Recorded September 1993, Propstei St. Gerold
All Music Guide
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The first time I heard the Officium defunctorum by Morales was at the beginning of the seventies in the cathedral of Seville. When I heard it again twenty years later, while driving through the jagged lava fields of Iceland, the impression was even deeper. At the time I was filming Holozan, based on the novel Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch.
The sky like ashes or lead. The film, with Erland Josephson as Herr Geiser, deals with the human tragedy of aging, of encroaching isolation and the fear of losing one's memory. Geiser, who lives alone in a remote mountain valley, is cut off from the outside world by a violent storm. In this isolation, his memory of the primeval Icelandic landscape becomes a metaphor for the silencing of mankind whose history has come to an end. What does Holocene mean? Nature needs no names. Geiser knows that. The rocks do not need his memory.
The light of sound - the night before the eye.
During the work on the film in Iceland, I listened again and again to the Tenebrae Responsories by Gesualdo and the song of Jan Garbarek's saxophone. Morales suddenly appeared to me like the southern mainland over which the migratory bird from the north draws ever widening circles. Before the basalt sea.
No longer able to reconcile the intensity of the sounds with the figure of Geiser,
I later decided on other music.
The vision remained.
And now this recording.
The oldest pieces on this record (if one can use words like "new" and "old" in this context) are the chants, the origins of which are not known to us. Before Gregory and Charlemagne got their bureaucratic hands on them, these ancient songs had lives of their own, each monastery having its own living tradition. There was no central authority to call upon, just the experience and skills of the singers; every performance was the first one. Next, chronologically, comes Beata viscera, a processional Marian hymn by Philip the Chancellor dating from around the end of the 12th century and set to music by the elusive Perotin, one of music's most revolutionary figures, but about whom we know virtually nothing. We also know nothing about how this song might have been performed: it exists as a single line of music in many different manuscripts, each of which gives us different information.
Oral cultures are capable of immense sophistication, and tend to become visible only when they come into contact with the literate genres that are destined to replace them. The Odyssey did not just materialize as the first and one of the longest poems ever written: it represents the death-throes of a fully developed oral tradition. Perhaps a similar phenomenon occurred with the evolution of the earliest polyphony. What happened before the Magnus liber to which Perotin contributed his "revolutionary" three and four-voiced organa? Are these great melismas the relics of a lost improvising tradition? And half a millennium earlier, were the monks imrovising their pre-Gregorian chants?
When jazz began, at the beginning of this century, it had no name; nor did polyphony when it began around a thousand years earlier. These two nameless historical moments were points of departure for two of the most fundamental ideas in Western music: improvisation and composition. The origins of the performances on this record, which are neither wholly composed nor completely improvised, are to be found in those same forces that awoke a thousand years apart from each other.
What is this music? We don't have a name for it: it is simply what happened when a saxophonist, a vocal quartet and a record producer met to make music together. Three possible avenues for exploration suggested themselves: chant, reaching back to its pre-literate forms; early polyphony, where the number of parts was a matter of experiment and the same piece could exist in many different versions; and Renaissance motets that were conceived chordally, and might provide structures over which a saxophone could improvise. All three varieties can be heard here. The latest, chronologically, is the early 16th century Morales' Parce mihi domine, from the Officium defunctorum, which is here performed in three versions, one "plain" and two with saxophone. The 15th century is represented by de La Rue, Dufay, and Anonymous. Dufay conveniently provided his hymn with two alternative middle parts which we sing both separately and together, with a saxophone descant soaring over the top.
Shut away in the monastery of St Gerold, it seemed to us that the saxophone became an extension of our own voices. These are very close to "live" performances: with Perotin and his successors looking over our shoulders we wanted to make sure that, as far as possible, every take was printable.