Article

Dean J. Seal delves into the vocal artistry and enduring attraction of early a capella music, with a focus on those composers and musicians whose calling is to preserve and reinvigorate the art form.
By Dean J. Seal
January 7, 2008

Photo of The Rose Ensemble by Michael Haug

A Capella music is done only with the voice and has its origins in music for the chapel performed in a cathedral setting. The voice was the only instrument allowed, because it was the only one created by God and was, therefore, sacred. Scholarly, professional artists and organizations specializing in this area of early music are hitting their strides in recent years, especially in 2007. In the past year, The Rose Ensemble, an early music ensemble based in St. Paul, won a major International Choral Competition in Tolosa, Spain, making them kind of the flagship of the fleet. Twin Citizen Ruth MacKenzie added to her corpus of acclaimed work with a presentation of songs for Advent, Theotokos, at the seminary where she is wrapping up her studies in theology and the arts. And in November the Trio Mediaeval rolled into town from Norway, bringing their disciplined clarity to a repertoire that was hitting the Billboard charts and mesmerizing audiences from the Fitzgerald Theater to the Arctic Circle.

My experience of The Rose Ensemble ranges across several venues, many tasty recordings, and a variety of styles. A very ambitious programming philosophy by founder and artistic Director Jordan Sramek has led them across material from Eastern Europe, into Mexican baroque, and off to Hawaii. Sramek frequently chooses material that has never been heard in North America, or at least not in our time. And he brings those manuscripts alive. The Rose Ensemble musicians, purveyors of an exquisite sonic art, represent the synthesis of performance and scholarship that distinguishes those who specialize in working with early music. The Ensemble's popularity now extends well beyond the U.S.; as their victory in Spain demonstrates, their musicianship is as good as or better than anything else of its kind out there.

Ruth MacKenzie is a singer-artist who works as more of a soul proprietor. She recently put together a classic piece of performance that mixes ceremony with history and theology with harmony, offering solo and ensemble work that straddles both centuries and worlds. Theotokos is a collection of songs about the mother of God, presented as an advent concert/ceremony in the glorious jewel-box of the chapel at United Theological Seminary (UTS) in New Brighton, Minnesota. (Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of UTS). She assembled the music, wrangled the choral ensembles, and preached a sermon—all of a piece.

MacKenzie uses traditional Christmas music from Moravia, Bulgaria, Cuba, and Israel along with her own compositions. The songs were led by MacKenzie and supported by Mila (a vocal ensemble that specializes in ethnically-diverse vocal work) and the Unity Singers, from her Unitarian church, directed by Ruth Palmer. MacKenzie’s homily tied everything together explicitly—and her case was so persuasive she convinced even this reluctant Lutheran to give Mary her due. No small feat.

 

In a short interview, I ask her about how she thought things through and to compare her methodology to Sramek’s. “Jordan (Sramek)’s (way) is different. My perception is that The Rose Ensemble is about finding rarely heard material and bringing it to life. Mine is about looking at familiar texts in new ways.” She reinterprets the familiar Annunciation and Magnificat through these other ethnic vocal traditions, which leads the listener to reconsider the often-heard content anew. Putting the traditional melodies together with diverse performance techniques, she says, allows songs and artistic expressions not normally put in relationship to mingle and inform each other. “(The piece) ended up being perceived as a place of opening—opening (the audience) up to new ways of looking at the story.” Using an artistic reinterpretation of the familiar can also be an invitation for people who are not enamored with the traditional tellings of the story. “If people are on the fringes of religious life, this allows them a way back in.”

As a self-trained musicologist, I keep wondering what it is that ties these styles of harmony to each other—each is clearly distinct, but there are unifying themes evident as well. I ask Ruth, specifically, about the intervals she uses in her work which offer both harmony and dissonance. “Technically, we are using seconds, fourths, and fifths. I find the dissonance to be attractive.” The tonalities too seem more angular, unlike the soft subtle blend that distinguishes The Rose Ensemble’s sound, even when they are singing loudly. “This is a style of singing with a very focused sound that makes the ear perk up,” she says. “You hear it in American, Nordic, and Eastern European folk music, where the voice needs to carry the note some distance, across fields, for example. It’s not a rounded tone; there is a stinging quality to the voice. In the Nordic tradition of kulning, you can stand on one side of a lake and hear the sound projected across the water to the other side.”

MacKenzie discusses this distinctive tonality on her website in her description of the seminal moment when she heard a small Finnish singer sing in this manner, upon which she found herself pinned to the wall by the sound:

“She was kulning (a high pitched Swedish song for calling animals). The sound itself made me question, ‘Am I hearing the human voice or the animal within the human?’ The sound itself made me question, ‘Am I crying because I have discovered a sound which reveals the ancient in my own Scandinavian heritage or one that leads me to the tap root of human sound and music-making where we all meet regardless of our ethnic backgrounds?’ The sound itself grabbed me at my core and demanded that I try—try to be a channel for the song.”

MacKenzie’s music brings a purer, more primordial form of communication that teeters on the edge of yelling, and becomes music. And when I hear MacKenzie and company singing in this style, it “grabs me at my core” as well. I feel something spiritual and remarkable in this invigorating presentation that could not come out of a theology lecture, no matter who was giving it.

MacKenzie describes the power of this marriage between the spiritual message and performance this way: “Music opens the heart to new ways of understanding and healing. Even when we don't understand the words (because they are in another language) the spirit of music softens our hard edges, allowing the spoken word to find a way into the soul.” Music prepares people for the sermon, the homily, because music has prepared a place where we can hear what is being said, we can be penetrated at a deeper level, because we have been opened up by the music and the spirituality conveyed in that music. It is especially effective when singers are doing it, because there is no filter, no obstacle, of instruments. It is human voice to human ear, the sacred transmitted from one soul to another. MacKenzie concludes, “The work of music, which is a mystery, is sacrament. Saint Augustine defines sacrament as a visible sign of an invisible reality. When you think about voice that is indeed what is going on. It is a visible or tangible sign that the invisible divine is living within us. That is why voice is a wild, untamable thing.”

Trio Mediaeval barks up the same tree, bringing a new approach to old songs and putting them together with modern compositions that fall into the same sonic realm. They do not approach this music t from a spiritual viewpoint; they are strictly trying to sing something beautiful. In the same way that The Rose Ensemble is digging up obscure ancient material and putting it out there, the Trio utilizes folk music from the western part of Norway, mixing in work from other early sources as well as modern composers. Some of the songs come directly from the mountainsides and are sung in the same kind of vocal tradition that MacKenzie uses in her compositions. I heard the Trio Mediaeval at the Fitzgerald Theater, and you can hear them in their Saint Paul Sunday interview on the Minnesota Public Radio website as well.

The selections from the Saint Paul Sunday reflect both the Trio’s range and the range of the vocal style itself. There is an ultra-modern Kyrie, a sacred piece that weaves the ancient chords together with contemporary dissonances, a la Ruth MacKenzie. It becomes a seamless fabric of tonality and rhythm moving between the two polarities. The Kyrie is satisfying to hear because it comes across as one unified piece that has taken you to two places at once. Second is a Gloria from 700 years ago, approached subtly and carefully. The first two compositions were written in 1968 and about 1300, respectively. Nice range.

When I saw Trio Mediaeval at the Fitzgerald, each piece performed had its own place on the continuum between the “indoor voice,” smooth tonalities of the chapel and the “outdoor voice,” focused sounds of folk songs that grew from yelling across a mountain range. It seemed that no matter when the piece was written, the experience was one of immersion in the wealth of a time when there were hardly any instruments, but plenty of voices.

Many of these scores were lost to the ages, only turning up now in dusty corners of scholarly libraries, or as the stuffing for another book’s lining, or on the back of some tax accounting. Rescued by scholars like Trio Mediaeval or Jordan Sramek, these compositions are being reborn in a formal, respectful setting, where mistakes aren’t made and innovation isn’t going to be significant. The goal, for these ensembles, is first and foremost to present the song as it last existed.

The traditional etiquette behind performance of folk songs has always been that whoever is singing it gets to rearrange it—add verses, bring out new harmonies, and the like. It’s a living, breathing tradition where you have a wealth of material to work from. In a modern context, where the church is not the sole support of artists (and where sustaining them means more than a hard bunk in a dry room, a chunk of bread and cheese and a flagon of something to keep the pipes working), we have re-contextualized these ensembles’ performances from sacred to largely secular affairs. Trio Mediaeval rightly points out that their sacred music is taken out of the churches and the folk music pulled off the mountainsides, and then dressed up and polished for the concert hall.

At first, I was put off a bit by the sense of personal distance they create on stage. The music is presented with a clarity that seems warm and beautiful most of the time, but ethereal to the point of iciness at others. Their onstage personas are that of dedicated technicians who marshal the work of their vocal chords with military precision, marching on and off stage for their breaks in line and in step, with no audience banter.

An accurate, musically perfect performance is central to their efforts. What they lack in sense of fun or spontaneity, they make up for in technical proficiency. Their pleasure, and ours, comes from the work that goes into their harmonies, in the perfect blend of voices they achieve, in the fact that any one of them can be singing the high or the low part; that their ranges are amazing, their tones pure, their discipline is appropriate to the musical form. In hindsight, I am glad they didn’t schmooze us with stiff, unnatural Vegas-style banter. Let the music do the talking.

And what music. The tempo varies from measure to measure; the mood goes from reverent to poignant, from delirious to sober in a moment. A faster passage ends with a slowed, stretched-out coda; then quickens again, back to a steadier pace. The elasticity of the whole art form is not something generally heard from choral ensembles working with more contemporary compositions. There is a solemn and contemplative tone to the evolution of the sound in this early music. The muse is invited, honored, and followed-- instead of hired, drenched in coffee, and whipped to the finish line. The work from these musicians is made, and sung, in God’s time, not our time. Kairos, not kronos. It’s a type of music that presents timelessness in real time.

About the writer: Dean J. Seal is a producer, performer, and playwright who ran the Minnesota Fringe Festival for four years, during which it became the largest in the nation. He's also Artistic Director of Spirit In the House! which is a ten-day Spiritual Performance Festival held in May. Contact him by email ([email protected]). He serves as mnartists.org's Spiritual Theater Correspondent.

Related Links and Events:

What: The Rose Ensemble Presents Candlelight Concert: The Secret Society of Notre Dame de Paris
Where: Various venues, check the website for specific performance locations
When: Performances February 22, 23, 29 and March 1
Visit The Rose Ensemble website for detailed showtimes, venues, and ticketing information.

 

Visit the Trio Mediaeval website to listen to a few tracks and to browse through their recordings.

Listen to kulning as interpreted in Ruth MacKenzie’s compositions by lending an ear to some tracks from her recent recording Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden.

MN Artists