Thursday, June 18, 2009


I am listening to Renaissance Polyphonic music again, to Tudors, and Flemish composers at the court of Beatrice D'Este in Ferrara, and trying to understand the compositional differences between Obrecht and Ockheghem, Josquin and Isaac. Why do this? Because it is some of the most heavenly music on earth. It is music of great fervor and almost kaleidoscopic complexity, and its re-emergence in our own time has influenced many. Neither Arvo Part or John Taverner or Oswaldo Golijov or Nico Muhly would be the same without it, different as each is. It is one part of history which our part of history is trying to bend its skull around. The work "supreme in its anomaly"--the work our own time is most attracted to-- is probably Thomas Tallis' motet Spem in Alium, a motet for eight choirs of five voices, or forty parts, which may be the most complex piece of music written. It has been recorded sixteen or so times, including a budget CD of it alone (it averages about eleven minutes in performance)by the King's Singers, the CD equivalent of a single. I have six recordings almost accidentally, of which I tend to rely on three:the Tallis Singers on a two-disk anthology of Tallis' music, Paul van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble in a recording on Sony called Utopia Triumphans, and a recording by David Wilcox and the Winchester Choir on
the pellucid, the plangent, and the weighty. The Tallis Singer's anthology fully demonstrates Peter Phillip,the director's, assertion that Tallis is one of the composers with the greatest range, from plain four square hymnody to this auditory cathedral of a work. Van Nevel's disk puts Spem in Alium in the context of other high Renaissance tour de forces, and it is instructive to compare a masterpiece, as Spem in Alium surely is, to a feat of ingenuity, such as a forty voice motet by Striggio, much as it is clarifying to compare Michelangelo's frescos with Guilio Romano's. Van Nevel's approach has a certain controlled wildness to it. Wilcox's has from the start a sense of the work's bigness that the others don't. But each reveals things that the others de-emphasize; this is a work which can not be summed up, only successfully traversed. The Kronos quartet has recorded it as an instrumental work with multiple dubbings, and there is a midi program of all forty parts from top to bottom on the internet, (thank you,David Siu ) which allows one to hear it part by part, which I have done, the matter of a good part of a day. In 2006, the Scottish artist Janet Cardiff installed 40 speakers at MOMA to play each part separately; the speakers were set up in a circle so the part-singing swirled around the listeners in conformity with some theories as to how it was performed in the time of King James 1, with the choristers encircling the listeners. My first exposure to it was in the 1970's on a recording released by the CLERKES OF OXENFORD. It featured, if I remember correctly, counter-sopranos as well as counter-tenors. It seens to me now, as it did then, to be like a huge Dantesque rose of heaven in sound or the musical equivalent of Borges' Aleph, the coin at the bottom of the stairs in his parable of the same name, in which all that is or shall be can be seen clearly, separately, simultaneously.