Stanford musicians bring 21st-century effects to 16th-century vocal music

Musician Jesse Rodin leads student singers through the works of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez in a historically inspired performance featuring digital enhancements by sonic pioneer Ge Wang.

Ge Wang Stanford vocalists with Jesse Rodin.

Jesse Rodin, assistant professor of music, directs Stanford students and professional singers during a rehearsal for a performance of the works of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez.

No one knows exactly how Renaissance-era choral music sounded when it was performed in northern Europe around 1500, but Stanford music Assistant Professor Jesse Rodin has come closer than most to finding out.

Rodin, a scholar of early music and musical director of the professional ensemble Cut Circle, has spent the last six months working to recreate the performance practices of this distant period of Western music.

The fruits of Rodin's labor were on display recently in Stanford's Memorial Church when Stanford students joined members of Cut Circle to sing works from Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521), with rare attention to the practical and physical circumstances of the performance.

From the sacred setting to the tight arrangement of the singers to a custom-built music lectern, audience members experienced the music of Josquin, as he is usually known, the way it might have sounded in the chapel of a French cathedral around 1520.

The performance however, had a distinctly 21st-century twist: a projector displaying real-time computer visualizations of the music being performed.

Custom software, created by music assistant professor Ge Wang, was designed to capture each voice in Josquin's music. As the piece progressed, digital animations followed the parts, communicating pitch, rhythm and motives to the audience.

Rodin said he sees the convergence of past and present as reflective of his scholarly agenda: "I'm broadly interested in the question: 'What does it mean to know a piece of music?'"

For Rodin, "performance is by far the best way to achieve this type of intimate knowledge," particularly performance that recreates something of the 16th-century singer's experience, even as it uses computer modeling to further illuminate the music. 

The concert may have been experimental, but it was far from tentative. The singers huddled together, eyeing the giant page on which Josquin's music was printed. Wang loaded up his next visualization. Rodin raised his hands to cue the downbeat and Memorial Church filled with song. In tight formation, the singers brought a degree of energy, intensity and rhythmic accuracy to music one rarely hears in modern performances.

The very new and the very old came together to produce a captivating musical experience. Listeners – including several Josquin experts flown in to participate in a conference the following day – overflowed out of the small side chapel and into the transept and balcony, and sat rapt.

Student and singer Will Watson, who double majors in math and music, had not banked on such attention. Something about the ensemble's approach, though, energized the space. "All of the singers were totally together and we really fed off the audience's energy," he said. "You could see the impact the music was having on them, and it was phenomenal."

Singing history

Contemporary illustrations show that Renaissance choirs all read from a single manuscript, on which were grouped together superius, altus, tenor and bassus parts. Unlike modern choirs, in which singers fan out into a large U shape, separated by risers into multiple rows, early musicians simply massed together around a lectern. 

"Some of the singers initially resisted the lectern," Rodin said. "But by the end of the workshop, everyone had not only grown accustomed to this new experience, they also felt they'd learned a lot from it."

The lectern, now housed permanently in Memorial Church, is a replica of a 15th-century Florentine lectern, commissioned by Rodin from local woodworkers. With birds and pineapples carved into its ornate latticework, the lectern is a sculptural marvel as much as a performance aid.

As for the sheet music to go on the lectern, Rodin and his team had to recopy it and enlarge each page to canvas-size proportions. The endeavor, according to Rodin, "turned into a real arts and crafts project," but the results were immediate. For graduate student and early music specialist Clare Bokulich, "singing so physically close to one another was simply thrilling."

Rodin agreed. "Performing from the lectern gives us the opportunity to connect as closely as we can with the experiences of 15th- and 16th-century singers. When we huddle around a large book of music, we sing differently, we hear differently, and our sound changes."

Digital Josquin

Even as Rodin was looking back, he was also looking forward. Already in the midst of a project with Stanford computational consultant Craig Sapp to digitize huge swaths of Renaissance music, Rodin thought he might enlist the resources of Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) to transform his raw data into animated visualizations.

That's where Ge Wang came in. Wang, the co-founder of the mobile music startup Smule, has had plenty of experience in creating eye-popping audio-visual functionality, as in the company's popular Ocarina and Magic Piano apps.

With Wang at the reins, Rodin, Sapp and a team of students prototyped what could be described as "Guitar Hero" for sacred vocal music. Wang designed pinwheels for each voice that rotated and changed color depending on the sounding pitch. Cadences were indicated by a flash of turquoise across the screen, as though the audience had ascended another level each time the voices settled on a steady chord.

Wang's work lent visual excitement to the concert, but it also offered something more: real-time insight into Josquin's compositional mind. Rodin and his research team supplied Wang with musical analyses of key works, codified in Excel spreadsheets.

Bokulich, who created one of these analyses, explained their use: "There are complex patterns and interlocks of motives that occur in this music that are much easier to grasp and are more compelling in an abstract medium." Josquin's compositions are famous for their intricacy, but the visualizations can expose the elegant order that lurks beneath such dense counterpoint.

For Rodin, the unusual circumstances of the performance and Wang's computer animations aimed to open up new ways of understanding Josquin's most impressive works. For the audience, the music simply sounded better than ever.

Nate Sloan is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,