IN: Reviews

An Illuminated History of Notation


Tom Kelly (file photo)
Tom Kelly (file photo)

Sharing a title with Thomas Kelly’s newly released book published by W.W. Norton, the program was in fact about as close to a live translation of both the book and the included CD as one could hope. Hearing the musical selections and Kelly’s elucidations in live performance, however, offered an arguably more visceral experience than reading the text or listening to the recording.

Professor Kelly, whose prestigious title of Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard University gives no indication of his abilities as a first-rate storyteller, has a gift that is apparent both in his prose and his lectures. Kelly dusts off volumes of academic research and translates them into tales, vignettes, and characters—like Notker, the accomplished author and poet who can’t remember the melodies of long melismas to save his soul, or Guido (d’Arezzo), a pedantic but brilliant pedagogue who may have been a bit overwrought in his fear that neglecting devout psalm singing constituted “the most perilous of all evils.” These names are the standard dramatis personae for musicologists and music students who have even a passing familiarity with medieval music, but are not typical of chatter around the water cooler or at the dinner table.

In no way, however, is Kelly interested in “dumbing down” history. His lecture-meets-cocktail conversation approach invites a dialogue with readers and listeners from all corners. He doesn’t shy away from using terminology: Neumes are neumes, but they are also “squiggles.” Virgae are “sticks” and puncta are “dots.” “Paleofrankish,” Kelly freely admits, sounds “like some sort of dinosaur.”

This affable relationship with his life’s work was on full display during Saturday’s two-part concert and presentation. Between quips regarding pigeons versus doves and the supremacy of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as the world’s best round, Kelly managed to convey a more serious thought, and one that is all too often passed over in the celebration of “progress.” In making notation mathematical (via Guido’s system of solfege and staff) instead of gestural (earliest notation), we “lost something in the process,” said Kelly, not without a hint of melancholy. Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe echoed this sentiment. The initial performances of chant on the program were rhythmically and expressively alive, not the bland new-age performances so often heard on overproduced “popular” chant compilations. In the Introit Resurrexi, Scott Metcalfe conducted the group through beautifully crafted gestures that would have seemed almost madrigalistic in a different repertoire. The conducting was even more effective in the more melismatic Alleluya Pascha Nostrum, featuring Paul Guttry’s stunning singing of the verse.

That the proverbial baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater became very clear when Blue Heron performed the Alleluya Pascha nostrum again, this time affected by the limitations of cantus planus and staff notation. Gone were the interpretive and performing nuances that made the opening chants so compelling.

It was the polyphonic selections, however, where Blue Heron shone most brightly. Jason McStoots brought an almost earthy tone to the duplum voice of Leoninus’s Alleluya Pascha nostrum. The effect of two-voice polyphony after sublime chanting from the ensemble was glorious, but even more effective in the Perotinus three-voice organum. Here, as in the Leoninus, the group artfully highlighted the melismatic and discant sections on “immolatus” (on the CD recording as well) preparing the audience for what was to come in this journey from chant to motet. Michael Barrett and Sumner Thompson provided jubilant rhythmic clarity in the “Alleluya” portion of the organum, and McStoots and Owen McIntosh gave particularly stirring performances in the second half (“Pascha nostrum”).

By the time Kelly steered us through the clausula “Latus est” from Magnus liber organi to the motet “Immolata paschali victima, ” it was startling to realize we had traveled together through several centuries. Mark Sprinkle’s delicate treatment of the text of the motet underscored Kelly’s comments regarding how the themes of sacrifice and the prefiguring of the Resurrection matched the meaning of the bottom voice’s “…latus est,” which carries with it the weight of its original chant text: “immolatus est.”

The best of all possible worlds seemed to come together in the final work for the afternoon performance. Kelly projected a manuscript of “Sumer es icumen in,” unraveling its “fussiness” to reveal the mechanics of the piece, and illuminating the use of different note shapes to indicate rhythm. Blue Heron devotedly sang of “bovine flatulence” and bird sounds with the same craftsmanship that they brought to the more sacred repertoire on the program. With the Latin contrafact of “Perspice Christicola,” the terrestrial and heavenly farmer met in happy harmony.

The majority of the audience returned for the second half at 7pm, which began with a Q & A with Kelly and Metcalfe. The audience seemed hungry to draw connections between Jewish and Arabic chant, and both Kelly and Metcalfe leaned toward entertaining possibilities rather than providing definitive answers (largely because none exist in most cases). Kelly invited the audience to understand the musical elements not as academic contrivances, but as natural elements coming together in sound and ink. When asked about rhythm being inserted “into” the music, Kelly replied that rhythm has always been around: “Anybody who has a heart, who has a left leg and a right leg…there is rhythm in the world…” adding later, “…intellectuals kind of mess it up.”

The second concert featured three late 13th-century motets from the “Montpellier Codex.” An illumination from this manuscript is echoed in the cover art for the book. The linguistic complexity of a motet such as Povre secors/Gaude chorus (not included on the CD) seemed an afterthought to the polyphonic interweavings so beautifully executed by Brian Giebler and Michael Barrett. To highlight the issue, however, the audience was treated to a lighthearted faux-motet that featured ukulele, a Cookie Monster duplum text (admirably “sung” by Michael Barrett), topped with a triplum text “Sometimes I have a bowl of crunchy cereal.” It was certainly the least stuffy demonstration of a polytextual motet to grace a Cambridge church in quite some time.

Blue Heron is particularly gifted when it comes to the motet repertory. Aucun ont trouvé/Lonc tans was particularly striking, with Jason McStoots’s beautifully expressive and galant display of Petronian rhythms. When Kelly opened the door to the Ars Nova of the 14th-century, Ian Howell and Martin Near admirably amplified the texts of the politically satirical Garrit gallus/In nova fert from Roman de Fauvel, which Kelly described as the “Doonesbury of the 14th century.”

But the most show-stopping moment of the evening belonged to Owen McIntosh. Performing Machaut’s Biauté qui toutes autres pere, with Jason McStoots and Michael Barrett (the recording features Laura Jeppesen and Scott Metcalfe on vielles instead), McIntosh rendered Machaut’s modalities with a sensitive performance that has been unmatched in this author’s recent memory. McIntosh ever so subtly increased the energy for the second strophe of the chanson, pulling it back for the melismatic refrain to create a misterioso meditation on “that for love I shall die.” His voice seemed to caress the text and notes of the third strophe, providing a pianissimo and heartbreakingly tender resonance on “sa belle face clere” (her fair radiant face).

McIntosh provided another inspiring performance—this time alongside Charles Weaver on lute and Scott Metcalfe on harp—in Jacob Senlenches’ En attendant, Esperance conforte. Providing an example of what Kelly cited as the “age of sophistry” in the late fourteenth century, the vocal lines seemed lazily luxuriant, and the church space was momentarily transformed into a French courtyard. Kelly provides a rather detailed discussion of this work in his book, as it represents the Ars subtilior’s fascination with almost (but not quite) impossible-to-perform rhythmic proportions and notational frivolity.

No survey of music notation is complete without Baude Cordier’s famous heart-shaped Belle, bonne, sage, plaisant et gente in the “Chantilly Codex” (see p. 176 and p. 199 of “Capturing Music”). Martin Near’s performance, which gained strength into the second verse, captured the smooth grace of the music, belied by the exorbitant and almost ostentatious notation.

After offering a recap of both halves of the entire presentation and highlighting connections between medieval notational developments and much later works such as Berg’s Wozzeck, Tom Kelly turned to Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum, perhaps the best homage to rhythmic development, certainly from the fifteenth century. Kelly placed a tall order for Blue Heron’s performance of the Kyrie when he described the four voices of the piece thusly: “You wind them all up and let them go, and out comes the most amazing music.” Martin Near and Ian Howell helpfully demonstrated their lines of two different prolations (one line grouped in threes, the other in twos) in isolation before they sang the Kyrie with Jason McStoots and Michael Barrett. The clarity of the lines between Near and McStoots in the reduced texture of the Christe section was inspiring and made the final Kyrie all the more lush. Certainly in the context of the afternoon and evening’s performances and lecture, the Ockeghem was a fitting finale, embodying notational exactitude, exemplary craftsmanship, and impassioned expression.

This “living history” approach is a specialty of Professor Kelly’s, where the goal is understanding context, not drowning in the many streams of data that make up academic study. As he writes in “Capturing Music,” “The importance is … in how we travel from here to there. It’s about the journey, not the little stops along the way.”

And this is where Kelly has it exactly right. Minutiae is the stuff of academia, and thankfully so as it is that minutiae and historical scrutiny have helped cast our cultural legacies into high relief. But lest we get too navel-gazing and bogged down in pedantic details, works like “Capturing Music” remind us of relevancy. Just as Monet paints pictures not of the detailed tympanum of Rouen cathedral, but instead captures the essence of dawn rising around the great façade, Kelly invites his readers and listeners into a more organic understanding of music’s import in our lives and our history.

Rebecca G. Marchand holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in musicology from University of California, Santa Barbara and is the current president of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society. She is a full-time music history faculty member at The Boston Conservatory.

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