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.

The Icing on the…erm…Chair

Being Crafty is something other people do. I admire the feats of those who can crochet spectacular Afghan blankets seemingly out of thin air or decorate their homes for the holidays with recycled coat hangers and tuna tins and somehow make them look like a magazine cover. People who have the know-how, skill and patience to embroider babies’ bonnets, build palatial birdhouses out of scavenged fence pickets and carve perfect portraits of great historical figures out of turnips impress me greatly.

I, on the other hand, have been known to abandon ship mid-craft, or at the very least change directions radically when I feel I haven’t a hope of getting the hang of what my project was initially intended to be. My youthful embroidery days were ended when I spent a lengthy evening working on the details of some would-be floral tea towel‘s featured bouquet, stood up to gather my sewing and head off to bed, and discovered I’d embroidered through both the tea towel and the lap of my nightgown. My candle-making artistry had only its propensities for melting and burning (and thus, quickly, disappearing) to recommend it. Unlike those who are able to make fabulous sand mandalas with the grains arranged perfectly meditatively into millions of delicate otherworldly patterns would be, if not appalled, then at least mystified and probably saddened, by the strange mud-pies that would be the only produce of my efforts in that direction.

Pretty well any craft that takes any real focus and attention, let alone proficient control of the medium, is likely to remain out of my reach.

There are, however, certain tools, materials and proficiencies in the land of Craft that I can and do manage. One of the media I have enjoyed manipulating for playful, if not crafty, purposes at times is lightweight spackling compound. This stuff, made initially for repair of wounded wallboard and the filling of trim gaps by builders and handy-persons, resembles cheap bake-shop frosting so strongly in texture (and, I daresay, probably in taste, though that’s moot here) that it goes through an icing bag and tip wonderfully well. So it’s great for not only creating faux frosty baked goods but also all sorts of the same kind of detail work that plaster and woodcarving and metalworking artisans have used to create architectural accents and furniture details for eons, especially in combination with other small sculptural elements. Thinning the spackle just enough with water to go through a pastry icing tip and retain its proper density and texture and shape while drying is virtually the only difference. In fact, the spackle can be tinted in many of the same ways as frosting, too, though it may be painted and colored in many ways after the fact.photoIn any event, I’ve had fun with this magical past on occasion. I’ve made customized and personalized ceiling medallions with it. I made a nice big window valance that had all kinds of pieces and parts–food and cookery gadgets and the like–blending its own form and meaning with the rest of the dining room in which it hung. I’ve used it to create baroque picture frames and mirror frames. Probably the most fun project with it so far was making a couple of very rococo side chairs by upholstering them with tapestry-like fabrics and then building equally over-the-top sculptural frames and backs out of small objects, some pre-made and some of my own making from plasticine or wood, bone or clay or metal, and then faithfully infilled with spackle ‘frosting’ before I gilded it all with metallic paints.photo montageWhat’s next? Who knows. But there are boxes full of fun waiting for me to make them into something new, and that little yet persistent itch returns from time to time, so undoubtedly there will be a next thing. Just you wait and see.

The Royal Whee!

digital image from a photo

 

It IS All About Me, Really

To see the main

objective of the game,

It helps if one can

keep the goal in frame

And focus on it clearly,

deeply, truly,

But not to lose all

other sights unduly,

So if you’d like to

keep ambition near,

I recommend you stare

at me, my dear.digital image from an antique print