pain,

I’ll listen for that heavenly refrain.Digital illustration: Wild Daisies 2

For Love of Singing

Digital illustration from photos:  I Sing for JoyI Sing for Love

I sing for love of singing, For music, sweet and strong

That carries me from joy to joy, Amending every wrong—

To hear clear voices ringing Across the dawn of day

Makes purest gold, without alloy, My every waking way—

As day approaches evening, A lullaby, at last,

Gives night delight, believing As I do that in the vast—

Infinite—constellation Of voices in the night,

I will find deep communion With the song that sets me right—

I sing for love of singing, For in the choir’s heart

Is all the song of blessing That I longed for from the start.

If My Song could Last Forever

Photo: Well Seasoned 1Hours into Seasons

There’s a sweetness in the morning when the sun has yet to rise

And the blooms lie, still unopened, under sleeping butterflies;

When the stars still wink and glimmer, while the frogs yet softly sing—

There’s a sweetness in the morning that is like the breath of Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 2

There’s a graciousness at midday when, amid the racing streams,

All arise and put in motion yesterday’s profoundest dreams;

When the past its chains has loosened on the race of all alive,

That in joyful forward motion we, like Summer, grow and thrive.Photo: Well Seasoned 3

There’s a calm amid the evening when the birds come to the trees’

Respite from the day of flying, echoed by our evening ease;

When the cares of noon have lessened as the dusk swept into place—

There’s a calm amid the evening, peaceful as the Autumn’s grace.Photo: Well Seasoned 4

There’s a beauty to the nighttime, glorious and peaceful bliss,

Treasured for the kind renewal of the souls that rest in this

Cradling darkness and this languor, in this place of mending rest

That, like Winter’s dormant healing, lets us wake refreshed and blessed.Photo: Well Seasoned 5

I would take these hours’ presents as my guide through seasons long,

Through a lifelong path that’s pleasant as a choir’s finest song;

I would be a seasoned traveler, happy above everything,

If my song could last forever,

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 6

All Together Now

Another day, another rehearsal. More study, more practicing. And for all but the most independent and reclusive researchers or out-and-out hermits, this means work done in company. We need each other. The best progress is usually possible only with the support and aid of collaborators and fellow workers in all kinds of related tasks. We build on the work of our predecessors and colleagues; we stand on the shoulders of others.digital illustration from a photo

Nowhere is the necessity of such mutuality, of working very literally in concert, truer than in choirs and orchestras. I have written here plenty of times about the privileges and joys of my life in being able to attend not only so many wonderful concerts but the rehearsals where they are prepared. Beyond that, though, I feel fortunate to have the example and reminder constantly before me of an approach that can be tremendously beneficial in all kinds of life’s activities: surrounding myself with all of the resources that smart and able and collegial, supportive fellow laborers can bring to the task.digital illustration from a photo

Time alone is valuable. It offers all sorts of useful room for quiet reasoning and planning, uninterrupted cogitation and problem-solving, and the mental and emotional space to put all of those aspects to work for me. But there would be little in the way of material with which I can do any of that if it weren’t for the rich stores of fact and imagination prepared by all of those who have preceded me in any task I choose, and there can be only the kind of progress that my own limited stores of wisdom and experience, skill and talent and imagination can cobble together if I don’t work in tandem with others. So I am happy to enlist all of the company I can, and aim for working in harmony toward whatever purposes we can dream and achieve. Then, perhaps, my projects will have a chance of culminating in choruses of satisfied approbation.

Alive & Well

photoSing Now & Always

To celebrate at breaking of the dawn

Or close of evening, or the stroke of noon,

There is no sweeter pleasure than a tune

Well sung by everyone, an antiphon

To peace, to sorrow, or to happiness;

No matter what the poetry or text,

It truly matters most that what is next

Is choral concord to renew, redress,

Resound through all the unseen years ahead,

A clarion, an anthem or motet

Grander than any ear has heard as yet,

And run to distant history, a thread

Of melody and harmony so strong

That no one can resist joining in song