October 21, 2009
'Chant camp' comes to Stanford with early music ensemble Anonymous 4
We live in an era of literacy, of reliance on the page or screen. So for New York City early music singer Susan Hellauer, the first task is to wean singers from the paper in their hands.
"Tonight's task is not to sing the dots, but to sing the shapes," she told singers at Memorial Church on Monday. "We want you to sing gestures – not dots, lollipops, notes."
Her command for "monkey hear, monkey sing" was more difficult than it might first appear: Hellauer is part of the renowned early music quartet Anonymous 4, a "girl group" that specializes in the mellifluous melodies that date back to fourth century Jerusalem but which came into their own during the Carolingian era.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, in Memorial Church, the ensemble will sing a program of Secret Voices: The Sisters of Las Huelgas; Music of 13th-Century Spain.
But first, Hellauer and colleagues Marsha Genensky, Jacqueline Horner and Ruth Cunningham appeared at Stanford to lead a "chant camp," in collaboration with Stanford music faculty William Mahrt and Jesse Rodin and sponsored by Stanford Lively Arts. A rather surprising turnout of about 50 singers reinforced the revival of the ancient tunes.
Hellauer said that the camps, targeted for beginners as well as proficients, combine theory "with a lot of singing." She told the assembled group that she wanted them to "rely more on the ears than on the eyes this evening."
Gregorian chant, named for Pope Gregory I (590-604), who is traditionally credited with gathering and cataloging plainchant, is harder than it looks: "Unison singing is really something we consider less of a big deal, less of an accomplishment in Western music," said Hellauer, contrasting it to the complex harmonies of polyphony. "To sing in unison, where everybody has the same intent, makes the same shape of line, and to stay in tune in unison is much more challenging than you think."
"In Anonymous 4, we discovered that chant singing really honed our ensemble," she added. And for the participants of chant camps Hellauer has been conducting? "That feeling of uniting with everyone around them – it's mystical without being religious."
Within minutes, the side chapel echoed with the haunting, free-rhythm melody that uses only one portable instrument – the singular, fragile, often taken-for-granted sound of double membranes vibrating in the human throat.
"The fact that there's only one melodic line, that is maybe the most exciting, and from the perspective of the performer, the most scary thing. There's nowhere to hide. It's completely naked," said Rodin, an early music specialist. "There is a certain reward in singing a repertory where the melodic lines are so carefully sculpted and crafted and beautifully shaped by themselves, on their own terms.
"I appreciate it for its musical sophistication and subtlety," he said, comparing it to "discovering a new world."
It's a large world, too: Mahrt, an eminent chant expert and director of Stanford's Early Music Singers and of the St. Ann Choir, a Gregorian schola, pointed out that there are 800 to 900 chants of the Mass. "When you look at the repertory, it is staggering how big it is."
In medieval times, the key to mastery was memory. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, memory was a craft, essential to medieval cognitive technique and imagination.
"There's a benefit and value to learning and singing from memory. Then your image of chant is aural. It forces you to respond to the sound more directly," said Mahrt. "It's not an accident that to sing from memory is to sing by heart. It's singing from what you possess," he said. "Then you have it for your entire life."
Early in the four-hour session, one man asked if it was OK to sing an octave lower – the chant can be hard on voices that fall too far away from the median. Hellauer smiled and said, "Nothing I could do about it short of surgery." Clearly, chant is accommodating, though she noted that sometimes "sopranos come and tar and feather me."
The man, Bert Laurence, of the Peninsulaires, a men's barbershop chorus, said he had come to camp because he was attracted to "tonal stuff" and "how close it is to men's four-part harmony – and whether I can even do it."
Jack Owicki, a member of the choir in Palo Alto's Unitarian Universalist Church, came for a slightly different reason: Unitarians, he said, are "pretty eclectic," including chant that is "Tibetan to Slavic to standard Gregorian."
"There is a potential interest in incorporating chanting into our service. Nothing definite. We're looking into whether or not it would be a good idea."
What they likely found is that there are some distinct advantages when singers are supported in a group, all singing the same melodic line. As Hellauer exhorted the group: "Something I'm going to say all evening: Dare to make a mistake. Dare to screw up. You're not so important."
Chant is so central to the medieval tradition that "medieval polyphony" is sometimes considered an oxymoron. Yet Wednesday's program will refute that preconception.
It returns Anonymous 4 to the heart of its favorite century, and to a repertoire that confirms medieval women could – and did – sing the most complex polyphony written in the Gothic era. This varied repertoire of 13th-century polyphony and sacred Latin song was collected for the convent Las Huelgas at Burgos in north central Spain, which was on the road to the famous shrine of Santiago de Compostela.
No one knows if the women sent emissaries to collect sacred music from England, France and Germany, or whether pilgrims who stopped at their convent for rest and refreshment left, as a token of their thanks, copies of songs they may have been carrying. The music includes elegant French love-motets, original conductus, English works and heartfelt laments, and highlights the women who performed the most virtuosic, avant-garde polyphonic music of their time.
Tickets are available at http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or 650-725-ARTS. Mahrt will give a pre-performance talk on the program at 7 p.m. before the 8 p.m. concert in Memorial Church.