Tracks 1, 3, 4: English, 13th century
Track 2, 5: School of Notre Dame, late 12th/early 13th century
Track 7: English, late 13th century
Recorded February 2005, Propstei St. Gerold
Trio Mediaeval is a group of three women from Norway who sing unaccompanied harmonies using medieval polyphony as a point of departure. Even given that we can never really know what 800-year-old music sounded like in its own time, it can be said that they remake medieval pieces according to their own wishes rather than researching their original sound worlds. Their harmony singing is striking. It's highly expressive, with a variety of subtle vocal moves enlivening what is basically an austere musical vocabulary; they apply vibrato at times, and they relax the tempo slightly in order to bring out the pungent dissonances that pass by from time to time in medieval polyphony, with its predominantly linear conception. Stella Maris presents six examples of the freely composed conductus genre that flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one unique multitextual English piece (Dou way Robin/Sancta Mater), and Missa Lumen de Lumine, a Mass Ordinary setting by contemporary Korean composer Sungji Hong.
Performances of medieval music, perhaps even more than those of music from later periods, are a matter of taste, with reactions depending partly on what the listener hopes to get out of the music. Those who find a quality of spiritual ecstasy in medieval polyphony and its sense of discovery of new sounds will likely find Trio Mediaeval's performances revelatory. They argue that it makes sense to have women sing this music even though it originated in all-male settings, and they're right - even if women did not sing these particular pieces, innovative music, some of it polyphonic, originated in medieval convents. Female performers have as much right to the music as anyone else. However, listeners who are really trying to take themselves back to medieval times may feel that Trio Mediaeval has a surfeit of style and a deficit of substance. Such listeners will notice that texts are given only in Latin in the liner notes, and it's hard to begin to understand medieval music unless one knows what is being sung about.
Regardless of one's tastes, the inclusion of Hong's Missa Lumen di Lumine is welcome. Written especially for Trio Mediaeval, the mass is not a neo-medieval piece but includes a variety of references to medieval styles: parallel harmonies, and syncopated rhythms of the sort found in Machaut's mass, for instance. Even within the restrictions imposed by the act of writing for three unaccompanied women's voices, Hong responds to the texts of the Mass Ordinary in amazingly flexible ways. Pictorial effects are present in abundance but are always subtly done; consider the mood of quiet confidence exuded by the music for Christ's resurrection in the Credo, so different from the usual ascending scales attached to the words "Et resurrexit." Hong uses register and spacing among the voices to marvelous effect. Stella Maris thus introduces a major new work that could well be taken up by other female vocal ensembles. ECM's sound engineering shines in this minimal setting.
All Music Guide
The Trio Mediaeval's first two ECM discs, Words of the Angel (recorded 1999) and Soir, dit-elle (recorded 2003), received near-unanimous praise from the world's press, and their international concert appearances have also made a powerful impact. "The group is breathtaking," wrote Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal. "Arresting, vivid, calm but never peaceful, with every moment ready to bring a surprise." In a major profile piece in The New York Times, James R. Oestreich declared the Scandinavian vocal trio the legitimate successors to the highly-popular Anonymous 4. Germany's FonoForum meanwhile hailed Soir, dit-elle as an "outstanding discovery" and the Daily Telegraph commented that "the Trio's knack of devising uniquely imaginative and stimulating programmes makes their recordings irresistible".
Eight years after the group's foundation, the combining of medieval pieces and compositions written exclusively for the three singers continues to provide a central repertoire policy. While Words of the Angel situated Ivan Moody's title piece in the neighbourhood of the Messe de Tournai and 14th century polyphony, Soir, dit-elle interspersed pieces by Moody, Gavin Bryars, Andrew Smith and Oleh Harkavyy with Leonel Power's 15th century Missa "Alma redemptoris mater".
Stella Maris again both juxtaposes and seamlessly blends the old and the new. Chants from the 13th century, most of them from English and French Conductus traditions, are complemented by a new sacred composition commissioned by the Trio. Prior to her "Missa Lumen de Lumine", Korean-born Sungji Hong had already written several pieces for Anna Maria Friman, whom she had met while studying at York University. Hong's "Missa" is a contemporary and explorative setting of the Mass Ordinary which displays a keen awareness of the Trio's distinctive vocal style. "We encountered quite a few rhythmic challenges at first," Anna Maria Friman recalls, "but we felt at once that this piece is really written for our voices."
"We have an enormous trust and respect for each other, both musically and personally", says Friman. "We think that every concert should bring something special and unrepeatable. Also, soundwise, I think we were very lucky to find a natural blend soon after we started the group in 1997. We have of course grown a lot together since then, but we have always been using our voices in a way that is comfortable for us, never trying to create a certain sound, but to concentrate on the music, and take it from there."
The Trio welcome the creative challenges that medieval repertoire implies for them. "We can't possibly know what these pieces sounded like at the time, especially since we are singing music which, with very few exceptions, used to be reserved for men. Our aim is to recover from the past what is of relevance for our performances today. We feel we can be free to use the lack of evidence as a creative opportunity." In approaching medieval music in a contemporary way, the relinquishing of historically informed performance practice becomes a question of artistic integrity. Creativity and irresponsibility are not synonyms in the Trio's world. Friman: "Of course we look for as much evidence and information as possible when preparing the music. We never predetermine to do things a certain way, and do not lock doors on any possibility." Trio Mediaeval today collaborates with a steadily growing network of experts who offer scholarship and advice on questions concerning musicology, the Latin language and historical context.
Future plans for the Trio include first performances of a quintet by Norwegian jazz saxophonist and composer Trygve Seim (his ECM recordings include Different Rivers and Sangam) who will appear with the singers alongside accordionist Frode Haltli (see the New Series recital disc Looking on Darkness). Says Anna Maria Friman: "We are as well planning to focus, in the upcoming season, on Norwegian music, folk music and medieval ballads, all aspects of our repertoire that we have been working on since the beginning."
========= from the cover ===============
Trio Mediaeval: Stella Maris
We do not generally think of music in terms of flavour, yet writers in the middle ages seem always to come back to the idea of "sweetness" when they talk about English music. The cleric and author Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) spoke of improvisational song in his native land and the north of England "coming together with the enchanting sweetness of B flat" and in the later middle ages Johannes Tinctoris would declare that the courtly songs of his contemporaries writing in English style exhaled "such sweetness that they are to be considered most suitable even for the immortal gods".
This distinctive taste was pinpointed by a monk of Bury St Edmunds in about 1280. Because he so loved to wander off the point, he inadvertently tells us more about music and musicians than any other theorist of the age. Declaring that the interval of a third is generally considered dissonant (in disquieting contrast to tonal music) he goes on to say that nevertheless in the west country, thirds are "called the best concords, since among such people they are greatly used". As this recording shows in its exploration of two major thirteenth-century repertoires, "Parisian and English, thirds are very much a prominent feature of English music of the period but are seldom heard in the French polyphony. Whether simple or complex, the surviving songs from thirteenth-century England show that composers loved to experiment with the sonorities built around thirds.
There is more to "English style" than lots of thirds and parallel chords of root, third and fifth, however. In Flos regalis virginalis and Quern trina polluit you can hear examples of the rondellus-a structure rather like a round but where all the voices start at the same time and present the material in a rotated order. And the parallel chords themselves are more complex than they sound, with the voices leaping around the pitches rather than stepping from note to note. You are unlikely to hear either of these features in French thirteenth-century music, where chord-to-chord dissonances can be more striking but are always resolved at the ends of the musical lines onto bare fifths and octaves (hear for instance Veni creator spiritus). French music tends to be more adventurous in the middle of phrases, often presenting several dissonant chords in a row and generally indulging in a greater variety of intervals.
Dou way Robin is something of a curiosity. The ostinato phrase that underpins the top part is written in the voice of a woman: she is telling her man to be quiet, or he will wake the child. Perhaps this little ground comes from a lullaby or a popular song; at any rate, almost nothing comparative is found anywhere else in the polyphonic repertoire. This ostinato voice has an English text and the upper part a Latin text.
Most of the medieval pieces on this recording are from the much "higher" art repertory of conductus, a genre cultivated in both England and France. For both repertories, the musical texture falls into two main categories: cum littera (texted) sections and caudae (tails). The texted sections present the words homophonically, a style well fitted to the serious nature of the content, but the caudae provide a complete change from this rather monolithic procedure, with the voices dancing around each other and creating interweaving structures that delight in the exchange of melodic material, sometimes pausing together and allowing a punctuating breathing space for the listener, but otherwise out-phasing each other in a constantly overlapping texture. Dum sigillum is a particularly breathtaking example of this. Conductus texts were serious, sometimes religious, rhythmic Latin poetry and not part of the liturgy of Mass or Office. The French pieces might moralize, edify, celebrate political events or be merely clever and obscure, but the English songs (like English things in general from the time) tend to focus on venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary (Quern trina polluit, Flos regalis virginalis). Conductus could also be monophonic, like 0 Maria, Stella man's. These share the characteristic of sacredness or seriousness with their polyphonic counterparts. The monophonic conductus recorded here is from a Parisian manuscript, although the text seems more like an English specimen: in England, called the Garden of Mary, one of her most common epithets was Stella mari's - star of the sea. There was of course much cross-channel interaction in an age where the political boundaries between geographical France and England were constantly shifting.
Would three women have sung this type of music in the thirteenth century? Yes, though with the exception of Dou way Robin, perhaps not the pieces recorded here. Many musical manuscripts survive from nunneries to testify to the fact That women disobeyed St Paul's injunction to women to keep silent in Church. Mostly, women seem to have sung plainchant alone - girls didn't generally have access to the same level of musical training as boys - but there are also a few documents which show that in some places, women sang complex polyphony (in Las Huelgas in Spain, for example). In any case, we may think we know something about how music was sung in the middle ages, but we will never know what it sounded like: all modern performances create a modern sound world, after all.
Trio Mediaeval's sound world is at least fully authentic for Sungji Hong's Mass Lumen de Lumine, written for the Trio in 2002. Lumen de Lumine creates exquisite sonorities by exploring different vocal tessituras and textures. The opening Kyrie is canonic and highly embellished, seeming to take its departure in texture and musical technique - if not musical style - from the many late medieval settings of the Mass Ordinary, where the shorter texts (Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) are treated much more melismatically than the longer texts (which were usually set homophonically and syllabically). Hong's Kyrie is imitative, beginning with a low tessitura that expands upwards to create a wide expanse of sound. It is mainly polyphonic - the texture operates in a linear way rather than in blocks of sound - but the voices come together homophonically in each of the three sections for the last syllables. Rhythmically, the "Lombard" or scotch-snap figure that characterizes this movement seems to link it back to the "ars subtilior" of the late fourteenth century, when composers revelled in exploring the new possibilities opened up by ever-more sophisticated notations; but we might also hear this intricacy as a reference to the rhythmic inflexions that we instinctively feel must once have been present but are now lost in our rather literal, present-day realizations of plainchant.
In the Gloria, the melodic lines are more chromatically inflected and the rhythms more subtly nuanced; the declamatory style at the opening soon becomes punctuated by enormous changes of tessitura and texture. These complex passages are set off (sometimes interrupted by) homophony in various tempi and moods. The opening is jubilant; the music seems to be moving forward to a glorious point in a three-octave passage at "omnipotens" (almighty). Here, Sungji Hong sets a major 9th in a dramatic style to create a sense of open space, underlying the words "Tu solus Altissimus". Emphasis is also created near the end of the Gloria, when the words "Jesu Christe" are sung by a solo voice.
The Credo is primarily contrapuntal and unfolds quickly by introducing different parts of the text in each voice imitatively, recalling the 15th-century practice of "simultaneous" presentation of texts-useful in an age where intricate polyphonic writing was slowing down the singing of the Mass almost to a standstill. The "Et incarnatus" section forms a striking contrast to the "Allegretto risoluto" opening and is set entirely as a very severe and slow solo.
In the Sanctus, subtle word painting at "Pleni sunt caeli et terra" stands out to the listener. Here, the space between heaven and earth is depicted by two of the three voices singing at the limits of their ranges. The Agnus Dei is in simple, rather static homophony that echoes the Gloria's "Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis": the voices are marked "bell-like" and sing in open-sounding harmonies. Although the texture occasionally opens out into imitation, the main impression is of space and a contemplative stillness.
Hong's music, complex and subtle, always remains accessible -partly because the ever-changing textures direct listeners so effectively towards what she really wants us to hear, and partly because she is constantly exploring different colours, images and timbres. She seems to have absorbed sound worlds not only from her native Korea but from her explorations in electroacoustic music with its special focus on timbre.