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.

It Speaks to Me

What attracts us to certain artworks? Whether book or stage production, painting or photograph, dancing or theatre, singing or instrumental music, there has to be something with which we can connect for the work to have any meaning for us as individuals.Photo: Book of Languages

Some of those connections are obvious: an author with whose philosophy or politics I tend to agree is more likely to produce a book or script I enjoy than one whose beliefs are wildly different from mine; if I favor a specific style or period or medium, I’ll probably always find the works within them resonating in my heart more often than those from unfamiliar or less loved types.Photo: Familiar Passages

Other attractions might be more tenuous or less overt. I read a whole lot online nowadays, both factual and fictional, but I still enjoy reading magazines and books, and there is no digital substitute quite yet for the fine roughness of antique paper pages in my hands and the musty scent of old books.

Oceans of Music

photoRecent weeks have seen our household in full music immersion. The casual observer or fly on the wall might be rather skeptical of the claim, when our home–other than occasional brief bursts of singing from my partner’s office while he’s studying a score–is, if anything, more silent than usual. That’s simply because the music is mainly taking us both elsewhere. And thanks to our practice of managing a one person/two places of employment, one car household economy by means of my sometimes chauffeuring him between gigs and staying through on the sidelines when possible, I get to share in the musical inundation.

It’s no surprise that a conductor, especially one who works in one of the largest university music programs on the continent and therefore has colleagues and students almost beyond the counting who offer musical rehearsals and programs well worth our sharing from morning until late every day right alongside and overlapping his own, would be so surrounded by sound. The Anglican church where he’s currently serving has, in addition, the average Sunday in which the choirs he conducts will sing anthems, Psalms and liturgical service music at two full morning Eucharistic services and one Evensong. All of this is, in fact, hardly unique among conductors, many of whom like him also do guest conducting, clinics and lectures and all of the adminis-trivia that accompany choral, educational, ecclesiastical and institutional operations everywhere. I’m still often astounded at what he manages to do, not only logistically but with continued thoughtful musical scholarship and grace.

And always, always, I am moved to gratitude that I’ve had the incredible good fortune to link my life with his, this person whom I not only like and love but also admire immensely for his integrity, artistry and good humor. On top of all this, I get to Go Along for the Ride and listen to it all.

So as things have gained momentum on the calendar chez nous (as they do cyclically in every household), I have been privileged to bathe in oceans’-worth of music to please my ears, to challenge my thinking, rejoice my heart, soothe my sorrows, ease my weariness, shake my complacency, and rock me gently on sonic waves of peace and beauty. I could do with a little more of that household silence, not to mention free time or sleep, and we can safely assume my spouse would welcome these ten times as eagerly. But I can’t think of what I’d willingly cross off the list from among what we’ve been hearing in the last number of weeks.

I always love listening in on rehearsals, whether with groups my husband’s conducting or otherwise, in part for the wonderful music I hear and in large part because, as a non-musician myself, I can enjoy nearly any music more if I’ve not only listened to it a few times to become more familiarized but, especially, if I’ve gotten a sense of what the singers and/or players are being told about the work–its origins, history, style, particular complexities, and so forth–and are being asked to do with it musically and interpretively. Each group of artists converges at an entirely different point in time in the performing arts, each and every time they rehearse or perform, because in addition to gradually improving or changing skill levels and building affinities with the works in question, they each bring different degrees of their daily condition with them for the occasion: health, attitude, and the news of the last hour may color a performance and endanger or enrich it accordingly. All ages and levels of skill and experience and passion can have ‘off’ nights onstage or, conversely, magically exhilarating moments of unsurpassed attunement, somehow, with the universe.photo

I love actual performances, too, of course, where the high drama of potential crash-and-burn or apotheosis resides in every second of the concert, the recital, the act. The power that emerges from the performers nerving themselves and plunging wholeheartedly into the moment is a splendid spectacle and can transport us all to other places and planes. Not having the performance skills myself (nor the will or self-confidence to develop them as necessary), I am all the more aware of what’s at stake and how nearly incredible it is that great things come out of the effort so often. And, of course, that much more appreciative that there are those who can and will share such gifts with the rest of us.

What the last weeks have brought have included a huge range of such gifts. There was an outstanding high school choir whose fine conductors invited my husband to do an evening’s clinic with the singers on literature they’re preparing for a choral competition. Such joy and energy and responsiveness filling the room! Then, some of his sopranos and altos from one of the university choirs singing the lovely and yes, alluring ‘Sirènes‘ of Claude Debussy as guests on a university orchestra concert, calling all of us listeners to wreck our souls on the dangerous promontories of their imagined seashore. Two performances of the uni Symphony Orchestra in a showcase of some of the school’s powerhouse players, including a recently acquired, fabulous violinist who gave a mesmerizing performance of the Allegro moderato of Tchaikovsky‘s violin concerto (Op. 35) each time–once on campus, then at the Texas Music Educators’ Association conference 5 hours’ road-trip south, where if I weren’t musicked up enough lately I certainly could (and did) dive in among the over 25,000 musicians in attendance at the convention.

There was a delightful performance by a doctoral conducting student with his recital choir. Lots of rehearsals and warmups and services with the church choirs, including lovely works by William Byrd, Morten Lauridsen, Gregorio Allegri. Rehearsals with the university Chamber and Collegium (early music) choirs going on as always, and new ones beginning with the combined singers from Collegium and Dr. Jerry McCoy‘s outstanding A Cappella Choir whom my partner was preparing for performances of George Frideric Handel‘s oratorio ‘Theodora‘ under the baton of Maestro Graeme Jenkins of the Dallas Opera, along with the university’s Baroque Orchestra. Ash Wednesday was a road-tripping adventure, with the two of us working at home in the morning, heading to Dallas for him to warm up and conduct the choir in the noon Ash Wednesday service at the church, dashing back to the university for his afternoon Chamber Choir rehearsal, then back to Dallas for the 6 pm service and a following weekly choir rehearsal before going home back north for the night. But oh, so much lovely music sandwiched in between car races!

That was followed by Thursday and Friday nights’ ‘Theodora’ performances–3 hours of ecstatic music about agonizing trials, or good old life-and-death oratorio drama of Handel’s best sort–and then, yesterday’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast of ‘Ernani’, which I told you about in last evening’s post. Squeezed between concerts and rehearsals, a few pauses while at home spent on listening to a Canadian rock CD (yes, pretty listenable!) I just got as a comp for letting the musicians use my art for their CD cover, and especially on stealing bits of time to revisit our nephew’s punk band Honningbarna when I can. Upcoming is, oh, just more of the same: more beautiful liturgical music-making at the church; more rehearsals, recitals, and concerts at school and in town; another major musicians’ conference; the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, opera at the university and perhaps the One O’Clock Lab Band (the university’s top, Grammy-nominated Jazz ensemble), if we can somehow manage the time for it. Holy Week services (about 8 in 5 days, counting only the ones my husband’s conducting). More of the same.photoAnd yet it is music: never quite the same thing twice, nor the same experience of it. Always powerful, always waking up parts of me that I may have forgotten or not even known were there to be awakened. A constantly changing stream of sound-waves that in turn, become oceans of music to buoy me up, toss me around, pull me in, and carry me far, far away.