Gothic Voices has, on occasion, presented a rather "hard-edged" sound - perfectly tuned, perfectly enunciated, yet jarring. This recording is no exception, but curiously enough such a sound perfectly matches the sensibility of the medieval motet. The style represents a transitional point, an experimental interlude during which composers tackled a number of unprecedented textures and brought the so-called "ars antiqua" to new heights of intellectual complexity and, in many cases, moving beauty. This music can transport you to another world if it is lent an attentive ear.
The medieval motet was a polyphonic, and often polytextual, composition that consisted of two key components: 1) a tenor, and 2) a number of freely composed upper lines - a motetus, a triplum, and, if the composer was feeling audacious, a quadruplum. Think of the medieval motet as a building. The tenor (whose name derives from the latin "tenere" - "to hold") was the foundation, consisting of a segment of chant that would have been instantly familiar to medieval singers. Laid on top of this "sacred" base were freely composed lines of poetry - songs of love, satire, and veiled allegory. Different texts, in some cases different languages, sung simultaneously. Was it cacophonous? Was it unintelligible? Perhaps. But these terms should be applied carefully. A glorious cacophony would emerge from the simultaneous sounding of clashing consonants, an impenetrable series of sonic layers, all tenuously held together by the repetitive ostinato of the tenor. The result would indeed have been unintelligible to the inexperienced listener, but as with many artistic products of the Middle Ages, intelligibility was not an immediate concern. The medieval listener (who, incidentally, would have almost certainly been a member of the clergy or nobility) was expected to recall what had been heard and meditate upon its beauty, its compositional complexities, and, were he listening attentively, its deeper meaning. To hear to a motet was, at least in theory, to perform an exegetical exercise.
And yet...was this just an ideal approach scrupulously described by musical theorists, ever fond of order and refinement? For this music, and particularly this performance, does not evoke ponderous exegesis, but rather raucous celebration. Listen to "Quant voi l'alouete" and try not to tap your feet! Partly this is a result of the "modal" rhythms used in these motets, still bound by the stylistic limitations of the ars antiqua. In this respect they recall the pulsating lines of Notre Dame polyphony. (In fact, many clausulae supposedly composed by Perotin were recycled as primitive motets - the first contrafacta!) But the motets of the late thirteenth century possess a certain vitality, an almost rustic grace - I can't help but imagine them performed in open fields, perhaps on a feast day, with local university students joining with young clerics in song. Perhaps this odd quality can be traced to the influence of the troubadour lyric, and indeed the majority of these works come from an Occitanian source, the Montpellier Codex.*
But that's all background, and you'll find plenty of it in Christopher Page's liner notes. He is, after all, a consummate scholar, and his insights are always piercing and arguments generally convincing. He knows how to approach these pieces from a historical standpoint, drawing his techniques directly from contemporary theoretical sources. For example, the three texts of the four-part "Par un matinet" - a rustic "pastourelle" - are first presented sequentially to highlight their almost conversational nature, and then sung simultaneously, a technique that recalls the prose introductions which often preceded readings of troubadour poetry. Accordingly, a few troubadour pieces are included in the program to demonstrate correspondences and contrasts. The courtly culture of Occitania, though reduced to a shadow of its former glory by the Albigensian Crusade of the early 13th century, undoubtedly persisted on some level. Perhaps it continued to influence the composers of these motets.
Page is the father of the "a cappella" approach to medieval music, and so only one track uses instrumentation - a harp, which provides the tenor. And with good reason, for the singers on this recording are at the top of their game. The blend between tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Rufus Muller is simply inhuman. Listen, for example, to "En non dieu/Quant voi la rose/Nobis," which is also sung sequentially (all the more to highlight these extraordinary singers): their voices are remarkably similar, yet distinguishable by subtle differences in timbre. The result is that each text shines with crystalline clarity.
This is undoubtedly a bizarre, esoteric repertoire that is rarely heard in performance. But Gothic Voices has given us a landmark recording that infuses it with new (and long-deserved) life. Purchase this disc, and you may find yourself slipping into a medieval frame of mind.
*I've read that, though the manuscript is currently at Montpellier, it was likely originally compiled near Paris. If anyone has more information, please comment.