Purge Me With Hyssop
105 · 30 January 97
In amongst a long series of laughably over-ambitious New Year's resolutions regarding things over which I don't necessarily exert much control, I also resolved that this will be the year I stop not knowing anything about classical music. I'm not sure why this year my ignorance on the subject suddenly seems unconscionable, while my complete inability to fathom jazz and my lingering indifference to most rock music before 1978 still don't trouble me, but life is long, so I try not to worry about its disorganization.
I start from a very small kernel of trustworthy knowledge. I played cello for about six years of my youth, so even if you disregard the time spent at the beginning learning magnanimously oversimplified versions of the theme to Star Wars, I did encounter enough random classical music to have a general feel for the art form, about like you'd have for painting, in general, after working your way through several volumes of the copy-the-masters-by-numbers series filling in only the red patches. I also took a classical-music survey course in college, which is certainly not the way you develop an actual empathy for the stuff, but does supply you with some useful historical context (like: generally speaking, twiddly harpsichord soliloquies are from a really long time ago, pieces that sound like the entire population of a small, pious Northern European country simultaneously glimpsing the face of God are from more recently, and anything that sounds like a pointless chaotic mess or a cautionary tale for why tuning is important was probably done by somebody who lived to despise television). This sounds like a pretty meager background when you say it that way, but a resume of my formal experience with rock music wouldn't look very imposing, either, and that hasn't stopped me from writing about that. In fact, the closer you scrutinize the issue, the less clear it becomes what, exactly, determines where the curtain between classical and popular music falls. Clearly Haydn and Hayden are from reasonably different cultural traditions, but what fearsome chemical-reaction hazard leads record stores to house Enya and Dawn Upshaw in entirely different rooms? How is Brian Eno's Music for Airports rock music, while the most frenetic Tchaikovsky ballet is classical? If I had to derive its definition from observation, I'd be tempted to guess that "classical" is just a word meaning "Releases whose liner notes are printed in four languages" that happens, because it's shorter than the whole phrase, to be better suited for signage. And if all music is just music, then it follows that a combination of fanatical obsessiveness and arbitrary whims connected by a spasmodic, haphazard, largely unprincipled drunkard's-walk, which is the composite technique I customarily employ to explore everything else in life, ought to work for classical music just as well.
And so, through a series of impulsive aesthetic hyperspace jumps, I arrive at the Hilliard Ensemble. A small choir of somewhat revolving membership, usually centered around countertenor David James, tenors John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump, baritone/bass/directory Paul Hillier and bass Michael George, the Hilliard Ensemble are mainstays of Manfred Eicher's ECM New Series label, and enthusiastic blurrers of the musical line between extremely old and extremely new. My self-guided tour through their catalog (or, at least, the parts of it whose album covers I liked) begins at the elder extreme of this range, with their 1989 album of ecclesiastical songs by the twelfth-century French composer Perotin.
My personal reference point for anything even vaguely reminiscent of liturgical chanting is the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the line of monks passes, solemnly intoning something like "Domine es requiem", and then thwacking themselves in the head with the wooden boards they carry for that purpose. So deeply ingrained in my aural cortex is this scene that I was unable to listen to any part of the recent spate of quasi-modernized Gregorian Chants without making the thwacking gesture and muttering "thwack" under my breath at the end of every line. The original heyday of chants was the eighth and ninth centuries, which is quite a ways before the twelfth century, but change came slowly back then, and a century in flat-earth years is about two years in pop time (or a month and a half in web time), so three hundred years on from head-thwacking monophony the state of music has been advanced noticeably, but not dramatically, and if you have an intractable antipathy for drones and chants, you'll almost certainly want to start later than this. Personally, though, I can listen to this whole album without a single thwack, so it must have crossed some critical threshold.
Perotin's compositional style is distinguished, for me, at least in contrast to the other steps in this erratic journey, by three things. First, almost all these pieces are anchored by drone parts. A cross-section of most moments of this disc would find a stratum at the bottom in which a voice or two hold lung-defyingly extended notes, over and against which the other voices sing polyphonic melodies. The effect is not unlike that of a bagpipe, except that I think, even in Scotland, it would be exceedingly bad form to bring a bagpipe into a priory. Second, the melodies themselves, though florid compared to chants, are pretty carefully measured by any other standard. The parts proceed in methodical rhythmic lock-step, and except for the drones, which seem to change notes only when one singer asphyxiates and must be replaced by another, and a little rondo-like frivolity in "Dum Sigillum", the harmonists almost invariably switch tones all at once. Most passages are also constructed of notes of only two durations, which gives the proceedings something of the feel of an Erasure keyboard part in which the synth sporadically sticks on a single note for two beats. The last trademark of these pieces is that they make Robert Plant's penchant for inserting extra syllables into words sound like a stutter so mild that no insurance company would cover its treatment. The first minute and a half of "Alleluia Nativitas", for example, which encompasses hundreds of notes, makes it through only the first word of its text. This tends to drain the words of any vestige of communicative power they might once have had (which the booklet editors seem to acknowledge by not bothering to include translations), and at times it's easy to forget that the singers are in the middle of words at all. The recording, rich in cathedral echoes, accentuates this sense of wordlessness, to the point where most of this album, for me, sounds like the ecstatic hallucinatory reveries of an extremely spiritual person who has, nonetheless, dozed off during a service, just after eating a large and ill-advisedly spicy meal.
Josquin Desprez: Motets & Chansons
By the fifteenth century, as sampled on this recently-reissued 1983 recording of the work of Italian composer Josquin Desprez (a Virgin disc, the only non-ECM release in this batch), the world has begun to change dramatically. Columbus discovers the New World during Josquin's career, and a corresponding spirit of expanded possibility permeates the music. Traces of chant linger in the low ranges, but even the religious pieces here have a lush, organic flow to them, which in another arrangement (say, export a few of the vocal parts to guitar, bass and keyboards) could make, if perhaps not exactly "Sister Christian", at least something that could pass, if the lighting was bad and it kept its collar upturned, for a modern ballad. Where the meandering lines of Perotin's melodies seem to me like they'd be a colossal headache to memorize, Josquin's pieces are simpler and cohere in longer sections, so that at least part of the time it's possible to figure out what the next note ought to be just by listening, instead of having to go look it up.
The revelations here, though, are the secular songs, which suddenly reveal that the oppressive solemnity of the sacred works was a cultivated style, not a failure of imagination. The battle-hymn "Scaramella va alla guerra" maintains a straight-faced martial strut through a series of patently undignified nonsense syllables. "El grillo", an ode to the admirable singerly fortitude of the cricket, with its wild syncopation, seesawing dynamics and impish consonant trills, could be the five-hundred-year precursor to the Bobs. "Petite camusette" (evocatively translated here as "Little Snub Nose") finds the singers wheeling around each other with percussive choppiness and elan, as if executing a score that, unbeknownst to them, had actually been intended for tap dancers. And the stately "La deploration de Jehan Ockeghem" (my initial spot-translation of this as "The Deploration of Johannes Ockeghem" led me to expect a vitriolic fifteenth-century version of "You're So Vain", but "deploration de" is actually "lament for") combines elements of both forms, for a moving requiem that taps church music for its devotional sincerity, without letting its formality obscure the palpable sense of personal remorse.
Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah
The album of this set that most closely corresponds to my expectations of circa 1500 sacred choral music is this 1986 recording, from All Hallows Church in London, of several devotional pieces by sixteenth century British composer Thomas Tallis. The long title quintet is vaguely reminiscent of Perotin, but Perotin's drones have been replaced by moving bass parts that anchor the structure by hovering around its base checking the tent pegs, instead of merely biting down on the tether and then standing still. The melodies are similarly paced, but Tallis seems more concerned with the sense of the text (though again it's in Latin, so I'm only guessing), and so generally puts in more words wherever he wants more notes. He also dispenses with rhythm almost entirely, letting these pieces move, instead, at only the speed of worship. The four clearly individual parts of the slow, proud "Mass for Four Voices" seem to coexist without any notion of hierarchy, as if to suggest that there is no dichotomy of melody and harmony in the eyes of God, and no en-masse anonymity in the proper execution of His rituals.
Carlo Gesualdo: Tenebrae
My provisional favorite, among these four early composers, is the Italian nobleman Carlo Gesualdo, to whom the Hilliard Ensemble devote a dense 1990 two-CD set. Although operating, much of the time, on the same basic principles as Thomas Tallis, Gesualdo's six-part arrangements are much brighter and more expansively expressive than Tallis' close, quiet quartets, and the two extra parts give him the resources to spin off fluttery free-fall flourishes when he feels the urge, without having to even temporarily compromise the integrity of the core. The thing that really fascinates me about these pieces, though, is the bizarre and extremely disturbing whispering. The first couple times I listened to this I was playing it at work, where the desire to avoid disturbing people any more than is strictly necessary combines with the sonic tendency of the air-conditioning duct above my desk to trample on the bottom half of the dynamic range of anything I play that has one, so while there did seem to be some odd clicking noises here and there in the music, I didn't think much of it. At home, playing the set at the volume God intended for us to hear His music, or anyone else's for that matter, I discovered that the noises are actually vocal parts that drop out of the current of the music periodically in order to engage in sinister sibilant muttering. We're in Latin, still, so I can't tell how the whispering really relates to the rest of the music, but the subjective result is that I feel like in Gesualdo's music I'm hearing the inner thoughts of a man who has slipped over the edge of holiness into the rocky verges of dementia. It's as if the voices in his head are so loud that they bleed through into the performance, and I begin to suspect that the message they are intent on delivering may well be at seditious odds with the official text they are infiltrating. I realize that liking this because I think I hear the demonic subconscious of the author misses the point of "sacred music" on at least two counts, but I'm in this for the music, not the sacred.
Arvo Part: Arbos
Then we fall asleep for a very long time. We are awoken rather abruptly by blaring, chromatic brass, ominous timpani and the clang of bells. At length, after a lot of plaintive gesturing and anxiety, we ascertain that our slumber has transported us to 1986 Estonia. Over the intervening years musical instruments have gotten a lot more affordable, but otherwise things seem to have come nearly full circle. Much of "An den Wassern zu Babel", with the exception of the organ, is sparer and more monastic than even Tallis. "De Profundis" slows nearly to a crawl, and isolates each vocal part in turn, as if reluctant to risk clouding the message by bringing them together. "Summa", Part's thinly disguised Credo (I don't know which is more pathetic: that the Soviet government wouldn't let Part write a Credo, or that just retitling it was sufficient to fool them), is a straight four-part sacred choral piece (Lynne Dawson adding a soprano to the Hilliard Ensemble's configuration), only slightly more fitful and edgy than its ancestors. Several of the other pieces, though, update the choral form by introducing orchestral elements borrowed from elsewhere in history. The dark, momentous "Pari Intervallo" is a processional organ solo (performed by frequent Hilliard collaborator Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, who on another ECM disc I bought performs an epic Messiaen organ piece that I so far find only perplexing). The organ, gongs and concussive percussion of "De Profundis" emphasize its Sisyphusian ascending loops. The strings in "Es sang vor langen Jahren", a violin/viola/voice setting of a Clemens Brentano poem, are half duet and half duel, less accompaniment for the voice than challenges to it. And the long "Sabat Mater", for violin, viola, cello and three voices, is alternately strident and sorrowful, a bit like Gorecki in miniature, though with Part's unmistakable knack for arrangements that seem less like he wrote six parts than like he wrote a single set of chords with the instructions that the ensemble should somehow cooperate to produce them.
This album's centerpiece, though, is its brief title track (reprised near the end because by that point you want to hear it again), a glorious explosion of brass catharsis for four trumpets and six trombones that is essentially a single musical phrase, or depending on how you look at it, perhaps even a single chord, that the ensemble lingers over in various ways for two and a half minutes, as if a great king instructed his heralds to provide fanfare, and then walked out of the room without telling them they could stop. It doesn't go anywhere, there's no text or vocals, and the explanation in the liner notes about a family tree loses me completely, but for me a moment this radiant doesn't need to relate to anything.
Arvo Part: Passio
Passio, recorded in 1988, is Part's 1982 setting of the Passion according to St. John. A sextet version of the Hilliard Ensemble is joined by violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and Bowers-Broadbent again on organ, along with a full choir to play the part of the assembled Jews. The implicit debate between Perotin and Tallis on the balance between ornamentation and narration of holy texts is quickly rendered moot here when you realize that Part has not written a work based on the Passion, or set an excerpt of it, he's set the whole thing, John 18:1-40. At anything like an appropriately reverent pace, this means that a single disc leaves little leeway for anything that doesn't make forward progress. This is the only CD I've ever purchased which has no internal indices; it is a single seventy-minute track. Heaven preserve anybody who tries to follow along with the text phonetically (it's Latin again, naturally) and ever gets lost, because you'll never find your place again in the middle.
The aesthetic tradeoff for this monolithity is that I have kind of the same problem following the music that I have following the text. It starts at the beginning, and keeps going until the end arrives, but it gets there so linearly that I find it hard to identify with any particular moment, and after any ten minutes it's hard for me to see what the point of listening to the other hour is. I think this means I'm probably not ready for opera. There's an interesting Steve-Reich-like quality to some of the accompaniment, as instruments double the vocalists' parts, but since the voices are singing, anyway, and in a language I don't understand, this doesn't have the provocative anti-communicative effect Reich's language-to-instrument translations do. In fact, this is sort of the reverse: for me Reich's music takes meaningful words and makes out of them music that has nothing to do with their sense, while Part here takes what to me are meaningless words, and makes out of them a music whose only justification is the story they tell.
Arvo Part: Miserere
The 1991 disc Miserere is two more long pieces based on biblical passages, "Miserere" (which is Psalm 51) and "Sarah Was Ninety Years Old" (Genesis 16, 17, 18, 21), separated by the short orchestral intermission "Festina Lente". "Miserere" itself is something of a lost cause with me, since nothing is likely to disentangle it, in my mind, from the harrowing falsetto rendition that runs through the kitchen scenes in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Part's beepy organ parts, which seem to me like he's trying to communicate with God using the apparatus and methodology from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, don't fit the painterly extravagance and lavish brutality of Greenaway's film, and the impressively massive choral sections, which remind me strongly of "Arbos" done with a bigger cast, pale emotionally in comparison to the one frail voice in Nyman's version.
The stark "Sarah Was Ninety Years Old", on the other hand, I like a lot. It opens with a good five minutes of a hypnotic slow-motion drum beat, followed by a long, wordless choral introduction, another four minutes or so of the drum, five more minutes of sighing voices, and then an increasingly agitated rejoinder from the drum, at which point the organ is brought in to mediate. Voice, organ and drums argue vociferously for a couple minutes, and I guess both sides are forced to make some concessions, because the coda that follows has only a single voice and a few cowed triangles. What this has to do with the passage from Genesis I have no idea, but to me one of the hallmarks of good minimalism is that you can't figure out what the underlying system is, but you're pretty sure there is one.
And actually, although the five-minute "Festina Lente" is easily lost in between the other two much longer pieces, I'm almost as fond of it as I am of "Arbos". A dense, atmospheric orchestral meditation, it falls somewhere between ambient and romantic, like a soundtrack for when you're calm and happy, but not sure why.
The Hilliard Ensemble: New Music for Voices
Lest the issue end without my discussing anything that actually came out recently, I end with the Hilliard Ensemble's newest release, a late-1996 double-album collection of songs by various contemporary composers. As an introduction to the Ensemble, as opposed to any particular part of its repertoire, this set is pretty close to ideal; although all the material is new in fact, it is balanced between new and old in style, and so covers the group's range pretty effectively. Except for the turbulent opening track, "Un coup de des", on which composer Barry Guy provides the noise of a double-bass being horribly abused, and "Only", Morton Feldman's solo-voice arrangement of a short Rainer Maria Rilke poem, all the pieces are for the group's quartet configuration (James, Covey-Crump, Potter and Gordon Jones). Ivan Moody's delicate song-cycle "Endechas y Canciones" has a strong early-music flavor, with a lot of short figures in which one voice holds the base note of a chord while the others modulate around it. Piers Hellawell's cycle "The Hilliard Songbook" mirrors the odd vowels of its old English text in odd jumps and skips in the voices. Paul Robinson's long, impeccably restrained setting of Byron's epic put-down "The Incantation" is one of the best contexts for hearing the tonal virtues of each of the four singers, particularly James' eerie countertenor. Veljo Tormis' propulsive framing of a obtuse passage from the Kalevala (in translation, uncharacteristically) is the closest the Ensemble has come to levity since Josquin. James MacMillan's "...here in hiding..." alternates between fitful, blaring intricacies and low humming, as well as between English and Latin. There are two Part pieces, a longish, tightly focused setting of Luke 7:36-50 called "And One of the Pharisees...", and a new version of his "Summa". Elizabeth Liddle's "Whale Rant" has two different texts sung simultaneously, to intriguing effect, and Joanne Metcalf counterbalances this density of text with an eight-minute song that outdoes even Perotin by requiring only seven syllables for its entire length. Michael Finnissy's "Stabant autem iuxta crucem" is a short, simple hymn; John Casken's "Sharp Thorne" is a little longer, and more complicated. And Moody's resonant "Canticum Canticorum I", with which the album concludes, is just simply beautiful.
I think this is going to be an expensive year.