As I write this, it is suddenly winter. Daylight Saving Time has plunged our evenings into darkness. An early November storm brought heavy snow and sharp, cold air into the region. This means a few things: I’ll put away my fly rods and get out cross country skis; my protein, fat and sugar intake from egg nog will start ramping up on an exponential curve. And the Rose Ensemble’s beautiful music will rush in to fill a huge portion of my listening life.
For better or worse, I associate the Rose Ensemble with winter. I recognize that you-all perform your home season from fall through late spring; there is no logical reason your music couldn’t sound great at other times of the year (something I should remember at backyard BBQs next summer), but I find it is particularly and heartbreakingly perfect in the austere stillness of our northern, tundra winter.
And Glory Shone Around has virtually replaced all other holiday music in our house. Through the rest of the winter, we listen to your otherworldly Road to Compostela and the haunting Slavic Holiday records back-to back. I’ve even gone to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts website to listen to the recordings from the Courts of the Burgundian Dukes you made to accompany their 2011 exhibition, The Mourners. (All the songs from that concert were great, but I especially love any of them that included medieval horns or the drone of a hurdy-gurdy. “O char Tesoro, o gratioso aspeto,” in particular, always sounds weird and amazing to me -- the rising and falling counterpoint sounds as if Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman spent a night tearing it up with sackbuts and cornets instead of saxophones.)
But as much as I am looking forward to these concerts, they also bring me to the reason I’m writing this letter. I think you all need to turn up the volume. I don’t mean to say you should belt out the songs like you’re screaming in a crowded bar, just some sort of amplification. You could do it tastefully, I’m sure. But however you manage it, these concerts need to be louder. Ideally, much louder.
Listen, I understand that you are trying to work with the acoustics of the churches where you perform. You’ve probably made a conscious decision to err on the side of offering a contemplative experience that honors the human voice and range of acoustic instruments. But honestly, I’d argue your songs are at their best when they wash over the listener in a massive aural wave. I blast these records when I play them at home and in my car. When the dense harmonics during the final verses of “A Star in the East” are building to crescendo, my speakers are buzzing and risk blowing out. (Seriously, if I follow a Rose Ensemble record with something by Fugazi or the Jesus Lizard, I turn the volume down.)
I once described the Rose Ensemble to a friend as the Led Zepplin of medieval music. I’m not even sure exactly what that means, to be honest, but I’m convinced greater volume should be a part of it. When I go to your concerts, they are undeniably lovely, but I am often straining to hear. Maybe we can split the difference: the sound doesn’t need to be deafening, just loud enough to fill the room completely.
I figure, if you-all are going to go to the effort to dig up 500-year-old pieces of music, dust them off and perform them again, then you might as well blow the roof off as you sing them. They didn’t have this sort of amplification in medieval monasteries or cathedrals, I know. But if they did, don’t you think they would have used it?
So, that’s my humble request, offered by a guy who never thought he’d be a fan of choral music, let alone music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Take it or leave it. In the meantime, congratulations on all your success. I’m looking forward to the concerts this winter, but I’m really looking forward to buying the recordings myself, when they become available -- and playing them loudly enough to hear them clearly when I am outside shoveling the sidewalk.
Happy Holidays, Rose Ensemble.
Related links and event information:
The Rose Ensemble’s holiday show, “Bow Down, Good Cherry Tree: A Garden of Medieval Music for the Nativity,” will be performed in concerts in Duluth, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, Minn. December 18 through 20. Find a full schedule of the ensemble’s home season for 2014-2015 on their website.
Gregory Fitz is a visual artist, writer and curator based in Minneapolis. His visual art practice consists of sculptural installations and paintings. Broadly speaking, his work explores modernism's influence and history, how value is assigned to art objects through evidence of labor and how art making fits within larger conversations surrounding consumption, sustainability and permanence. His essays have appeared in The Drake, This is Fly, the Fly Fish Journal and in Silverwood Park’s Poetry in the Park series. He is the Director and Curator at the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. In that capacity he has assembled and presented over 50 visual art exhibitions since 2002. Find him online at www.gregoryfitz.net.