You have to admire the thinness of the line that sometimes separates the very old from the very new. Here at hand, for example, are recent discs that demonstrate some interesting across-the-centuries coincidences. On a Nonesuch collection called, simply, Early Music, the Kronos Quartet creates believable soul mates (or, at least, disc mates) out of the very ancient Hildegard von Bingen and the very contemporary Arvo Part. On one Harmonia Mundi release, the remarkable baritone Paul Hillier and his vocal ensemble, Theatre of Voices, re-create a repertory, amazingly inventive and passionate, of some 12th-century monastic songs by Peter Abelard; on another, they whoop it up in some of the hang-loose vocal creations of John Cage. Across eight centuries, the two collections attain common cause: a loving celebration of the beauty of words and the way music enhances that beauty. On yet another Harmonia Mundi disc, Marcel Peres and his Ensemble Organum perform even earlier music, chants for an Easter Vesper Service from a sixth-century Roman liturgy that predates the better-known Gregorian Chant, full of grinding dissonances that, once again, seem to extend the hand of kinship toward the harmonic adventures in our own time.
Hillier's great artistry, and the marvelously smooth interaction among members of his vocal group – four soloists and chorus in the Abelard songs with a few instruments discreetly used, six singers in the Cage with appropriate electronic monkey business – define, as well as any single force can, both the 800-year void and the enthralling similarities between music of vastly different cultures, between a Peter Abelard love-smitten elegy and a John Cage vocal tone poem about “whales” with its text made up of nothing but the letters of that word. They're not all that different, Hillier told me a few months ago, even though separated by many centuries. In between those two historical extremes we have this whole fertile field of the music most of us know best, from Bach and Handel to Mahler and Debussy, all more or less tied to a common harmonic practice, a common expressive ideal – “the age of vibrato,” Hillier calls it. “Before that time,” he says, “and also after that time, you're on your own. You're not supported by common-practice harmony with its tonic triads and carefully systematized dissonances, so that exact intonation becomes really crucial.”
It's that matter of clear, immaculate intonation with a minimum of vibrato – which nearly all interpreters of early music agree on, excepting only the luridly juicy Gregorian discs by those Spanish monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that made it to the Billboard 200 in 1994 in the early weeks of chantmania (and excepting also, of course, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) – that immediately transports our ears out of that comfy region of the Bach-through-Debussy era Hillier cites. After emigrating to the U.S., he formed his Theatre of Voices as a sequel to his former London-based group, the Hilliard Ensemble (which still produces wonderful performances of music old and new on the ECM label); the use of “theatre,” he claims, invokes the notion of the dramatic clashes of harmony that can arise when music is purged of the sweetness of common-practice period harmonies.
“The idea,” says Hillier, “is to explore the full range of what can be accomplished simply by voices, alone or in combination. Voices alone do create a kind of theater; listen to drama on radio, or to recordings, if you need proof.” His singers were purposely chosen from many musical backgrounds. “Maybe there are English choirs that make a smoother sound,” he says, “but there's also the danger that in time they all might sound alike. I wanted an ensemble with built-in rough edges, singers from a variety of musical backgrounds, to create a constant interaction among the voices, a bit of friction perhaps. That's also part of the notion of 'theatre.'”
Theatrical, too, is the marvelous, sputtering wordplay in the Cage pieces – the gnarled imagery in the 36 Mesostics Re and Not Re Marcel Duchamp and, better yet, the piece called, simply, Aria, created for the madcap and much-missed Cathy Berberian and here intoned to an electronic background by six singers in turn. The text – think of it as a free-associative talking brain cut loose from corporeal restraints – is sheer delight, a word that doesn't come automatically to mind on mention of John Cage. Take this 10-minute romp, therefore, as an excellent gateway to his variegated musical world.
The Paris-based Ensemble Organum has been here once, performing in a local church on one of the Da Camera Society's “Historic Sites” events. The sound of the group is like none other you'll ever hear: a stern growl, firmly buttressed by the group's low voices; among their memorable previous discs is one of Corsican chant, ultimate proof that early music is as much a creation of blood and guts as anything from more recent times. The new disc of Roman liturgy is, in a word, astonishing. The melodies themselves demand great virtuosic tricks – coloratura, trills, leaps from low notes to high, somewhat reminiscent of the cantillation of Byzantine and Hebrew chant; in the ecstatic alleluias one voice will often sustain a low, slow-moving bass line while other voices move rapidly above it. The confrontation sets up clashes: not exactly “counterpoint” as we usually define it, but a thrilling effect by whatever name.
You can find some of that clashing effect also on the Kronos disc. There's a piece by a nun named Kassia, who served at Constantinople in the ninth century, in which once again a melody in the upper voices does battle with an obsessive bass line. Three excerpts from the 14th-century “Notre Dame Mass” of Guillaume de Machaut are aboil with colliding inner voices; so, in this remarkable collection of musical styles at once complementary and contradictory, are small pieces from our own time by Arvo Part and Alfred Schnittke, John Cage and the great street musician known as Moondog, as well as anonymous folk tunes from Sweden and Tuva.
Everything here, as on the other discs mentioned in this disquisition, is colored by the educated guesswork of latter-day scholars and arrangers. Nobody knows what liturgical chant sounded like in sixth-century Rome; it's a safe guess that Guillaume de Machaut never heard a string quartet; Cage's Aria was conceived for one singer, not six. There's a magnificent impurity at work here, and the results are glorious.