Centuries ago, before the printing press, every book in existence was painstakingly hand-copied, letter by letter. The words contained within the books were the ostensible goal of the manuscripts, but the creativity and skill involved in decorating the pages with illustrations, scrollwork, vines and flowers elevated these so-called "illuminated manuscripts" to the level of art. One of the most familiar elements of an illuminated manuscript was the treatment of the initial letter of a page. Much larger than the rest of the letters, and incredibly ornate with filigrees and curlicues, maybe human characters, serpents or other creatures. These elaborate single letters became opening statements, reinforcing the story itself.
That image came to me again and again as I listened to the newest CD from the men's vocal group Cantus, called On the Shoulders of Giants. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the first track, Sederunt, by 12th-century French composer Perotin. In fact, the first syllable of the word sederunt is sung for about a minute and 15 seconds before it continues to the secondsyllable.
I asked Cantus tenor Aaron Humble how outrageous this music might have sounded in Perotin's time, whose listeners only knew Gregorian chant — single, unison lines.
AH: At the time of Perotin, that was all they had. He was taking the tools, and the material and the media he had, which was chant, and playing around with it until he found something that was innovative. And if indeed the people in Paris had just heard unison chant singing... can you imagine how radical it would have been to hear those open fifths? And all the harmonics that just sparkle in an acoustic like that?
Perotin took what was available and turned it into something else entirely. Sederunt is the first existing piece of written-down, documented polyphonic music. That's a big leap. That kind of innovation is a thread that runs through this album. The title of the CD comes from a quote by Isaac Newton. "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Baritone Adam Reinwald explains how Cantus explored the theme in the new recording.
AR: With this album, we wanted to look at the ideas of innovation, influence and culmination. While not every composer is a major composer, and while not every work is a major work for men's voices... there's a good bit in each piece that leads into something else, something that comes out of it. So that's what the collective idea is on this particular album: not all these pieces are necessarily giants, but they may have influenced a giant.
An example of much-delayed influence can be heard in the Monteverdi Crucifixus. It's from the early baroque era, which we often associate with fast-moving, spirited vocals. Instead, Monteverdi chooses to convey the text in a very evocative way: "He was crucified, he suffered and was buried." The music is all slow, downward motion, evoking the setting sun, or falling tears. And the very last phrase, "sepultus est" — was buried — just folds down into itself, into the very ground until the last note is intoned from under the earth.
AR: It's very interesting to think about how that influenced later generations. Berlioz, writing his Symphonie Fantastique, has the exact same idea as the "Sepultus Est," of almost a head falling off at the end of his work.
While there's a fair amount of gravity on this CD, it has many moments of joy. Baritone Adam Reinwald describes Mendelssohn's Lift Thine Eyes as a chance to look up and experience the rising sun. Another exploration of joy is the incredibly striking Zikr, a Sufi invocation of the Names of God, created by Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman. Aaron Humble says the practice of repetition is an important part of so many traditions.
AH: Repeating and repeating and repeating something till you reach a state of ecstasy. And that's what happens with this ceremony with the whirling dervishes, is that they're repeating the name of God over and over and over, until the dance becomes part of their worship. It's incredibly transcendent.
Transcendence comes more simply in the spare outlines of MLK, an arrangement of the U2 song paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. The first time through, the thunderclouds in the lyrics are just theoretical, but when we come back to that text a second time, the clouds are overhead and ominous... which makes the calm after the storm that much more rewarding.
From the earliest days of Perotin, to contemporary composers, Cantus shows us how composers always innovate but also stand on the shoulders of those who havecome before, whose work has illuminated the path ahead.