Saturday, June 5, 2010

Recognition in musical sensemaking



If you slipped me a knockout drink, dragged me off to a remote location and I’d awoken in the velvet black of a deep cave, I could still instantly recognize smells in the dark cavern.  I could tell you that this was the scent of a California buckeye in flower, or that would be the aroma of New York lilacs blooming in sunlit field in May.  Some things are always recognizable, even out of context or widely separated in time. 

And this makes me aware of one of the key skills of sensemaking... that of knowing what to recognize, and how that recognition fits into the larger understanding of things. 

I often think about how we perceive patterns in the world, and the ways we talk about them.  Usually I write about trees, flowers , streams changing over time.  I think about the ways I feel the patterns of hills waving beneath my feet as I pass lightly over the surface.  I see the passage of time in the layers of rocks exposed in a roadside cut.

So this “perception of pattern” thought was of great interest when I went to hear the men’s chorus Chanticleer perform.  The centerpiece of the evening was Orlando di Lasso’s mass “Tous les regretz” (yes, that’s spelled correctly—it’s old French). 

This particular mass is a “parody” mass—that is, the theme is taken from a pre-existing tune.  Think of someone writing a masterwork based on some other song.  Imagine a symphony based on the tune “This Old Man,” or Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” 

This kind of thing was common in the 16th century (when Orlando lived), and used to be part of the routine of being an active, productive composer.  Vivaldi was famous for borrowing from other composers, including himself, especially when he was running up against a deadline.  (Even musicians had to get pieces in on time.  J. S. Bach used to write a chorale a week during part of his life—he needed to get it to the choir for practice by Wednesday in order to perform it in church on Sunday.  Some things, like being late for deadlines, never change.) 

In this mass, Orlando based the entire mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) on a song (a chanson) by Nicolas Gombert.  That song, Tous Les Regretz, was reasonably popular at the time, and is incomparably sad.  The words:

All the sadness of that has ever been of this world,
Come hither to me, wherever I may be.
Take my heart in its deep grief,
And cleave it twain when suddenly I see her.

(It scans better in French, where the final words rhyme nicely—line 1: “furent au monde” with line 3: “douleur parfonde”; and line 2: “que je soye” with line 4: “soudainement la voye.”)
It’s an appropriately somber song that describes earthly love and heartbreak, so it’s not a stretch to remake it into a mass setting. 

To hear Chanticleer singing the music of Orlando in the vast reverberant space of St. Joseph’s cathedral in San Jose was marvelous.  Their pitch is perfect, the performance stunning, and the music itself… well, it’s 16th century polyphony as written by a master.  It’s hard to imagine anything more transcendental.  It was just wonderful.

But although I consider myself a decent musician, I found it VERY hard to hear Gombert’s theme for more than a few seconds in the mass before it became lost in the intertwinings of voice and counterpoint figures. 

I listened, trying to hear the melody, following one line for a moment, then following another, all the while hearing the gestalt. Listening like that is a whole-mind engagement—you can’t just set it into the background.  It’s mentally wrestling with the music, hearing deeply into the core of the performance… hearing fragments of motifs, being surprised when a new theme is introduced, being happily reminded of a familiar fragment when it returns.

I love the complexity, the convolution of heartfelt song and cerebral musicsmithing.  Orlando’s time was an age when the composers would insert all kinds of wordplay and counterpoint play—crossing melodic lines to indicate the cross, a sudden ascent to suggest a rising to heaven, with a corresponding leap octaves downward as the plot is betrayed. 

There’s no getting around it, the music is simultaneously complex and while also immediately perceivable.

But at the same time, it’s unclear where the theme goes.  It starts at the beginning of the Kyrie, then is swallowed up by the interlocking voices.

I listened.  The Kyrie ended.  The Gloria began.  Then comes the Credo.  And I suddenly understood where the recognizable themes have gone.

I was raised in a Lutheran church, the church of the Reformation.  And although Martin Luther left the Catholic church, the Lutheran church carried over many (many!) elements from Catholicism.  One of them was the Credo.  As it turns out, Lutherans have two Creeds that they recite—the Apostolic Creed (which is used for common expressions of faith) and the Nicene Creed, which is rarer, partly because it’s longer and partly because it’s just more complicated.

To tell the truth, I always preferred the Nicene Creed because of the beauty of the language.  But consider this: it was written in 325, in Greek, in the city of Nicaea, then translated to Latin, then translated to English by the biblical scholars working for King James.  

Lutheranism was famous for making biblical texts (including creeds) into common language (which would have been German).  And so Lutherans in America ended up adopting the language of the English court of King James (1611).

How odd is that?  Kids in cathecism classes learning 17th century language of a transliterated Latin text that was translated from the Greek. 

The first line in Greek:
       Πιστεύω ες να Θεόν,
       Πατέρα, Παντοκράτορα,
       ποιητν ορανο κα γς,
       ρατν τε πάντων κα οράτων.

And then in Latin:
       Credo in unum Deum,
       Patrem omnipoténtem,
       Factórem cæli et terræ,
       Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.

And then in 17th century English:
       I believe in one God,
       The Father almighty,
       Maker of heaven and earth,
       And of all things visible and invisible.

Many, many arguments about these particular words (in all of the languages) have been fought.

And so it was a little bit of a surprise to be listening to the music of Orlando, and to recognize the Nicene Creed being sung to me in that bright, resonant space.  Oh, I wasn’t surprised by the Credo being in the mass, but I wasn’t ready for the shock of recognition as I listened to the Latin text.

It didn’t actually hit me until I heard the phrase “Deum de Deo, Lumen de lumine; Deum verum de Deo vero.”  In the English of King James,“God of God, Light of Light; very God of very God” …  An odd phrase, now we might translate it as “… true God from true God.”) 
So, moments later, when I heard the Latin text “Deum verum de Deo vero” in the music, I *perceived* that phrase as the “very God of very God” sense of the text.  That now odd, but very distinctively resonant phrase that rattles my sense of recognition. 

While I was listening to the music, that phrase instantly spun me down a memory hall of recollections about the Court of King James, translations and battles over what the “one true God” really meant.  What IS / Who IS  the “Deum verum do Deo vero”?

By this point, the original Gombertian theme I had been listening for was long lost in the music.  It’s all skeined together—warp and woof of melodies playing against each other, and I’m feeling a deep sense of recognition from something I had studied 40 years ago.  Memories re-illuminate, synapses re-fire, the past comes flooding back into the present. 

To tell the truth, I am now an agnostic, one who finds the whole of religion to be deeply suspect.  At the same time, I cannot deny that this music and this language touches some part of me deep inside, a place where rational thought is only a dim light off in the distance, hidden by the obscurations of old learnings, practices and teachings.  I still love the sounds of chant and the majestic polyphony of Orlando and Palestrina.

I can no longer hear the original themes of either Gombert or religion, but that’s fine.  I still have the sense and sentiment of both, and that works perfectly for me.  I can still recognize the patterns from long ago, and in so doing, revisit and make a kind of sense out of all those layers of history, time and change along the way.  

2 comments:

  1. Dan,
    I had no idea of your expertise in language, music, and religion. Fantastic. My experience, not having a religious upbringing, but within a Christian culture and being exposed as an adult in Asian language, culture, and researching that history, I also "see" those layers of history, time, and change. My religion, science, is another theme that I use to research history and nature in general. For example, I enjoyed reading the six volumes of Historical Development of Quantum Theory. Reading about Heisenberg's reaction to reading Plato in original Greek as a teenager, his disastrous encountering the mathematician Lindemann, and finally connecting and working with Arnold Sommerfeld. Patterns of human history are complex, but there is order within the chaos. The issue is what level of abstraction are you interested in, and what does that buy you.

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