I'm in a state of quiet bliss following Pomerium's concert of Ockeghem, Gombert, Morales, and other Renaissance masters at Corpus Christi Church. Polyphony does wonderful things to a self-fatiguing urban brain when it's sung as impeccably as this. I walked away brightened and becalmed. Something funky happens when the intricate art of counterpoint, this quasi-mathematical interweaving of lines, takes life from singing voices — especially in a near-ideal acoustic such as Corpus Christi's, where the sound acquires an aura of warmth without degenerating into reverberant murk. The emotional and intellectual sides of the musical game are in perfect balance.
At the concert, an early-music insider slipped me Peter Phillips' new book What We Really Do. Phillips is the leader of the mighty Tallis Scholars, which helped reveal Renaissance polyphony to worldwide audiences in the eighties and nineties. It's a most unusual book that talks about the music in painstaking detail while also supplying wry, even scandalous anecdotes about the strange business of singing ancient church music for a living. Who knew, for example, that the Scholars, avatars of timeless sublimity, have on occasion collapsed into giggles in the middle of the performance — a syndrome called "corpsing"? (Perhaps this happened on the occasion the group was advertised in a local paper as the Tallis Sisters.) In his "Singers' Argot" Phillips also gives an entry for "drug-like trance," a state that the Tallis Scholars are often said to produce. He's obviously a bit amused by the choice of words:
I have wondered which drugs might lie at the back of this metaphor: for example the hallucinatory ones which make you see many-colored backgrounds, or the ones that make you giggle. The former would yield an interesting adjunct to the all-round experiencing of polyphony. Perhaps the individual lines would become color-coded like on those improving television programs about how fugues were written that we used to watch as kids in the 1960s; or even better they might acquire their own animals, of which the pink elephants in Disney's Fantasia are so memorable a feature when the music gets a bit contrapuntal. The ones that make you giggle are not always needed (cf. "Corpsing"). But I know what people mean by this. It's just that I never get a chance to sit back as they do and let the music wash over me. I regret this, but the risks of my trying it are too great when conducting, and when it comes to recordings I tend to listen to romantic symphonies for relaxation. Or Tom Lehrer.
Yet at the end of the book Phillips can't resist comparing polyphonic art to the mind-bending effects of abstract painting. "Trance" is not the right word: the mind is not numbed out but made more alert. It is a state of pleasurable perplexity:
It is no coincidence that the paintings of Kandinsky and his modernist colleagues, especially the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, send me into the same kind of reverie as an eight-part motet by Byrd. The surface is seductive, the meaning obscure, the desire to grasp something that is too abstract to be grasped only causing me to try again and again, a lifetime of agains, a thrall without end.
The New York Early Music Celebration, of which Pomerium's concert was a part, continues through Oct. 10, and the Renaissance masters will figure in several more programs, such as Polyhymnia's on Oct. 6 and the Choir of St. Ignatius's on Oct. 10. The Tallis Scholars themselves will be touring America in December, stopping in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, LA, Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, DC, Princeton, and NYC (the Miller Theatre on Dec. 10). Pomerium sings more Ockeghem at Cooper Union on Nov. 13 and travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cornell, and Colgate. Unless, of course, John Ashcroft gets wind of this and declares Ockeghem an illegal substance.
Here's a piece I wrote in 1998 about the Franco-Flemish scene.