Thursday, December 22, 2011

Michael Procter's Transcription of Alma Redemptoris Mater

In my programming, I try to do a good portion of new music. I think it's important, not least because for certain audiences it brings a whole world to life that they otherwise wouldn't know. Some years ago, radio stations were swamped with phone calls when they played Henryck Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. How many of them were turned on to classical music because of that experience? Similarly, one of my singers tells me that as she was listening to the recording of our performance of Wilko Brouwers's Missa Alme Pater, her husband, a folk singer not particularly interested in "serious" music (I hate that term; anyone have a better one?), was intrigued. New music is a gateway.

Maybe I'm off my rocker but I feel like looking at old music in new ways is also related to this approach. It keeps us from using music as a mere mood-setter, as ear candy. It isn't just the sacro-pop crowd that would have it this way, either. The entertainment mentality reaches into every ideology; but we ought to be artists in the strictest and best sense of that term.

To look at an old song in a new way is to work to make a piece of art even better, to try to come closer to its ideal form. Perhaps the genre of chant offers a particularly broad space for this, owing to the indefinite nature of the early manuscripts. Efforts like the Solesmes method have given the chant repertoire a great deal of advantageous stability, but when the cards are on the table I insist on treating chant as music and not cramming it into a school-shaped box. And so, when someone presents a new realization of a chant, I give it a serious look.

Using the Hartker manuscript and the Worcester Antiphonale, Michael Procter has given us a particularly gorgeous reconsideration of the solemn tone of Alma Redemptoris Mater, the Marian antiphon for Advent and Christmastide. I make an effort to use this several times a year. Not only is the melody different---several of the cadences are spine-tingling and the lines are more florid---but the rhythms have a surprising agility. Several figures involving the quilisma lack the preceding dotted punctum that we're so accustomed to seeing. (I'm assuming this isn't a misprint.) It brings a completely different energy to the line, a playfulness that is fitting for the subject matter of the text.

If your schola can handle the standard chant repertoire, it can handle this little gem from Michael Procter. Some may think that such efforts introduce needless controversy, but it seems to me that a healthy appreciation of these efforts can be maintained if everyone holds just a small amount of uncertainty about it. This is not to say that scholarship should be discarded in favor of whim, but for me the foremost consideration should be beauty, and in this regard Michael Procter certainly succeeds.