Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Purity of Voice



The Anonymous 4 are a fabulous group of four female American singers whose interpretations of medieval music have a purity and simplicity that is striking and deeply moving. (It would make an interesting marketing device if they were, like Banksy, in fact, quasi-anonymous, except their art would either be confined to recordings or they could sing behind screens rather like medieval nuns)!

I cannot vouchsafe for their accuracy but hair splitting fury aside nor can anyone else which does not prevent the Early Music thought police trying.

As time proceeds, my love for Medieval and Renaissance music continues to deepen and as I drove back from Devon yesterday on the slow moving M5, I tried to fathom why this were so.

It is a long love, as my second record ever (black vinyl discs that revolved at 33 1/2 rpm) was of Alfred Deller, the great French counter-tenor, and his consort singing Gregorian chant. I bought it in Blackwells in Oxford with money I had been given for my eighteenth birthday (that and the Collected Poems of Henry Vaughan I remember)!

I decided that part of the reason was its ability to be both austerely spiritual and utterly earthy - sometimes at the same time in ways that are fascinatingly subversive. A four part song, for example, will have three parts eyes fixed on heaven and a fourth part, as an undertow, beseeching a mistress for a kiss; and, the paradoxical reality that both are meant and valid.

It is as if the uncertainty of life requires you to have a foot in both camps and a recognition that God (if not the Church) can forgive the latter's earthy revelry. The Church is both an ever-present reality and an institution that is continually held in question: its pretensions to be an arbiter continually stumbling against its failings yet those failings do not disrupt a faith in the textures of a world held within spiritual forces, refined and not.

This holding together begins to fall apart at the Renaissance - the secular begins to emerge - and you see that there begins to be a 'high culture' that is aristocratic rather than Christian and held apart from the populous.

It is a division that lives with us still 'high art' and 'popular culture' with no common, transcending centre.

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