Design by Austin Boyer
Drifting Along with Renaissance Octet Cut Circle
Listening to the superfine, Renaissance vocal octet known as Cut Circle the other night, my mind drifted, happy, lazy and somehow alert, all at once. What sounds! A famous musical description, penned by the novelist Willa Cather, dislodged itself from my subconscious to define the moment: “Each note floated through the air like a globe of silver.”
That’s what the music was like Wednesday at Stanford Memorial Church: a quiet, gravity-defying spectacle, a weightless push-and pull, an alchemist’s balancing act.
Cut Circle was performing music by Johannes Ockeghem, the 15th-century Franco-Flemish master of polyphony, whose braided works provided a mind-altering escape from 21st century angst.
It was special, even though Jesse Rodin, the young musicologist who founded the group in Boston six years ago and now teaches at Stanford University, spent too much time explaining the program to the Stanford Lively Arts audience.
He explained that the evening — a mix of sacred works and secular songs — revolved around the “Missa L’homme armé” (“Mass of the Armed Man”), one of Ockeghem’s best-known works, based on a popular hit of the 15th century, “L’homme armé” (“The Armed Man”).
Who was that masked, I mean, armed man?
Rodin told us that Ockeghem scholars (many of the world’s best were in the audience, preparing for an Ockeghem symposium on campus) have long debated this question. Was he a symbol of the marauding Turks? Of pious yet violent Christian crusaders?
Yada, yada. Rodin’s remarks only broke the cumulative effect of the performance, which otherwise massaged and startled the soul, like the Dalai Lama applying a mild and beneficial form of electroshock.
All we really needed to do was watch Rodin as he conducted his fabulous ensemble, making strangely animated gestures that seemed to have nothing and everything to do with the floating sound-tapestry that emerged.
The voices entwined, released, rumbled, re-embraced, even vanished, some of them, leaving an opening through which the pure tone of a soprano, say, would come pouring. Like light coming through a break in the clouds in a Renaissance painting.
Ockeghem’s “Ave Maria” was a warm blood-rush, a face flushed by love. The Mass’ Credo was physical, sensuous, like light falling on crushed velvet.
Finally, when Cut Circle (the group’s name refers to a metric marking in Renaissance music) arrived at a tribute to Ockeghem, composed by Josquin des Prez, the love expressed made absolute sense.
Josquin’s piece, titled “Nymphes des bois/Requiem” (“Nymphs of the Woods/Requiem”), was composed upon Ockeghem’s death in 1497. It sets the French text (translated here) of the Burgundian poet Jean Molinet:
“Change your voices so clear and lofty
To piercing cries and lamentations…
Put on clothes of mourning…
You have lost your good father.”