Lessons learned

October 27, 2012

It’s no secret how CHRISTMAS CRAZY I am. So, as the person responsible for programming New York Polyphony’s December concerts, I’m looking at and listening to potential Christmas repertoire…often as early as May. The struggle then is to keep the Christmas tunes off my various media devices as long as possible to avoid the dreaded “sick of Christmas music-itis.” Last fall, I committed to listening to Xmas tunes on November 14th at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in the middle of a long tour. Verdict? Still way too early. So….

…I’m NOT going to talk about Christmas music. Yet.

Instead, I’d like to talk about our touring program “My end is my beginning”. The program is centered around our new recording on BIS Records endBeginning. The centerpieces of the program are Thomas Crecquillon’s Lamentations of Jeremiah and Antoine Brumel’s Missa pro defunctis or Requiem Mass. We enjoy singing this program both in churches and concert halls because there is such a human element to this repertoire. And in this fall season when we celebrate Veteran’s Day, All Saints and All Souls Days, Alumni weekends and other times of remembrance it seems especially appropriate.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve learned a great deal about how we approach polyphonic music in general by singing the Crecquillon. There are lessons there in great abundance:

1. BREATH CONTROL – Crecquillon wrote very long phrases. And since we believe the Lamentations were written for minimal forces, it’s reasonable to assume that the singers at his disposal were quite gifted. So, through the Lamentations, we’ve been challenged to crack the code of making music out of what can feel at times like organ music! (Since we’re one-to-a-part, there’s nowhere to hide!) Crecquillon doesn’t set the singer up for failure, he gives clues by way of the “harmonic” language. The long phrases have clear destinations which, I feel, help guide us toward the “complete picture” Crecquillon intended.

2. ENSEMBLE TECHNIQUE – Like all polyphony, there are points of both disjunct and conjunct arrival in the Lamentations. Without an acute sense of what your colleagues are doing with their own vocal lines, those corners can be either sloppy in timing or they fail to fall into precise tuning. Without a conductor, we each have the responsibility to one another to be both accurate in our own internal rhythm and sensitive to the motion of our fellow singers. I daresay that rhythmic integrity has every bit as much effect on tuning as a good ear.

3. DRAMATIC INTENT – One does not have to be a person of great faith to be moved by the texts in the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Desolation doesn’t just pertain to the destruction of civilizations or the repression of faith. Much like the melancholic songs of John Dowland speak to more than just the broken-hearted, these sacred texts of the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of a people are emotions to which all humans can find a latching point. And like the catharsis in Dowland’s laments, there is a relief to these settings of the Lamentations. One is not left to struggle in the mire, but rather is uplifted by Crecquillon’s impassioned vocal writing. As I love to say colloquially – “good tunes!” We’ve matured a lot as an ensemble through working on the dramatic intent of this work. The lessons we’ve learned—about committing to expressiveness in particular—are ones that can be applied to our other music.

Thanks for reading!

— GW