Defending Early music against its devotees*
Founded in 1999, Graindelavoix is an Antwerp-based music and art ensemble. Helmed by founder-director Björn Schmelzer, it is committed to offering a contemporary and critical interpretation of mainly historical, vocal repertoires.
The ensemble's artistic allure, distinctive sound, plastic performance style and rigorous programming—the whole characterised by an uncanny touch—makes it both unique and difficult to situate in the current artistic landscape. Its critical questioning of old repertoires—their aesthetic and political dimensions, their displacement and alienation—meanwhile often leads to controversial performances in which the audience is not just challenged but also made complicit.
In addition to the company’s core singers, musicians and usual suspects, Graindelavoix regularly collaborates with other musicians, visual artists, dancers and theatremakers. Collaborations include: Cesena (2011), with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance company Rosas; Maastricht Cryptonomies (2014), with Manuel Mota and Margarida Garcia; and Epitaphs of Afterwardsness (2022), with pianist Jan Michiels.
Over the last decade, they have also engaged in collaborative programmes revolving around Mediterranean Sufism (together with Hassan Boufous and the sisterhood of Chefchaouen), and Byzantine chant (Adrian Sîrbu).
Other programmes have incorporated texts by Samuel Beckett—in the case of the insomnia-themed And Underneath the Everlasting Arms; and special audience set-ups on location—such as the four-hour Gesualdo Tenebrae marathon.
Graindelavoix and Schmelzer have made three independent feature films, of which Ossuaires (2012) and Outlandish (2016) are performed as ciné concerts with a live soundtrack. The mockumentary Van Eyck Diagrams (2021) is a critical reflection on the painter Jan van Eyck, art historical research and contemporary cultural marketing. The film was screened in Ghent (De Bijloke), Hanover (Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen), Utrecht (Early Music Festival), Antwerp (De Cinema) and Warsaw (New Epiphanies).
Further projects include exhibitions (Time Regained), book projects and cultural websites (darkvaneyck.com).
From 2014–2019, Graindelavoix undertook a five-year residency at the Fondation Royaumont, near Paris, producing new works, concerts and masterclasses.
The ensemble currently performs all over the world, having appeared on the most important stages for early and classical music, as well as at contemporary art festivals.
The label Glossa, with whom Graindelavoix has released 17 records (plus other hybrid-format works) since 2004, puts out a new CD by the ensemble every year, produced by sound engineer Alex Fostier. Each recording offers a new sound experience or interpretation of a musical repertoire. A triple CD featuring Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria (2020) was hailed by critics as a benchmark recording, while Josquin The Undead was declared the most original production of “Josquin Year” in 2021, gaining several prizes. Both records received the prestigious Caecilia award from the Belgian music press, while Josquin The Undead was also awarded the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik in 2022.
In 2012, the group’s socio-cultural project/CD Muntagna Nera (concerning the revival of Limburg’s so-called “coalmine blues”) was released by EMI/Warner.
The ensemble, which receives financial backing from the Flemish Community, is currently resident at Ghent’s Muziekcentrum De Bijloke.
As of 2022–23, Graindelavoix comprises the following musicians:
Florencia Menconi, Teodora Tommasi, Andrew Hallock, Razek-François Bitar, Gabriel Belkheiri, Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, André Pérez Muíño, Marius Peterson, Adrian Sîrbu, Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet, Noé Chapolard, Lluis Coll i Trulls, Berlinde Deman, Philippe Malfeyt, Christopher Price, Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, and Floris De Rycker.
Conceptual horizon, or: apologia for a non-identitarian, dialectic approach to historical music and art.
These peculiar times seem to guarantee the survival of only one type of relation towards artworks of the past, shared by both progressive and reactionary forces alas: they are not deemed real artworks, but rather pre-modern, artisanal, naive, immaculate and homogeneous signifiers of a lost paradise. Such an attitude revolves around the idea of a traumatic loss which is at best (according to the progressive stance) accepted as necessary, and at worst (as per the reactionary perspective), foreclosed and considered as something to be overcome—the search for a paradise lost—regardless of the political consequences.
In both cases the view of the past and its art is precisely that it is past, namely unchangeable, frozen, almost a part of nature itself. Liberal and progressive forces therefore have no interest in the past: it is lost and has nothing to contribute to the present if liberty and emancipation are to be maintained. Without hesitation, historical interest is thus handed over to the reactionary side, which treats it as the perfect historical legitimation of the present and future. Reactionary history is always natural history. Yet both views share one tenet: that so-called pre-modern history and its art doesn’t need interpretation or mediation, re-evaluation or reflection, representing the natural outcome of a non-alienated society. For progressives, it is an obstacle to emancipation; for reactionaries, a justification to refuse emancipation. Both positions are flipsides of the same coin, depicting the image of a past with a stable, clear-cut meaning; the former urges us to give it up, while the latter insists that we embrace it because it legitimates the return to an equally stable and homogeneous society without cracks.
Yet what if true emancipation is to be found in the way we look at the past, and try to understand its artworks retroactively? What if we imagine that such artworks are always already a break or rupture with the society they emerge from? To get to the point: how can we simultaneously get rid of Early Music and at the same time redeem it?
As early as 1955, the philosopher *Theodor Adorno ("Bach defended against his devotees") put his finger on Early Music’s wound in his critique of what he calls the “resentment listener/performer”, which has lost none of its power. Graindelavoix’s work is highly inspired by his vision, sorely needed in any negotiation with artworks past if they are not to end in historical re-enactments, glorifications of the past, present-tense consolations or future legitimations.
For Graindelavoix, Early Music is a symptom of modernity itself, a way to disavow and overcome its trauma—but the reverse also holds true: modernity is a symptom of Early Music. Since its written emergence in the 12th century, polyphony has always been subversive and surrounded by controversy, producing a crack in nature itself (the figures of Alain de Lille and John of Salisbury being symbolic here). This reality is all too often wilfully forgotten or bluntly denied, occluding the fact that polyphony has always been modern, having emerged, just like Gothic architecture, as a profound experience of artistic alienation and subjectivity. Ancient art, worthy of its name, was forever involved in negation, producing cracks in the symbolic culture, and constituting a divided subjectivity against homogenising and identitarian politics.
This is why, as a method—one might more accurately call it an ideology, since it became the natural horizon of Early Music discourse—such a position falls short: it condemns polyphony to parochialism, to the right or wrong application of counterpoint rules, and is thereby unable to account for the artistic event, the subjective break, the evidence of absence and negativity which historicism laconically turns into an absence of evidence.
It is a mistake of the progressive position to think that emancipation is only possible in contemporary culture (the reverse more often being true) and that for this reason the past and its artworks should be perceived as unemancipated and homogeneous—to be left behind or, as we might say, left in the wrong hands. Such a stance is but the mirror of the conservative drive to venerate the past. Yet in reality, much art and music pre-1800 is more shocking, traumatic, progressive and emancipatory than what followed.
We should therefore harness our current armoury—our traumas, our artistic tools, our historical insights, our experiences, our recognitions, our (un)consciousness—to revisit the past, its music and its art, and engage in a relation of emancipation with it. To do so is to reveal how painters and musicians of the past have produced works that negate, struggle, deform, transform and express contradictions. In retroactively revisiting the past, our task is to create an artistic history of queerness, emancipation and uncanniness, of weirdness, divided subjects and difference.
The problem is not so much the canonization of artworks, though we should be rigorously against it, bound as it is to an intrinsically exclusive and ethnically dangerous territorial signifier (something we are unfortunately now witnessing in Flanders and beyond, where history and art patrimony are continuously provincialised and regionalised). It is a mistake to think of gothic or ancient polyphony as being restricted to territorial borders, or exclusively practiced by certain ethnicities, as though they were part of the DNA of certain populations, as one hears politicians “naively” claim. The only universal here is the historical fact that polyphony has forever been criticised, restricted, moralised and normalised, and that its practitioners were always perceived as ambiguous and suspicious. To be an artist in earlier times (as today) was no joke, but was rather connected with the traumatic but necessary experience of a profound non-belonging.
It is not difficult to imagine how an identitarian, glorious past can be stitched together with neoliberal interests: it suffices to claim that artists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were already neoliberals avant la lettre—that it was in their blood. In this vein, it is claimed that Jan van Eyck was an entrepreneur, rather than an artist, a view backed up by historicist academic historians; according to this line of historical thought, the notion of the artist is anachronistic, and so we should favour unalienated artisans and virtuoso technicians, bound to local patrons, country and market. The marketeer-artisan has always (in the past just as now) been the ideal artist-figure for reactionary societies. This is why art of the past is not questioned or interrogated, but simply there, like a flower in a park: ignoring its emancipatory content and form, our interest goes straight to restoration and technologisation, culminating in the fantasy of a “3D” Flemish Primitive, in order to make such art accessible to, and enjoyable for, the widest possible public. Art of the past is just what it is, without mediation, directly consumable, no interpretation needed: one admires the technical perfection of an artist who could so perfectly imitate the outside world. Thanks to Jan van Eyck, we are finally able to see reality itself—which is, of course, the market.
Something similar happens with historical music: performers are neither artists nor subjects but mediums; they don’t really interpret music, as the music itself flows directly from the simple scores, and only needs contemporary transmitters to make it audible. In this view, art didn’t exist, nor artworks: these were the glorious times when listeners and performers were one and the same, so to speak, when there was no gap, only direct identification. Music was not an art form but Gebrauchsmusik—“functional” music as it was called at a rather suspicious moment in history. How simple would it be to satisfy current subvention criteria if art could still just be useful!
Of course, art is not just given, and music doesn’t naturally flow from scores: even if it is contemporary, it is always historically, culturally and aesthetically chosen. So here is a chance to emancipate the past and, through that past, to emancipate all those composers who are true artists and not just artisans bowing to the whims of their patrons (as if artists today might also be free and not have to bow to galleries, curators, festivals, sponsors, promotors, managers…).
The polyphonic compositions that form the main corpus of interest of Graindelavoix are artworks in the proper sense. They are not just functional, ornamental music, but rather conceptual, meta, self-referential: they are the formation and formal presentation of concrete ideas. They are not holistic, as per the fantasy concerning the pre-artworks of pre-modernity, supposedly lacking hole or crack, and directly distilling a (fantasised) homogeneous society, or the harmony of the spheres; rather they are themselves a crack in the whole.
Let us not forget that it was precisely during the 19th century, with its traumatised modernity, that musicologists dreamed of the past as some kind of artistic antidote, as a possible redemption, as a way to overcome contradiction.
And here lies the cradle of Early Music: in imagined immaculate repertoires from the past. It’s this fantasy that Graindelavoix wants to get rid of—something all the more necessary in these times of crisis and utopian nostalgia. It’s this cradle that “vexes us to nightmare”, to borrow Yeat’s words. For now we find ourselves in the perfect situation for artworks of the past to be yet again exploited to heal our so-called dissonant and alienating times: a balm on the wound of contradiction, hope from the past that we might return to consonance and beauty like never before. In reality, however, art history is a motor hitched to a reactionary wagon which is riding towards a future incapable of dealing with crisis, trauma, difficulty, difference, contradiction and alterity.
Artworks of the past, just like contemporary artworks, dealt with the impossible, the traumatic and the problematic in their own times. In this sense they are trans-historical and can mean something to us today. It is in their relation to the impossible, the unacceptable, the unnamable and the unknown that they speak to us today, transcending particular contexts and particular temporalities and becoming truly universal. It is precisely today, where they do not belong, that they are capable of producing meaning, and of cracking the identities and master signifiers that we so desperately seem to cling onto.
Instead of performing music that illustrates a pre-given image from the past, an artistic performance changes the past retroactively: it makes audible something unthinkable in a work’s own time and it is this impossible condition that can enlighten us today and carve out potential horizons for the future.
Björn Schmelzer is a conductor, writer, artist, filmmaker and anthropologist. As artistic director of the Antwerp music ensemble Graindelavoix, he has produced seventeen CDs (plus assorted hybrid-format works), while regularly putting on concerts in Belgium and abroad, and undertaking residencies at art institutions.
The extensive research Schmelzer engages in to produce the ensemble’s musical repertoires is further elaborated through essays, lectures and publications that situate his approach at the intersection of speculative theory, psychoanalysis, music and art history.
For Schmelzer, repertoires from the past are like messages in a bottle and must be examined dialectically to reveal how they articulate a break with the horizon of their origin. He is especially interested in how art bears witness to processes of alienation and subjectivation, historical fantasy, Gothic plasticity, ruin and kenosis.
Together with Margarida Garcia, Schmelzer realised the exhibition Time Regained: A Warburg Atlas for Early Music, resulting in an eponymous, two-volume book, published by MER in Ghent; and the films Outlandish and Van Eyck Diagrams, alongside the website darkvaneyck.com, accompanying the latter.
Often invited as a guest conductor and teacher, Schmelzer hosts seminars in Antwerp; and masterclasses for vocal ensembles in Royaumont (until 2019), and Basel (the Schola Cantorum’s Advanced Vocal Ensemble Studies Master programme).
In 2023 he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.