News about Graindelavoix. Please place an introductory heading that contains keywors that are useful for search engines like Google. Not more than 4 or 5 lines of text please.

Graindelavoix Introphoto

Read Schmelzer's essay on Nicholas of Cusa and Polyphonic practice

On the occasion of the Cusanus event (concert and conference) in Deventer (9-10 February 2024) Björn Schmelzer wrote an extensive essay on the philosopher's thought and the practice of polyphony.

published in:

The Philosophy of Cusanus and Polyphonic Practice: a rudimentary attempt to explore their (non-)relation   (1°draft, January, 2024)

Björn Schmelzer

‘Mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Sigmund Freud, quoted in Michel de Certeau, Mysticism)

(All my gratitude to Inigo Bocken for inviting Graindelavoix to this musical and philosophical adventure and for the treasured conversations in preparation of this project)

The polyphonic séance

In 1453 Nicholas of Cusa sent a treatise called De Visione Dei to the monks of Tegernsee in Bavaria. It was accompanied by a painting of a so-called “all-seeing face”. This kind of paintings had been known in the Byzantine iconic tradition and was revitalized in the West through the famous paintings of the Flemish Primitives like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Book and painting had to be used together and inform each other. This was a wonderful, quite eccentric idea of Cusanus himself, without precedent. The monks were requested to interact with the painting and use the treatise as a sort of manual to experiment with the question of mystic experience.

Mystical experience, in a nutshell, circled around the question if wholeness could be achieved in this life, or to put it in more medieval terms: if one would achieve seeing God face to face, the ultimate experience of satisfaction and completeness. In the medieval tradition the mystics seemed to have a privilege of this experience or better, a privilege in describing what this experience was and was not. All kinds of practices and techniques were connected to it, including prayer, meditation, liturgy, rituals and of course song and music.

The highly original approach of Cusanus and its intellectual and artistic consequences, seemingly inexhaustible and continuing to trigger interpretations till today, are partly the reason why Nicholas of Cusa is not completely forgotten.

The endeavour of the concert is as challenging as it is simple: could we imagine our gathering in the spectacular Bergkerk of Deventer as a contemporary alternative to the experimental séance Cusanus invited the Bavarian monks to?

In what follows I will try to explain why such an endeavour could be legitimate, although not deprived of manifold complications and difficulties. We will come to that.

Let me start with the end, trying to formulate you the imagined aim or goal of this endeavour. Is the strange transposition we propose from image to polyphonic sound, not offering us a double profit?

We are not only negotiating the thinking of Cusanus in the light of the concrete performance of polyphony and its (non-)relation with it, but also the other way around:  the glasses of Cusanus could shed a completely new light on the essence and potentiality of late-medieval polyphony. Taken together, could the performance of polyphony be a practical way to an alternative understanding of Cusa’s philosophy?

The possible relation, resonances, and proportions, but equally non-relation, inadequacies and disproportions could help us to think new aspects of Cusa’s thinking, its potentials and its limits. They open up to something previously unthought about polyphonic music itself, undisclosed or difficult to reveal through historicist, contextual research. These revelations and resonances are not the effect of a blunt anachronistic approach either, the musical repertoire being of approximately the same time and space as Cusa’s. However, their combinatorium or coincidence is of a rather untimely (unzeitgemäß) character, one revealing the unthought in the other, like an enfolded reality, a sort of pure past which is then unfolded into a narrative through the other.

Of course, a musical polyphonic work is a kind of image, be it a peculiar, more obscure, dark one. It is often the elaboration of a sacred text, used in the liturgy. It is somehow unclear what it exactly adds to the orthodox form and meaning of the original message, what it is exactly an image of, and what kind of mysterious image it is, in the end. In a simplified way, one could say that it offers nothing, but the sensation of surprise and confusion, even less than nothing, as it offers an enigmatic, veiling surplus to a truth that could be approached, so it seems, simple and uncomplex.

Intuitively we see Cusanus as the perfect partner-in-crime of such a paradoxical twisting, as he himself loved the concept of coincidentia oppositorum: an image that obscures, a representation that blurs or even better (or worse) that tricks us, an image beyond representation, to engage our desire, triggered by the absence, that the image constructs and presents.

Excess of experience

The first thing to consider is what polyphonic works could have in common with an image or a painting, such as the one Cusanus sent to the Tegernsee monks. Let’s not forget that apart from the sacred qualities of the painting, it had the capacity of a trompe l’oeil, a visual trick or trap for the eye of the onlooker. In this sense the aim of the painting was not divine contemplation or aesthetic pleasure, but it aimed first of all at a sensation of admiration or even bafflement. Cusanus wants us to be perplexed, puzzled, bewildered and disconcerted. As in all his writings, here is a philosopher who likes to play, to amuse us, to laugh, maybe to show off even, through a virtuoso discourse, mixing and juggling with concepts and ideas as objects in a Wunderkammer.

Above all the painter should hook our desire, steal the look of the viewers and hold them in its grip.

On a very first, superficial level, the experience of polyphony in the 15th century, for better or worse, was very similar. We underestimate that art in that period shared a very strong immersive purpose, not so different from now (till today art should be conceptually smart or capable of grabbing the attention and desire of the spectator).  

Just imagine the use of sound and visuals in the secular culture of courtly pleasure gardens, that thrived on ingenious trompe l’oeilpainting and mechanical automata, deployed to trap spectators in transgressive immersive experiences we would hardly accept today. Maybe they are mirrored in contemporary escape-rooms and experience-games and -parks, or in their fantasized deadly versions in survival tv-series. The sensation of excess causing stupefaction was more easily accepted in painting and architecture than in polyphony, where it was usually severely dismissed, no doubt because of the physical and often embarrassing presence and involvement of human beings.

An image is usually experienced individually and in simultaneity (we see all at once, so to speak), while a musical work needs time to unfold, nevertheless penetrating the ear of the listener, unable to escape. What the renaissance called Paragone, is not just comparison and distinction between the arts but often also the transposition of features and qualities from one art to the other.

Being baffled by the excess of an artwork can provoke two reactions: acceptance or refusal.If one accepts, still different possibilities are offered how to engage with or domesticate the excess. Unacceptance or refusal has at least the advantage of being rhetorically and dialectically interesting because the emphatic expression of horror safeguards the excess or unacceptable, not trying to domesticate it as something usual, normal ore falsely transgressive.

There are wonderful descriptions of the stupefaction caused by polyphony sung by the papal choir in the 15th century, an ensemble that Cusanus must have heard and experience intensely during his career. Famous example is the inauguration of the dome of Firenze by Brunelleschi in 1436, featuring Guillaume Du Fay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores, an occasion probably witnessed also by Cusanus. One wonders what his musical experience might have been. What did Cusanus in general think of polyphony?

One could paraphrase the scholarship investigating the topic of music in the writings of Cusanus: music is so primordially an essential feature of the structure of Being for him (just think of Platonic or Pythagorean Number, Proportion and Harmony etc.) that music is everywhere and nowhere. The danger of course is that we take this “nowhere” at face value and don’t look for it in the inside mechanics of his thinking itself.

Cusanus didn’t write much about actual music. However, it must be said, either did he on painting or other arts.  How he really valued art and music must be read inside of his thoughts and in between the lines, or better, along the lines (in a structural analysis not so foreign to his own theorizing).

A second danger is to misunderstand the few claims he makes about concrete performed polyphony.

For example, take an infamous passage in De Quaerendo Deum (1445) that deserves quoting because it didn’t receive much attention, arguably causing some embarrassment to the reader, stumbling upon it.

“In the kingdom of hearing, the concordant resonance-of-all-voices and the pleasant harmony there, as well as the indescribable variety of all [the musical] instruments, together with those melodies from golden organs, as well as the songs of sirens and of nightingales, and all other exquisite riches of the king of the kingdom of hearing; in the court of the greatest and best King of kings [all these] are [as if] dung/shit stuck to the floor (faeces adhaerentes pavimento).”

Instead of quickly dismissing this passage as a sort of slip of the pen, would it not be worthwhile to engage with it? Is, on closer inspection, this not the most adequate (and most truthful) statement Cusanus could have made about polyphonic performance, calling it shit or waste? Trying to understand this statement offers a nice example of how a Cusanean Durcharbeitung of paradoxical thinking could play out, working through the obvious interpretations, leaving them finally behind, even if they seem to be the most evident. Predicating church music that was often compared with divine, angelic, elevated singing, in such a negative way (shit stuck to the floor) should raise neo-platonic, apophatic alarm bells, recalling for example the favoured description of dissimilarity of the divine by Dionysius the Areopagite.

It is of course much easier for us to support the perspective of the older, 14th century scholar and prolific writer on music, Nicole Oresme, whose texts betray an appreciation of music as a speculative domain of scientific research (secundum imaginationem). Using Lady Geometry as his mouthpiece in his Tractatus de commensurabilitate vel incommensurabilitate motuum celi he would defend the use of harmonic dissonances or incommensurable music (the sirens and nightingales), ridiculing celestial commensurable but boring music, calling it the song of the cuckoo. Cusa played obviously a whole different card.

Experience of excess

When Cusa calls polyphony bluntly shit or waste stuck to the floor, it is not the first or last time he mentions concrete music. The other time however it doesn’t sound very positive either: (in De filiatione Dei, 1445) “Likewise, they (schoolboys) use in an intellectual way, not in a sensory way, the vocal words by means of which they are taught, so that by means of these vocal signs they attain unto the mind of their teacher. But if there are those who delight rather in signs, then they will not attain unto a mastery of philosophy but, remaining ignorant thereof, will degenerate into writers, painters, orators, singers, or cithara players.”

(To speak in Cusa’s defense, he puts singers here together with artistic professions he clearly admired in other writings, of which he saw at least the potential of some serious intellectual engagement. Obviously, something else is at stake here…)

Nevertheless, let’s move to another obvious interpretation, the way his friend the theologian Denis the Carthusian (who may have accompanied Cusanus on his papal legation through Germany and the Low Countries – if that is true, both must have heard a lot of polyphony in each other’s company…) considered and rather dismissed polyphony, or what he called discantus, or fractio vocis, two technical terms and perfect signifiers for exactly the excessive aspect of polyphony in its virtuoso form of melismatic counterpoint laced with lot of small notes and fractalized/diminuted passages:

“Besides it may be inquired whether it is praiseworthy to admit counterpoint or the breaking-up of the voice [or of sound] in the worship of the Deity. In which connection it is noteworthy that the aforesaid Summa [Summa de vitiis et virtutibus by William Pelardus] states: The breaking-up of voice appears to be reprehensible in song. Whence we find in the Life of St Sebastian: 'Do you think that a man who loves to go to the barber, styles his hair, covets flavours and breaks up [his] voice, should be reckoned among the Christians?' The breaking-up of voice appears to be a sign of a broken soul. In the same way as the [artificial] curling of hair is reprehensible in men, the pleating of garments in women, so [is] the breaking-up of voice in singers; just as the wind customarily produces ripples in the water, so the wind of vanity customarily produces this trembling and breaking of the sound. This according to the aforesaid Summa. This gains support from the fact that certain people, who have become accustomed to sing this way as occasion serves, admit that there is pride and a certain lasciviousness in music of this kind. Further, if it should be excused in any way, it does not appear to be excusable or commendable unless instituted and performed to arouse devotion. For some people are powerfully stirred to contemplation and devotion by harmonious sounds: that is why the church allows organs. But if it should be practised [merely] to offer delight to those present, including women, then it is undoubtedly reprehensible, as St Augustine has said as well: But whenever the song pleases me more than the sense [of the words], or that which is being sung, every time I acknowledge that I am committing, just as many times, a sin deserving punishment, and then I would prefer not to hear the singer. Finally, although counterpoint in particular may provoke some people to devotion and to the contemplation of heavenly things, it does seem very much to divert and impede the individual who listens and prays, from [giving] attention even to the sense of his prayer. Hence St Bernard says: It is of insufficient benefit to sing only with the voice, without attentiveness of the heart. God, from whom nothing that is done unlawfully remains hidden, does not demand gentleness of voice, but purity of heart.”

Is it strange that the most beautiful descriptions of polyphonic practices, full of passionate desire, invariably come from their strongest adversaries? In one of the most colourful pages of the famous book “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” (1919), Johan Huizinga quotes from this same passage elaborating it extensively for his argument.

Not only is it a truism that “renunciation of enjoyment is also the enjoyment of renunciation”; these adversaries understood, standing in a tradition that goes back to St. Augustine, better than nobody else, the libidinal dangers that radiated from musical practices.

The excess of polyphony is here compared with several social examples and images of excess, which are often transgressions of the gender roles (vain and effeminate men, unstable and with a broken soul). The excess is not so much about the music itself, but about the practice, or let me say, about the disturbing physical and vocal presence of the singers, as if in an ideal way, music could be split into pure music and its remainder or waste, the performers. The experience of excess is located in this split. But at the same time, it seems as if Denis the Carthusian is onto something more profound with the ontological potential of excess in dis-cantus and fractio vocis, splitting musical performance as it were from within.

It seems, at first glance (from his own short remark) Cusanus would agree with his colleague. But would he really?

One could imagine that not only from a moral and liturgical point of view, but equally from a financial point of view, engaging professional singers was considered rubbish and waste of money. Something we forget today: without the continuous engagement of physical singers, there would not be any music and no experience of it either. On the other hand, one could imagine how difficult serious immersion or contemplation for a deeper understanding of this repertoire and practice must have been at the time. It would hardly be possible to hear a piece more than once. This existential fragility must also have contributed to the equally fragile appreciation of the art itself.

However, although the opinion of Denis the Carthusian shared its negative formulation with Cusa’s, there seems to be a crucial difference between them.

While Denis is talking from a human, moral(istic) point of view, Cusa takes the point of view of God, which could not be more than a boutade for him, an impossible, nonsensical perspective, because absolutely unknown. It is this absurd point of view which elevates it beyond any moralism, liberates it of any practical judgement. It should be interpreted structurally or ontologically, so to speak.

No doubt Cusanus is not just reacting against the courtly pomp for which polyphony was often engaged, exploited to make tangible the imagined divine status of secular lords and rulers, who would fetishize music and its performers, often stressing the beauty and elegance of their voices and presence. A connection could be made here, with Cusa’s critique on art or craftsmanship that is not aware of its own speculative or conceptual potential, a potential that would not just mimetically reproduce that what is outside in reality, but is articulating itself, resonating with Cusa’s constant stress on self-referentiality and mise-en-abyme.

Moreover Cusanus reacts here against a certain holistic positivizing of the experience of polyphony: the idea that polyphony is the “harmony of the spheres”, or allows at least for a direct access to it, making audible the divine, the impossibly to perceive music of God and the heavens.

Maybe he wanted to shock the aficionados in the same way Sigmund Freud was dismissive of the (pseudo-)mystical idea of music (and of spirituality in general) as the key to the “oceanic” suggested by his friend, writer and musicologist Romain Rolland, “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world.’’ (in Civilization and its Discontents, 1929.

For Cusanus, one could imagine, polyphony makes no sense as mimetic resonance but only as a diagrammatic, structural one.

His point is anti-moralistic and, in this way, opposing the position of Denis the Carthusian.

Polyphony as waste or remainder is not only safeguarded as something outside clear meaning, but the excess also opens the field of desire, like his other outlandish speculative inventions: the bowling game, the interactive painting, the diagrams, the conjectural thinking, his love for fantastic tricks, trompe l’oeil, paradoxes, riddles and mise-en-abyme, traps for the senses, opening to the excess or, what the Certeau called:  Cusa’s madness.

Arousing desire and pleasure in art and music are primordial for Cusanus, tickling the speculative, as Joyce would say (mentioning Cusa, somehow cryptically, more than once in Finnegans Wake), to avoid the fake stance of asceticism, which is just another more perverted way of instrumentalising pleasure.

Diagram – Measuring – conjectura

Let’s return to the initial idea, comparing the painting of De Visione dei with a polyphonic work of art.

An obvious analogy (of difference) seems to be articulated by the famous Cusanean conceptual couple: complicatio – explicatio (enfolding – unfolding). Leonardo da Vinci would use the exact same comparison some half century later, in his famous Paragone: a painting is pure enfolded simultaneity and, in this sense, virtually eternal. The onlooker sees, so to say, all at once. A polyphonic work has only a simultaneous aspect in the sense of several voices (e)merging together, but its main character is the unfolding in time in a successive experience. While painting potentially remains forever, music “dies by birth”, as Leonardo aptly remarked. Music’s unfolding is at the same time also a disappearing or dissolving. Therefore, music is bound or stuck to repetition, it is the only way to get it back. Music has in this sense a strange paradoxical status of being and non-being, it is marked by a weird simultaneity of appearing and vanishing. The Maastricht humanist Matthaeus Herbenus signalled this very aspect in 1496 claiming: “But what would [the ancients] have said about our songs which, before they can be imprinted in the memory, have already flown away? I should more rightly call them the daughters of Mercury! By these, the singers of our time completely deprive us of judgment, exerting themselves only in order to please their own feelings.”

The fragile fleeting character of polyphony not only makes it impossible to get a grip on the art and its content, leaving us with a feeling of lack and dissatisfaction, according to Herbenus, but confront us on top of that with the narcissism of singers in an act of self-pleasuring.

However, before continuing this path, let’s take a step back and have a look how the unfolding of sounding music happens. What kind of enfolded reality is unfolded here?

On this level another striking similarity between polyphony and Cusa’s thinking appears.

The source or starting point for a polyphonic performance is, of course, a written score which is a sort of musical diagram. It is fascinating that the sounding result or unfolding of such a diagram can be experienced as excessive and illusory, but that the score, which is its cause, is in a strict sense totally rational, geometric and fully quantified. One could speculate that the “broken soul” of Denis the Carthusian refers unconsciously to this split in the musical work itself between the written version (often confused with the work itself) and the performed, subjective rendition.

Cusanus would understand this conditional, necessary subjectivity in order for a figure or a diagram to emerge beyond itself.

“Therefore, the mind—which itself is not free of all otherness (not free, at least, of mental otherness)—sees [geometrical] figures as free of all otherness. Therefore, it views them in their truth, but it does not view them beyond itself. For it views them, and this viewing cannot occur beyond itself. For the mind views [them] mentally and not beyond the mind—just as the senses, in attaining [them] perceptibly, do not attain [them] beyond the senses but [only] within the scope of the senses.” (De Theologicis Complementis, 1453)

Since the 14th century, music was called musica mensurata or cantus mensurabilis. Similar to the ideas developed in Cusa’s De Conjecturis, the reading of a score could be imagined as a sort of continuous measuring. Singers had to interpret the quantified musical signs on the levels of height and duration but also had to deal with the complexity of changing proportion signs which could alter the meaning of quantity of certain musical material. Often musical diagrams were accompanied by puzzling canons or rules that would change the way to read a particular part of the music.

Take for example the so-called proportion canon Le ray au soleil by Johannes Ciconia, a piece that Cusanus could have heard in Padua in the early 1420’s. On paper there is just one melody written. However, the canonic rule, accompanying this melody, requests that it would be sung simultaneously with three voices in a proportion of 1:3:4. This means that for every value in the lowest voice, the other voices have to sing respectively 3 or 4 smaller values. The proportion 1:3 or 1:4 doesn’t cause any irrationality, but the total result, including the proportion 4:3 between the two highest voices, causes a dazzling and irrational effect, of course obfuscated on paper. The sounding effect of what seems a simple melody is indeed baffling. One gets the impression to hear one singular melody, spatially unfolded through different acoustical layers, with a delay moving forwards and backwards at the same time, creating a dazzling dizzying sound effect. Who knows if the composer took inspiration from the symbolic evocation of the fraction of a sunbeam, described in the text. The idea could have affected Cusanus as well.

Recently musicologists have been proposing other possible encounters between notated mensural compositions in the 15th century and the concepts of Cusanus. Jason Stoessel hypothesises that a real influence of Cusanus on composers and their works could be traced from the late 1450’s on and shortly after Cusa’s death in 1464, for example in a mass by an anonymous Franco-Flemish master (in the style of Ockeghem), kept in a Sistine Chapel musical manuscript in Rome. Especially in the last part, the Agnus Dei of the Missa L’Ardant Desir (refering to the French song with this title that was used as cantus firmus, sounding surprisingly like a reference to Cusa’s mystical endeavour, “cum ardenti desiderio” as he would write), Stoessel points at the unprecedented canonic rule to swap the note values maxima with minima, commenting: “The equating of maximas with minimas and vice versa in this section of the mass presents itself as an uncanny musical representation of Cusanus’ coincident opposites, the Absolute Maximum and Absolute Minimum, symbolising for feeble human minds the incomprehensible God”.

Of course, we are here on the level of diagrammatic writing. Although it has consequences for the end result in performance, once achieved, it is not as such perceptible in sound, and it shouldn’t be. The character of this inaudible change or manipulation could be compared to absolute, substantial subjectivity, only subsisting in the sounding result, similar to Cusa’s concept of the not-other (li non-aliud), an otherness which is substantial and not accidental.

However, examples could be given, in works of Johannes Ockeghem and others, were resonances of a Cusanean logic are clearly graspable with the ear. In his Missa Caput for example the Caput-melody (in fact the last word on a long melisma of an antiphon featuring Christ washing the apostles’ feet, playing with the symbolic opposition of caput and pedes) is written on a normal tenor height with a canonic rule to sing the “Caput” in the feet (to transpose it an octave in the bass). The result is remarkable: the whimsical caput melisma, including some unusual jumps of a fourth) is now sung by the bass against which three other upper voices move in a different mode, a coincidence of opposites if you like, which even a non-trained ear could perceive.

Another motet by Ockeghem, Alma redemptoris Mater seems to provide us with another paradigm: Cusa’s legendary recuperation of the much older idea of the absence of a centre, or rather that there are only shifting, displaced centres, and hardly any border or circumference. The plainchant melody used by the composer as model, providing structure to the motet, is scattered all over the four voices, sometimes even appearing in the bass voice, performing cadence formulas that are rather for a top voice, interchanging structural roles. Listeners who know the original plainchant and try to follow its melodic shape are continuously displaced and lost.

Even Martin Luther’s praise of polyphony (and his open scorn of people unaffected by it, to whom he advices listening to some “shit-poet” (merdipoeta!) or the music of the pigs) is in the end still pre-Cusanean, if we look closer to his domesticating description of a fixed tenor voice singing a steady cantus firmus with the other voices whirling around. In Ockeghem we discover a complete decentring of this plainchant with all voices participating in it.

We see in Cusanus’ writings this excess or decentring emerge on all the levels of the discourse, from its subject to the narrative form itself and finally to the meta-level, in order to provoke or force thinking, to offer something to the mind that cannot be swallowed completely, like a bone in the throat.

Matthaeus Herbenus and (lack of) experience

Although starting from a graspable, rationally interpretable musical diagram, the image produced by the performers seems to be not without problems for the listener. It is devoid of clear meaning, it is obscure or at least troubled, there is an irreducible excess at work here.

Soon after Cusanus, humanist thinkers, such as the forementioned Mattaeus Herbenus of Maastricht, have tried to engage with this problem. In his De natura cantus ac miraculis vocis of 1496 Herbenus pinpoints very clearly what is at stake in polyphony regarding comprehensibility and image. He claims:

“As a matter of fact, I myself have known certain songs which, proceeding with wondrous simplicity, captured the senses of some men in such a way that they completely shuddered at other, more artful songs, that leapt about like goats. Also, [I have known] men unlearned in music, [but] endowed with a natural gift and a certain grace in singing, who fashioned some vernacular songs with simple counterpoint in such a way that they not only aroused the love of their companions, but brought even experts in this art to particular astonishment, because their notes, being uttered in syllabic fashion, could be easily made out by all. […] The mind is easily carried off to a higher contemplation by those singly understood notes, together with properly placed syllables, the beauty of the song being so aptly maintained. So what are your note divisions to me, when you chatter in such a way that I can recognize neither a word nor even one syllable, nor any virtue in the composition? In composed works I should have thought that this must be avoided at all cost. […] For how will you think your eyes have been gratified if someone who is going to show you some beautiful picture dazzles you all of a sudden, before you can fix your gaze on it, with many paintings that change color? I should think that you’d be annoyed rather than delighted, because you could render no certain judgment about it. Now, what I say here about the sense of vision I could say about all others as well. For the senses need proper space for taking in the meanings: if that [space] is not granted, how can reason judge about those imperfectly formed ideas? In those songs, therefore, which fly past the ears so swiftly that they vanish before there could be a judgment of them, the capacity to judge is overwhelmed.”

Herbenus seems to believe that lack or excess of meaning in polyphony is not structural but can be overcome by reducing the music and making it simpler, taking out all useless ornamental melismas and diminutions, keeping only syllabic phrases: meaning would thus be provided by the text, supported by the sound. That music is, in a way, always the meaningless vehicle, providing subjective engagement of singers, wrapping a common text message with desire, escapes Herbenus. Instead of clear messages, we get a decentred excess of paintings and quickly changing colours to deal with, impossible to swallow. Let’s be clear here: Herbenus is not at all against polyphony (as Denis the Carthusian was not principally against it). He is against the excess it produces, caused by a lack of textual support or better, by the music that gives too much space to meaningless singing as such, instead of being supportive or submitted to the meaning of the sacred text. Polyphony should be text based, syllabic, homophonic and declamatory, safeguarding rationality and understanding. As said, although the music itself is mensural and in this sense completely rational as such, Herbenus only accepts the meaning of the sacred text as meaningful. It is interesting that the debate about mysticism, experience and (loss of) meaning, today as in the 15th century, circles around the same problem.

Is not something similar happening in De Visione Dei? The original moment where I fantasize a sort of symbiotic reciprocity of me looking at the portrait and the portrait looking back wherever I go, is shattered and divided through the voice of the other who proclaims to have the same imaginary experience as me. Cusanus talks about a moment of surprise and disbelief, hardly acceptable. The moment the other appears as a voice, doubling my experience, is the loss of my experience. Or better, it is only through the other who appears as this voice, as an echo of myself, nevertheless breaking for ever the possibility of unity with what I saw, splitting the perceptive field, that I can become a desiring being.

My point would be that in the exploration and development of the mystical experience by Cusanus a similar kind of problem as in polyphony is at stake, namely the problem of desire, absence and loss and fundamentally the crucial experience of the other and its meaning.

If we think of the two statements of Herbenus mentioned above, it seems that what made him anxious is this loss of fixed meaning. Or better, it seemed only meaningful for the singers themselves, or at least pleasurable, excluding Herbenus as a participant of this meaning, who experienced nothing but lack. It is weird, one could even imagine that Herbenus would have known most of the stereotypical liturgical texts of the polyphony he was listening to. Why did he need to hear them so clearly? My claim would be that it is not only the loss of meaning that causes this anxiety, but the fact that one experiences the empty meaninglessness as meaningful, capable of engaging one’s desire. Polyphony is thus the creation of a strange field of desire, a field of the other and of subjectivity, not dissimilar to the mystical experience (of absence) as explored by Cusanus.

Herbenus looks from the outside and from a distance and seems only capable of substantialize the others, apparently enjoying themselves, on behalf of him. This is how the other appears, at least to Herbenus, wholly and fully identifying, depriving him from a meaningful, enjoyable experience.

We need however to switch perspective and move inside the polyphonic practice in full action.

Are we not entering the prototypical scene of the Cusanean game? Above all, polyphony as a practice is nothing else than a thorough experience of measuring. Performing subjects don’t exist before the game. They come into being through measuring and discover each other and themselves through measuring. Singing polyphony is nothing else than embodied measuring in action, in an attempt to unfold all the potentials of the musical diagram. Cusanus offers us a very adequate toolbox to tackle what is happening in polyphonic performance.  At the same time, this seems a wonderful occasion to redeem his thinking for understanding the logic of polyphony.

Most revealing is probably the experience of a rational enfolded complexity that becomes subjectified in its unfolding, how it opens up a field of the other and an experience of some gap or excess, often obfuscated or domesticated in either an oceanic discourse or one of meaningfulness. Both reduce polyphony to a mere field of phenomenological experience depriving it of speculative potential.

The oceanic moment of imaginary identification with the polyphonic work, seems to be similar to the substantializing of the look in the beginning of De visione Dei, at the moment when the onlooker is fascinated by its imaginary reciprocity, when his look is answered by the look of the portrait, a moment of fantasized symbiosis, in itself based on a deceptive, visual trick or trompe l’oeil.

Believing a trompe l’oeil is the equivalent of fetishist disavowal, I know very well it’s just a trick, but nevertheless…The real appearance of the other in the perceptual field breaks my symbiotic moment and opens it to the social as forever lost. What Michel de Certeau in his brilliant essay on De Visione Dei calls “madness” is this crazy acceptance of the excessive voice of the other.

Although the voice of the other breaks my fantasy, it allows me also to hold on to what I lost.

This ambiguity is at play in the dismissal of the 15th century critics of polyphony.

The shared anxiety and impossibility to accept the other in the embodiment of the singers of polyphony by Denis the Carthusian and Herbenus is ventilated through a discourse on excess and the need for moderation and meaningfulness, so called lost in the enjoyment of the other, who corrupts the ecclesiastical space itself (like mystics) with enjoyment and desire, and the promise of a meaningful polyphonic practice. What is obfuscated is that these performers are themselves divided though their own singing practice of measuring and othering, as we will explore soon.

The structuralism of Cusanus understands and acknowledges the primordiality of desire and enjoyment, mediated through the other. It is fascinating how Cusanus deprives the other of any phantasmatic or substantial otherness, being a sort of empty subject, having the same experience as oneself. Or should we understand this as the return (or repetition) in the discourse of the other of what had been given up in the first symbiotic moment?

The other is structurally the one who decentres us, who shifts our position through this moment of loss of meaning.

How is the other appearing in the experience of polyphony? The other can be disavowed through the oceanic fantasy (fetishist disavowal) or through fetishization of beauty. For Herbenus and Denis the Carthusian polyphony itself appears as excessive other, embodied by lascivious, enjoying singers.

Wall – Clock – Imago - Aenigma

After the emergence of the other, Cusanus seems to shift from the portrait to the “wall of paradise”, an image that reminds us structurally of the (trompe l’oeil) curtain painted by Parrhasius to deceive his rival Zeuxis, a story from antiquity, accounted by Pliny in his famous Natural History, evoking how painting stimulates the viewer’s desire, not just through the realist trompe l’oeil painting itself, but by simulating that something is hidden or absent through an obstacle. The experience of this wall of contradiction, the limit of the coincidence of opposites, is the core of mystic experience, if there is any. The wall is the creation of desire for desire itself, so to speak. What the wall enfolds is explained by Cusanus in a comparison to a mechanical clock. Is this clock not functioning exactly as a musical score, enfolding already in itself everything that will be unfolded in concrete duration in performance? The clock is the musical work itself, as it emerges somehow obscurely and somehow after the job is done with the unfolding of the score. It seems to provide a perfect paradigm explaining how singers as desiring subjects come into being.

A musical work unfolds in time, but it is the unfolding of an enfolded diagram or clock, producing retroactively a picture or image of this work, the clock in itself, so to speak. This image can only emerge after the fact because it is the result of what we are getting to hear, stitching together a sort of totality after the fact with all what we just heard before. When the moment occurs to remember or to re-imagine the work, it has already been unfolded completely and nothing is left of it. It seems to have withdrawn itself once again in its enfolded, unimaginable existence. Herbenus emphasized this: the vanishing or disappearing (through its very emergence) is so profound, that it is utterly impossible to remember anything, inducing a feeling of lack for which the self-enjoyment of the singers is responsible according to Herbenus.

Repeating the work and listening once more, could be helpful, if we weren’t confronted with our permanent change of listening perspective, hearing now things we didn’t hear before, not only material acoustical things, but also the changing relations between the different sonorous elements in simultaneity and in retention, contaminated by our imagination that constantly differs and displaces the focus, grabbing on to new centres, changing and moving infinitely.

Cusanus seems to favour a sort of repetition drive in the successful failure he propagates through all his endeavours, a never ending “going on” of human beings, even when it seems absurd to effectively go on, transforming this repetition drive, that never stops doing or trying, in a meaningful act in itself, becoming its proper aim. Maybe it could be connected to a sort of kenotic drive, a structural emptying out as the essence of music itself, suddenly graspable for a listener while hearing a singer engaged in his part. One would need to further explore and ruminate how the idea of a clock could be connected to the transformation of the painting in the wall of contradiction (a vanishing of the symbiotic image, the unfolding in time or kenosis, and finally, Christ as an ultimate image, or better a strange surplus of loss.)

The unfolding of the musical work is experienced as a continuous loss. The loss or split is double, happening in succession and in simultaneity as well.

Every note performed is potentially the last. Herbenus cannot find any reconciliation here, no image could be fixed, and nothing could be remembered, the only thing one is left with, is the unacceptable enjoyment of the other (Herbenus does not see that the other’s enjoyment also exists for the singers among themselves.)

Then there is loss experienced in simultaneity: the musical work is split between a score, retroactively imagined as the work in its ideal form, and its subjective realisation, which is structurally a failure, or better, an excremental process, producing nothing than waste.

In this sense the experience of a seemingly “successful” performance is always in the grip of fetishist disavowal, as if there is something achieved or gained to which the audience could get direct access. The Cusanean way of looking at this would be to accept the structural failure and work through this insight, the artist being an essential part of, and expressed through, the unfolding experience of the work.In his Idiota de Mente Cusanus makes the crucial distinction between imago mortua and imago viva. Only the last one can express the structural, subjective failure as the proper condition of the successful realisation of an artwork, to paraphrase Inigo Bocken. A perfect simulation or trompe l’oeil, like the portrait of De visione Dei is in the end rather an imago mortua, as it doesn’t seem to transcend imaginary identification. The works of Van Eyck are in this sense only imagines vivae in so far as they succeed in curving the reality they seem to reproduce.

The embodiment of the score is of course not just failure: it is the condition to get access to the music itself. Voices and instruments embody through the measures and proportions written in the score. The procedure is in principle strictly mimetic. Singers mimic or reproduce the quantified notation (let’s not forget that polyphony is like a train one jumps on, without stopping or going back, or a machine that doesn’t allow for any subjective decision or choice that is not somehow limited by what is written; performative freedom is bound by the material and by the other performers, potentially negated from within, through operations of plasticity) but in this process of transposition or transference, from diagram to image in performance, radical difference happens, from being abstract and absolute in itself, to being externalized, contracted, through failures, disproportions, failed attempts etc. While performers perform the work, at the same time they also perform themselves: the incarnated image is as much an externalized image of the work in the score, as it is of the artists themselves, being a sort of vanishing mediators of an ideal work that always withdraws.

Yet, measuring or proportioning is not just execution, as it is accompanied with one’s proper blind spot in the field of the other’s simultaneous initiatives. Every initiative is conjectural, there is no correction possible, and no overview gained. This weird measuring seems to be completely pragmatic, potentials put into action on the spot without any predication or knowledge. This actual non-relation with each other is what drives the performers.

Performers or singers are inside the work, being an indispensable, living part of the realisation itself (which looks like a self-realization of the work, as no part can decide or do anything on its own), yet, they are at the same time completely detached from the work in its sounding result and lack any overview or distance of the work, that would give them the opportunity to hear it. Totally inside and part of it, yet, blind of any result.

The only way to get an overview is to step out, which would mean: losing the intrinsic part. Staying inside however, one hears only oneself (even this only partially) and the others (more or less). Through listening and hearing the others (more or less, or hardly), decisions are automatized and help the singers to move inside and even vanish in the work, leaving space to the other.

What caused Herbenus’ and Leonardo da Vinci’s anxiety, the incessant vanishing of the music in the moment it is emerging, is the very principle and condition of the plasticity of the musical work itself (all musical dynamics are a play with modulating presence-absence), and the failure to remember, only in aenigmate so to speak, its very proof of success.

To whom is this enigmatic image, a paradoxical kind of image, hardly graspable and for that reason in demand of repetition, addressed in the end? There seems to be nobody who can get an idea of it and all perspectives are only partial experiences. Being outside, one is not inside; being inside, one cannot hear the result from outside. Singers seem to be like monads grasping some virtual idea of the outside, of an absolute, unknown otherness, having an inner notion of the outside, without having a window towards the outside or being connected to it in any way. There seems to be this mysterious resonance, reflected in experience of an outside as the most profound inside of oneself. How could singing be possible otherwise?

Musical plasticity not only thrives on this constant dying, distinguishing it from the so-called enduring simultaneity in painting, it also creates a different inside and outside, both mutually excluding each other, nevertheless being produced at the same time. Cusanus would probably say that only God can hear the inside and outside at the same time, being the inside and outside in an absolute way.

The figure or persona of the conductor (not in a historical but in a structural sense) has a liminal position between inside and outside for the performers, almost like a prosthesis that reaches out to an otherwise unreachable outside. However, the conductor is somehow also inside, following and accompanying the inner pulse, the individual initiatives and the total sound, without really adding to the material itself. Therefore, he is not fully inside, which exactly allows for being also somehow outside. But being still very much inside, one is only partially outside, still not enough detached to have a panoramic overview, a position that would rule out the necessary shaping interventions and punctuations. The mediating role of the conductor is that of an idiot or a clown, a pure antenna that knows nothing, only transmitting signals and impulses, functioning as a minimal physical point of reference without any insight or knowledge.

Although Cusanus never conceptualized such thoughts, they nevertheless seem to be provoked by his way of thinking.

An interesting paradox is that the musical work in its totality, through this structural, conditional blindness of the performers, making them act and perform, nevertheless completely escapes them, maybe even more than the listeners, who are often not aware of this impotence on the side of the performers.

The “divided soul” of Denis the Carthusian could in this sense also unconsciously refer to the split that is conditional for the emerging of musical work. Performers whose actions and perceptions are separated from its totality, articulate a strange separation or division inside the work, mostly obfuscated in performance. Being aware of this division excludes any oceanic experience because it is cut by the appearance of the other. What produces the artistic experience is at the same time what it blurs. Would this not fit with the position of Cusanus concerning the mystical experience, not as symbiosis, bus as the appearance of the other in the field of experience? The other is not the one that I could identify with, looking back at me in unity and with whom I can speak in mutual recognition. The other is the one who makes such a position impossible.

Unfolding a score (in essence an act of doubling, of mimesis and repetition) is an act of externalizing it, emptying it out. In this way it is also an endorsing and engaging with the fundamental non-relation to the score, creating an image in dissemblance or in aenigmate. Is a performance of polyphonic works of Ockeghem & co not the most convincing simulation of the unexpected lines of curvature traced by the hollowed-out ball thrown in Cusa’s bowling game (as explored in his De ludo globi, 1463)? The beauty experienced here, is in the deviations from the ideal straight line, caused by the hole in the ball, which is nothing else than the structural, ontological blind spot in the subject.

For Cusanus there is no mystical experience as empirically understood by William James. Mystical experience is rather the experience of a non-experience, mediated through the other.

What Michel de Certeau called the “madness” of the mystical experience, is the acceptance of others’ enjoyment, to once more refer to the 15th century critics of polyphony, traumatized by the experience of the singers’ appearing and vanishing, splitting the work from within.

As Inigo Bocken has shown, in his latest writings Cusanus seems to make an interesting, crucial shift from beings as living image to beings as living harp or hymn. Is there a way to relate this late concept to what I have tried to explore here?

References to the most important works used for this essay:

Nicholas of Cusa:

English translations are slighty modified versions of original English translations by Jasper Hopkins

All to be consulted here:

Inigo Bocken:

On De Conjecturis:
De kunst van het verzamelen. Historisch-ethische inleiding in de conjecturele hermeneutiek van Nicolaus Cusanus, Damon, Eindhoven, 2004

On Idiota de Mente and the Cusa’s thinking on art and image:

De leek over de geest, Damon, Eindhoven, 2001

On De Visione Dei:

Het zien van God, Kapellen, 1993

On Cusa and praise:

Doxological (Im)Purity? Nicholas of Cusa's 'Art of Praising' and Liturgical Thinking in 21st Century. Religions; 2022; Vol. 13; iss. 8

Michel de Certeau:

The Mystic Fable, volume 2, University of Chicago press, 2015.

Mysticism, in, Diacritics, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 11-25

Rob Wegman

Passages from Denis the Carthusian and Matthaeus Herbenus to be found in his indispensable book and article:

The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 1470-1530, Routledge, 2005

"Musical understanding" in the 15th century, in, Early music vol. 30 (2002) pp. 46-66

Works focusing on Cusanus and music:


Kathi Meyer-Baer, Nicholas of Cusa on the Meaning of Music, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 5, No. 4, June, 1947, pp. 301-308

Heinrich Hüschen , Nikolaus von Kues und sein Musikdenken (1971), in Symbolae Historiae Musicae - Hellmut Federhofer zum 60. Geburtstag, Mainz, 1971, pp. 47-67

Franz-Bernhard Stammkötter, Nikolaus von Kues über Musi, in Intellectus und Imaginatio. Aspekte geistiger und sinnlicher Erkenntnis bei Nicolaus Cusanus, ed. By João Maria André, Gerhard  Krieger and Harald Schwaetzer, Amsterdam 2006, pp. 143-149

Werner Schulze Werner, Zahl, Proportion, Analogie: eine Untersuchung zur Metaphysik und Wissenschaftshaltung des Nikolaus von Kues, Münster 1978

Werner Schulze, Harmonik und Theologie bei Nikolaus Cusanus, Wien 1983

Werner Schulze, Musik und Harmonik bei Nikolaus von Kues. Zur Theorie der Musik zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, in Harmonik & Glasperlenspiel. Beiträge `93. München 1994

Predrag Bukovec, Musik bei Nicolaus Cusanus. In Cusanus. Ästhetik und Theologie, ed. by Michael Eckert and Harald Schwaetzer, Münster 2013, pp. 83–101 (Texte und Studien zur europäischen Geistesgeschichte; B,5)

Johannes Leopold Mayer, Die Musik als „ancilla philosophiae“ – Überlegungen zu Ludwig Wittgenstein und Nikolaus Cusanus, 2008

Cusanus and irrational number and the half-tone

Peter Pesic, Hearing the Irrational: Music and the Development of the Modern Concept of Number

In, Isis, Vol. 101, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 501-530

Oscar João Abdounur,  Ratios and music in the late Middle Ages: a preliminary survey, 2001

Oscar João Abdounur, The Emergence of the Idea of Irrationality In Renaissance Theoretical Music Contexts, in Mathematical Journal of Interdisciplinary Sciences Vol. 3, No. 2, March 2015 pp. 155–17

quote from Abdounur (2001)

(…) it seems that (…) irrational numbers and/or incommensurable magnitudes were arising in musical contexts, where previously the sound produced by such ratios had not considered music. The evidence suggests that it occurred for the first time with Nicholas of Cusa, who as- serts in his Idiota de Mente of 1450 that the musical half-tone is derived by geometric division of the whole-tone, and hence is defined as an irrational number. Nicholas was the first to formulate mathematically a concept that is the cornerstone to the comprehension for the equal tem- perament proposed in the work of the high Renaissance music theorists Faber Stapulensis and Franchino Gafurius published half a century later (Goldman, 1989, p. 308). Cusa’s work also influenced the German theorist and cossist Henricus Grammateus (Heinrich Schreyber) in his Ayn new kunstlich Buech, which is a tuning handbook considered essential in the development of equal temperament. Cusa was at the University of Padua between 1417 and 1423, where he studied with the mathematician and music theorist Prosdocimus de Beldemandis, who attacked Marchetto’s division of the whole tone into 5 equal parts in his Tractatus musicae speculative published in 1425.“

David P. Goldman, The Divine Music of Mathematics. How music theory proves what ancient mathematics thought impossible, in :

Musicologists on Cusanus

Manfred Bukofzer, Caput: A Liturgico-Musical Study, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, New York, 1950.

Cusanus (and devotion moderna) as possible influence mentioned on pp. 291-292

Jason Stoessel, Redemption and the Missa L’ardant desir, in:

Therese Bruggisser-Lanker, Dulcis harmonica concordantia – Nicolaus Cusanus' Konkordanzbegriff und die Emanzipation der europäischen Kunstmusik. In Music and Culture in the Age oft he Council of Basel ed. by Matteo Nanni, Turnhout 2014, pp. 31-49.

Peter Gülke, Guillaume Du Fay. Die Musik des 15. Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart 2003 (Cusa features frequently and almost as Du Fay’s philosophical shadow)

Adam Knight Gilbert, Concealment Revealed Sound and Symbol in Ockeghem's Missi Quinti toni and Missa Prolationum, in Explorations in Music and Esotericism, ed. by Marjorie Roth and Leonard George, 2023, pp 101-124

Cusa mentioned in articles discussing of polyphony and mysticism in the 15th century make sense or not:

Lawrence F. Bernstein, Ockeghem the mystic: a German interpretation of the 1920s, in Johannes Ockeghem: actes du XLe colloque international d'études humanistes, Tours, 3-8 février 1997 ed. By Philippe Vendrix, Paris, 1998

Lawrence F. Bernstein “Singende Seele” or “unsingbar”? Forkel, Ambros, and the Forces behind the Ockeghem Reception during the Late 18th and 19th Centuries, in The Journal of Musicology
Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 3-61

Lawrence F. Bernstein, Jean d’Ockeghem, in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth Century Music, ed. by Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin, Cambridge (2015) , pp. 105-118

Lawrence F. Bernstein The modern reception of the music of Jean d’Ockeghem in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth Century Music, ed. by Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin, Cambridge (2015) ,pp. 811-822

quote from Bernstein (1998):

“One of the most puzzling characterizations of Ockeghem's music is its portrayal as a mystical expression on pietism. Held to be irrational, the music is likened to the docta ignorantia of Nicholas of Cusa. Just as God can only be defined as what he is not, Ockeghem's polyphony is described in terms of the absence within it of the standard accoutrements of rational organization in music - cadences, imitation, profiled motives, and other sources of regularity. Two aspects of this argument are troublesome: there is no evidence linking Ockeghem to pietistic devotion, and his music conveys a sense of coherence that is suggestive of anything but irrationality.”

Adam Knight Gilbert, Concealment Revealed Sound and Symbol in Ockeghem's Missi Quinti toni and Missa Prolationum, in Explorations in Music and Esotericism, ed. by Marjorie Roth and Leonard George, 2023, pp 101-124

quote from Gilbert (answering to Bernstein) (2023) :

“I absolutely concur with Bernstein that linking Ockeghem to Cusa by dint of shared irrationality is inappropriate. The assessment of Cusa as being irrational is itself considered outdated. Cusa's theology is replete with imagery related to the paradoxical coincidentia oppositorum ("coincidence of opposites"). This ranges from paradoxes at the heart of De docta ignorantia and its mathematical contemplation of the irreconcilable squaring of the circle, including descriptions of the maximum-minimum and minimum-maximum angles, to a paradox inherent to his Idiota de mente, in which the uneducated layman teaches the philosopher. Although these paradoxes reflect the impossibility of a rational understanding of the divine, they are themselves presented in extremely rational and logical ways. There are other reasons, however, for linking Ockeghem to Cusa that have less to do with irrational mysticism than with how Ockeghem employs compositional craft to create examples of musical symbolism with uncanny correspondence to specific and rational elements of contemporary symbolic theology, particularly to passages in treatises by Cusa.”

Gayle Kirkwood, Kings, confessors, cantors and archipellano, Ockeghem and the Gerson circle at St-Martin of Tours, in Johannes Ockeghem: actes du XLe colloque international d'études humanistes, Tours, 3-8 février 1997 ed. By Philippe Vendrix, Paris, 1998

Vincenzo Borghetti, Johannes Ockeghem, figure mystique?, in Musique, théologie et sacré, d'Oresme à Érasme, ed. by Annie Cœrdevey and Philippe Vendrix, Ambronay, Center Culturel de Rencontres 2008, pp. 149-184

Wojciech Odoj, Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420–1497) – a Mystic?, in Studia z Dziejów Średniowiecza, t. 24, 2020

New Brumel CD spectacular and disturbing!

Our new Brumel recording is barely available, yet first reviews are already there, predicating it (comme d'habitude) with the classical (read: predictable) contradictions: "interesting", "spectacular", "new-contextualising", "extravagant" as well as "disturbing", "irritating" and "anachronistic"…

Whatever this means, at least it suggests you should check out the album as soon as possible!

read online in Rondo Magazin

„Und siehe, es geschah ein großes Erdbeben. Denn ein Engel des Herrn kam vom Himmel herab, trat hinzu und wälzte den Stein weg und setzte sich darauf“. So beginnt bei Matthäus im 28. Kapitel seines Evangeliums die Erzählung von der Auferstehung Christi. Das Erdbeben, das durch das Wegwälzen des Steins von Christi Grab zustande kommt, hat gelegentlich Komponisten von Messen zu entsprechender musikalischer Gestaltung der fraglichen Stelle im „Credo“ veranlasst – so etwa Anton Bruckner in seiner Messe d-Moll. Nur ein einziger Komponist der Musikgeschichte jedoch hat eine komplette Messvertonung strukturell ganz und gar dem Erdbeben gewidmet und dieses dadurch auf eindrucksvolle Weise zum sinnlichen Erlebnis gemacht: Antoine Brumel (ca. 1460-1512/13), der seine zwölfstimmige Partitur so gekonnt „minimalistisch“ hinsichtlich ihrer motivischen Faktur anlegte, dass das wogende Schwanken der Musik förmlich Schwindel erregt. Und die Deutung dieses Phänomens als auf das biblische Erdbeben bezogen ist keine Spekulation, denn Brumel verwendet die ersten sieben Töne der Oster-Antiphon „Et ecce terrae motus“ als motivisches Material für seine Komposition. Von Brumels Messe existieren seit längerer Zeit einige repräsentative Aufnahmen. Zu nennen ist besonders die mit zwölf Sängerinnen und Sängern solistisch besetzte Version des Huelgas Ensembles von 1990. Paul Van Nevel setzt, wie in der historisierenden Wiedergabe von Vokalmusik der Renaissance üblich, auf makellose Reinheit des Ensembleklangs – mit bis heute faszinierendem Ergebnis.
Das ist nicht der Ansatz von Björn Schmelzer, der nun mit Graindelavoix eine Neueinspielung vorlegt. Schmelzer besetzt acht Stimmen vokal und vier instrumental, was nicht unüblich ist. Allein im Vokalsatz (innerhalb dessen er die Stimmen gelegentlich von einem Part in den anderen springen lässt) ist aber nicht die Verschmelzung der Stimmen sein Ziel, sondern er lässt den Gesamtklang immer wieder durch bewusst gesetzte „Extravaganzen“ (Ornamente, spezielle Effekte der Stimmgebung etc.) stören. Des Weiteren besetzt Schmelzer die übrigen vier Partien bewusst nicht „historisierend“, indem er neben einem Zink zwei Naturhörner und einen Serpent zum Einsatz bringt. Außerdem „stören“ irritierende E-Gitarren-Klänge von Manuel Mota einleitend wie auch simultan immer wieder die eigentliche Darbietung der Musik Brumels. Erklärungen zu diesem speziellen Konzept bietet das Beiheft in Gestalt eines ausführlichen Interviews mit Björn Schmelzer. Die spektakuläre Neu-Kontextualisierung der alten Musik lässt sich freilich damit begründen, dass das Werk schon bei seiner Entstehung selbst anachronistisch war. Ein interessantes Experiment – aber im Falle einer Erstbegegnung mit der Musik würde der Autor persönlich doch zumindest eine parallele Beschäftigung mit der genannten Aufnahme Paul Van Nevels empfehlen.

Michael Wersin, 10.02.2024

Cusanus event in NRC-Handelsblad

Nice article by Joost Galema in NRC-Handelsblad on the Cusanus event in Deventer and the concert of graindelavoix

Previously unreleased: Graindelavoix performs Douleur me bat by Josquin Desprez

On the eve of the release of the new Brumel CD, we love to share with you a previously unreleased video clip from our Josquin The Undead Album.

The video features Josquin Desprez's 5 voice chanson, performed here by Andrew Hallock, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, Adrian Sîrbu, Arnout Malfliet, Philippe Malfeyt (cittern) and Lukas Henning (lute).

The recording was made at the Fondazione per l'arte Spinola Banna, Poirino.

Unboxing Brumel's Earthquake Mass

We received Brumel in the office!!!

Soon everywhere...

Upcoming new release Brumel Earthquake Mass

Excited to announce our upcoming new CD release (with Glossa again)…
Physical and digital versions will be available from 15 February 2024 on…

Check it out…we will post some more about it…!

What about spending a winter weekend in Deventer with Graindelavoix and Nicholas of Cusa?

Come to listen to Dufay, Ockeghem & co in the fabulous Bergkerk on 9 February and get to know more about Cusanus and polyphony the morning after!

Was Ockeghem a mystic?

Was Ockeghem a mystic? Get the answer in Deventer on 9 & 10 February 2024!

Join us for the Cusanus concert, aftertalk and Conference/Workshop!

It promises to be mind-blowing!

Newsletter January - March 2024

Wednesday 10.01.2024
Helsinki (FI)- Temppeliaukio Church / Belgian Embassy

Friday 12.01.2024
Tallinn (EE)- Niguliste Museum / Belgian Embassy

Friday 09.02.2024
Deventer (NL) - Bergkerk - Titus Brandsma Instituut

Saturday 10.02.2024
Deventer (NL) - Titus Brandsma Instituut

Thursday 15.02.2024
Out soon!

Wednesday 27.03.2024
Eisden-Tuinwijk (BE) Sint-Barbarakerk - C.C.Maasmechelen

Thursday 28.03.2024
Arnhem (NL)- Musis & Stadstheater Arnhem

Friday 29.03.2024
Den Haag (NL) - Amare

Polyphony by Machaut, Perugia, Binchois, Dufay, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Compère & Desprez

Graindelavoix will perform its debut in Helsinki, Finland, on invitation by the Belgian Embassy for the occasion of the Belgian chairmanship of the European Union, followed by a concert in Tallinn, Estonia. 'European Songlines’ offers an invisible but all the more audible landscape of polyphonic music in diverse styles.The composers were Europeans in the true sense, not stuck to one place, but driven to travel incessantly along the lines of their polyphonic practice. Their music was copied and performed everywhere in Europe, influencing local styles, creating an artistic network comparable to international Gothic architecture. These repertoires are characterised by a diagrammatic written form that needs completion and embodiment through performance. Fragility of existence, only guaranteed through modern performance, is the condition of their beauty.Graindelavoix gives voice to a polyphonic repertoire that is hibernating in libraries for some 500 years, waiting for a public to come. It nevertheless surprises time and again that these repertoires have lost nothing of their freshness and artistic acuteness and that they move us more than ever before.

With Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Marius Peterson, Arnout Malfliet & Björn Schmelzer

Graindelavoix maakt zijn debuut in Helsinki, Finland, op uitnodiging van de Belgische Ambassade ter gelegenheid van het Belgische voorzitterschap van de Europese Unie, gevolgd door een concert in Tallinn, Estland.‘European Songlines’ biedt een onzichtbaar, maar des te meer hoorbaar landschap van polyfone muziek in uiteenlopende stijlen.De componisten waren Europeanen in de ware zin van het woord, niet gebonden aan één plek, maar gedreven om onophoudelijk te reizen langs de lijnen van hun polyfone praktijk. Hun muziek werd overal in Europa gekopieerd en uitgevoerd. Ze beïnvloedde lokale stijlen en creëerde een artistiek netwerk vergelijkbaar met de internationale gotische architectuur. Deze repertoires worden gekenmerkt door een diagrammatische notatie die in de uitvoeringspraktijk wordt vervolledigd en belichaamd. De kwetsbaarheid van hun bestaan, alleen gegarandeerd door actuele performance, is de voorwaarde voor hun schoonheid.Graindelavoix geeft stem aan een polyfonisch repertoire dat al zo'n 500 jaar in bibliotheken overwintert, wachtend op een toekomstig publiek. Toch verbaast het keer op keer dat deze repertoires niets van hun frisheid en artistieke scherpte hebben verloren en dat ze ons meer dan ooit tevoren ontroeren.

Met Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Marius Peterson, Arnout Malfliet & Björn Schmelzer


Nicholas of Cusa was one of the most radical thinkers of the late Middle Ages. His works are remarkably modern and relevant, still inspiring contemporary philosophy, science and aesthetics. His life and thinking is in resonance with polyphony from composers he might have met, heard, or have been influenced by his works, such as Johannes Ciconia, Johannes Brassart, Arnold de Lantins, Johannes de Lymburgia, Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Johannes Tourout and several anonymous masters. Invited by Cusanus-scholar Inigo Bocken, Graindelavoix will embark, together with the public, on a nightly journey revealing Cusanus's operative thinking through the practice of singing polyphony, inspired by an ambulant dramaturgy in the fabulous gothic space of the Bergkerk in Deventer.The concert is followed by an after-talk, and a more intensive conference/workshop on the next morning.
A nice reason to spend a winterly weekend in Deventer.

With Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Marius Peterson, Arnout Malfliet & Björn Schmelzer

Nicolaas van Cusa is een van de radicaalste denkers uit de late middeleeuwen. Zijn werk is verrassend modern en relevant voor vandaag en inspireert hedendaags denken, wetenschap en kunst. Zijn leven en filosofie zijn in resonantie met polyfonie van componisten die hij ontmoette, van wie hij muziek hoorde, of die zelf door zijn werk zijn beïnvloed, zoals Johannes Ciconia, Johannes Brassart, Arnold de Lantins, Johannes de Lymburgia, Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Johannes Tourout en verschillende anonieme meesters. Op uitnodiging van Cusanus-specialist Inigo Bocken creëerde Graindelavoix een ambulante dramaturgie in de fabuleuze gothische ruimte van de Bergkerk in Deventer waarbij de zangers het publiek op sleeptouw nemen en aan de hand van polyfonie het operatieve denken van Cusanus oplichten.Het concert wordt gevolgd door een nagesprek en een intensievere conferentie/workshop de volgende ochtend.
Een goede reden om een winters weekend in Deventer door te brengen.

Met Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Marius Peterson, Arnout Malfliet & Björn Schmelzer


Nicholas Cusanus wrote quite extensively about visual experience in artistic and mystical contexts, but did he have something to say about music in general and the spectacular polyphony of his own time in particular? Until recently the resonances between his thinking and the practice of polyphony have been researched only sporadically, often not transcending common sense or blunt dismissal. This small conference/workshop is not only a mapping of the existing investigations. It also attempts to widen the field of research not only to musical composition but even more to its performance, listening practice and participatory experience in the perspective of the dynamical concepts and conjectural ideas of Cusanus, offering a surprisingly appropriate toolbox for new insights in the meaning and awareness of polyphonic music.

With Björn Schmelzer, Inigo Bocken, a.o.Location: Etty Hillesum Centrum, Roggestraat 3, Deventer

Free entrance with registration

Nicolaas Cusanus schreef vrij uitgebreid over visuele ervaring in artistieke en mystieke context, maar had hij ook iets te zeggen over muziek in het algemeen en het spectaculaire meerstemmige repertoire van zijn tijd in het bijzonder? Tot voor kort zijn de resonanties tussen zijn denken en de polyfone praktijk slechts sporadisch onderzocht wat niet veel meer dan clichés of boude afwijzing opleverde. Deze kleine conferentie/workshop wil niet enkel bestaande onderzoekspistes in kaart brengen, maar ook het veld openen. Niet zozeer de composities en hun notatie, maar vooral de uitvoering ervan, de luisterpraktijk en de participatieve ervaring komen uitgebreid aan bod in het perspectief van de dynamische, conjecturele concepten van Cusanus. Die blijken een verrassend adequate toolbox voor nieuwe inzichten in de betekenis en ervaring van polyfone muziek.

Met Björn Schmelzer, Inigo Bocken, e.a.Locatie: Etty Hillesum Centrum, Roggestraat 3, Deventer
Vrije ingang met inschrijving


Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsoria appeared on the Inquisition's Index almost immediately upon publication, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the masterful swan song of the monstre sacré of Western classical music was ever performed earlier than the 20th century. So literally unheard of. However, that his music would not have been known in the past is one of the many persistent myths surrounding Gesualdo's life and work. Gesualdo has always been the undead composer, haunting classical music since the early 17th century. Using the format of historical science fiction, Schmelzer and Graindelavoix wonder what Gesualdo would have sounded like in the 17th century in the Low Countries and in Germany if it had been performed there: a kind of virtual missing link between Renaissance prima prattica and the chromaticism of Bach. Illustrious figures such as Constantijn Huygens in the Netherlands and Heinrich Schütz in Germany had knowledge of Gesualdo's eccentric work.Tenebrae Responsoria by Gesualdo, Agazzari, Molinaro, Scheidt, Praetorius, Baroti, De Rore, Gallus a.o.

With Teodora Tommasi, Florencia Menconi, Albert Riera, Razek-François Bitar, Andrés Miravete, Adrian Sîrbu, Marius Peterson, Tomàs Maxé en Arnout Malfliet, Philippe Malfeyt (ceterone), Floris De Rycker (teorbo), Leon Berben (organ) & Björn Schmelzer (artistic direction)

Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria verschenen bij publicatie zowat onmiddellijk op de Index van de Inquisitie, en er is geen enkel bewijs dat de magistrale zwanenzang van het monstre sacré van de westerse klassieke muziek ooit vroeger dan in de 20ste eeuw werd uitgevoerd. Letterlijk ongehoord dus. Dat zijn muziek echter niet bekend zou zijn geweest, is een van de vele hardnekkige mythes die het leven en werk van Gesualdo omringen.Gesualdo is altijd een undead composer geweest, wiens werk de klassieke muziek sinds het begin van de 17de eeuw bespookt. Opgevat als historische science fiction vragen Schmelzer en graindelavoix zich af hoe Gesualdo zou geklonken hebben in de 17de eeuw in de Lage Landen en in Duitsland als hij er zou zijn uitgevoerd: een soort virtuele missing link tussen de renaissance prima prattica en de chromatiek van Bach. Illustere figuren zoals Constantijn Huygens in Nederland en Heinrich Schütz in Duitsland kenden Gesualdo’s excentrieke werk. Tenebrae Responsoria van Gesualdo en Agazzari, Molinaro, Scheidt, Praetorius, Baroti, De Rore, Gallus a.o.

Met Teodora Tommasi, Florencia Menconi, Albert Riera, Razek-François Bitar, Andrés Miravete, Adrian Sîrbu, Marius Peterson, Tomàs Maxé en Arnout Malfliet, Philippe Malfeyt (ceterone), Floris De Rycker (theorbe), Leon Berben (orgel) & Björn Schmelzer (artistieke leiding)


Happy to announce our upcoming CD-Release!
Available now for pre-order here
In the shops and online from February on...

Nieuwe CD-release binnenkort in de winkel en online…!

Beschikbaar voor pre-order hier

Cusanus & polyphony

We are engaged in a new project focusing on the renaissance philosopher Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus) and the resonances of his thinking with polyphony!

Join Graindelavoix’s special concert (Ockeghem, Du Fay, Tourout, Binchois a.o.) in the fabulous gothic Bergkerk of Deventer on 9 February 2024.

The day after on 10 February there will be a conference/workshop specially dedicated to Cusanus and polyphony.

A good reason to spend an inspiring winter weekend in Deventer!


Conference/ Workshop:

The Monstrosity of Early Music

Björn Schmelzer’s long awaited article on the Monstrosity of Early Music (almost 40 monstrous pages long!) has been published in a book series in Basel called: Beiträge zur historischen Musikpraxis…

A must for all who like to get some more background on Schmelzer’s and Graindelavoix’s work!

You can read a part for free here on page 367 (and buy the rest, or you wait till next year when it will be freely available online...)

Isocèle by Manuel Mota out now!

Our collaborator and brother-in-arms Manuel Mota has released a new splendid recording!

Check it out here!

Our Brumel/Earthquake Mass - collaboration will come out on CD (Glossa) next February! Excited!

Wonderful review of our Hamburg Elbphilarmonie première for Kampnagel Festival

Hamburger Abendblatt on 28.08.2023

Marcus Stäbler

(English translation below)

Ein Konzert, aus dem man wie aus einer Trance erwacht

Die multimediale Performance „Rolling Stone“ des Ensembles Graindelavoix entfaltete in der Elbphilharmonie eine ungeheure Klangwucht.

Hamburg. Menschen, die in eine Höhle hinabsteigen. Ernste Blicke in die Kamera. Stumme Gebete auf den Lippen. Gesten der Bekreuzigung. Und immer wieder eine ältere Frau, die andächtig ihre Hände ans Gestein legt, einzelne Felsbröckchen vom Boden aufklaubt, mit geschlossenen Augen auf ihrer Kleidung verreibt.
Mit diesen bewegten Bildern, projiziert auf einen durchscheinenden Vorhang, beginnt der Abend im Großen Saal der Elbphilharmonie, in schummriges Licht getaucht. Ein Dokumentarfilm, in Schwarz-Weiß, begleitet Gläubige beim Besuch ihrer Pilgerstätte; sie hoffen auf die heilende Kraft der heiligen Felsen.
Schwebende Sounds rahmen den Film. Erst ein einzelnes Horn. Danach ein Zink. Und die E-Gitarre, mit lang gezogenen, sphärischen Glissandi.
Dann, endlich: menschliche Stimmen, Gesang. Eine Art Kammerchor. Das Wort „Kyrie“, strömt in den Raum. Am Beginn der Missa „Et ecce terrae motus“ von Antoine Brumel, eine Messe von dunkler Klangwucht, entstanden um 1500. Sie steht im Zentrum des Programms. In ihr hallt das biblische Erdbeben des Ostermorgens nach, das ausbricht, als ein Engel erscheint und den Fels vom Grab Jesu wegrollt.
„Rolling Stone“ heißt die multimediale Performance dann auch, die die Elbphilharmonie gemeinsam mit Kampnagel nach Hamburg geholt hat. Eine Produktion des belgischen Dirigenten und Musikforschers Björn Schmelzer. Mit seinem Ensemble Graindelavoix interpretiert er Vokalwerke der Renaissance – und nutzt dabei auch antihistorische Stilmittel, um die Menschen von heute zu erreichen. Der Gitarrist und Komponist Manuel Mota hat die Messe dafür mit zeitgenössischen Ideen und Techniken angereichert.
Die Vokalstimmen sind elektronisch verstärkt. Und zwar so gut, dass der aufregende Klang von Graindelavoix noch weiter angeschärft wird: Die Ornamente der Messe treten plastisch hervor, erinnern manchmal an die Verzierungen eines Muezzins. Und das helle, mitunter fast grelle Timbre der Oberstimmen fräst sich glühend ins Trommelfell. Man möchte den Vorhang auf der Bühne wegreißen, weil er nicht passt zur emotionalen Nähe, zum sehr direkten Sound.
Aber natürlich ist die Verschleierung Teil des Konzepts, ebenso wie das dezente Lichtdesign. Erst am Beginn des Credo rupft eine Sopranistin den Vorhang ab, lässt ihn zu Boden fallen. Gibt den Blick frei auf weitere sieben Sängerinnen und Sänger und fünf Instrumentalisten, alle in Schwarz, die in einem nach vorne offenen Kreis auf der Bühne stehen und sitzen.
Vor ihnen Björn Schmelzer, der sein Ensemble mit Ganzkörpereinsatz dirigiert und animiert. Er wippt in den Knien, kippt vor und zurück, fordert höchste Intensität. Auch hier wird das Konzert zur Performance und vermittelt eine ganz andere Energie als die meisten Annäherungen an die „Alte Musik“. Die Erschütterung des Bebens ist allgegenwärtig; die Bitte „Miserere nobis“, „Erbarm Dich unser“ bekommt eine besondere Dringlichkeit. Das erinnert an die flehentlichen Blicke aus dem Dokumentarfilm.
In so einer Interpretation wirkt die Musik zeitlos und nicht über 500 Jahre alt, sie lässt einen nie in Ruhe. Das ist stark, manchmal aber auch anstrengend, auf Dauer fast ein bisschen viel. Aber die Aufführung entwickelt einen unglaublichen Sog. Als die Messe endet, mit einem überraschenden Effekt, fühlt es sich an, als hätte einen jemand aus einer tiefen Trance aufgeweckt.


A concert from which you wake up as if from a trance

The multimedia performance "Rolling Stone" by the Graindelavoix ensemble unfolded an incredible sound in the Elbphilharmonie.

Hamburg. People descending into a cave. Serious looks at the camera. Silent prayers on their lips. gestures of crucifixion. And again and again an older woman who devoutly puts her hands on the rock, picks up individual rocks from the ground, rubs them on her clothes with her eyes closed. With these moving images, projected onto a translucent curtain, the evening begins in the Great Hall of the Elbphilharmonie, bathed in dim light. A documentary film, in black and white, accompanies believers visiting their pilgrimage site; they hope for the healing power of the sacred rocks. Floating sounds frame the film. Just a single horn. Then a cornetto. And the electric guitar, with long, spherical glissandi. Then, finally: human voices, singing. A kind of chamber choir. The word "Kyrie" floods the room. The beginning of the Missa "Et ecce terrae motus" by Antoine Brumel, a mass with a dark sound, composed around 1500. It is the focus of the program. It resonates with the Biblical earthquake of Easter morning, which erupts when an angel appears and rolls the rock away from Jesus' tomb. “Rolling Stone” is also the name of the multimedia performance that the Elbphilharmonie brought to Hamburg together with Kampnagel. A production by the Belgian conductor and music researcher Björn Schmelzer. With his ensemble Graindelavoix he interprets vocal works of the Renaissance - and also uses anti-historical stylistic devices to reach the people of today. The guitarist and composer Manuel Mota has enriched the mass with contemporary ideas and techniques.The vocal parts are amplified. And so well that the exciting sound of Graindelavoix is sharpened even further: the ornaments of the mass stand out vividly, sometimes reminiscent of the ornaments of a muezzin. And the bright, sometimes almost glaring timbre of the upper voices burns into the eardrum. You want to tear away the curtain on stage because it doesn't go with the emotional closeness and the very direct sound. But of course the concealment is part of the concept, as is the subtle lighting design.
Only at the beginning of the Credo does a soprano pluck the curtain and let it fall to the floor. Reveals a view of a further seven singers and five instrumentalists, all in black, standing and seated on stage in an open-topped circle. In front of them is Björn Schmelzer, who conducts and animates his ensemble with full body effort. He rocks on his knees, tilts back and forth, demands the highest level of intensity. Here, too, the concert becomes a performance and conveys a completely different energy than most approaches to “early music”. The shaking of the earthquake is omnipresent; the request "Miserere nobis", "Have mercy on us" takes on a special urgency. This is reminiscent of the pleading looks from the documentary. In such an interpretation, the music seems timeless and not more than 500 years old, it never leaves you alone. It's strong, but sometimes draining, in the long run it's almost a bit overwhelming. But the performance develops an incredible pull. When the mass ends, with surprising effect, it feels like someone has woken you up from a deep trance.

Interview met Björn Schmelzer in DE TIJD naar aanleiding van Wonderjaren & Hongerjaren

Polyfonie is niet dood. Op het oudemuziekfestival Laus Polypohniae in Antwerpen wekt het vocaal ensemble graindelavoix twee vergeten componisten op een eigenzinnige manier tot leven. 'In plaats van noten glad te strijken vergroten wij ze uit.'

Hoe klonk Antwerpen in de 15de en 16de eeuw? Welke geluiden waren te horen op straat, in de kerken en de paleizen? Het Antwerpse muziekcentrum AMUZ zoekt het uit tijdens de dertigste editie van Laus Polyphoniae, het festival dat muziek uit de middeleeuwen en de renaissance in de kijker zet. Polyfonie, een muziekcompositie met meerdere stemmen, speelt een centrale rol. Onder de noemer ‘Antwerpen Townscape - Soundscape’ zijn er tussen 18 en 27 augustus concerten in AMUZ, maar ook in Museum Plantin-Moretus en in de kerken Sint-Paulus en Carolus Borromeus.

In die laatste kerk brengt het meerstemmige vocaal ensemble graindelavoix een tweeluik: ‘Wonderjaren’ en ‘Hongerjaren’, over de gouden gloriejaren en de val van Antwerpen in de 16de eeuw. Het gezelschap onder leiding van dirigent Björn Schmelzer (48) blijft na twintig jaar een buitenbeentje in het genre. Zijn meerstemmige zang schuurt en kraakt, is aangekleed met dramatische decoraties en zoekt eerder rusteloosheid dan harmonie op. Het leverde de groep de bijnaam ‘polyfoniepunkers’ op.

‘Ik ben zelf geen grote fan van oude muziek’, schopt Schmelzer meteen tegen het eerste heilige huisje. ‘Meestal vind ik ze te strak. Alle scherpe randjes zijn gecamoufleerd. In het genre leeft nog altijd de conservatieve gedachte dat we een perfecte reconstructie moeten maken van de partituur uit de 16de eeuw. Maar wij maken au fond covers van muziekstukken waarvan we het origineel nooit hebben gehoord. Waarom zou je dan een perfecte imitatie maken?’

Mede door dat purisme van de meeste aanhangers van het genre omschrijft Schmelzer zijn verhouding tot de muziek als een aversie die tegelijk zijn interesse aanwakkert. ‘Ik hoor veel potentieel in polyfonie, maar om andere redenen dan de doorsnee oudemuziekliefhebber. Ons intrigeren vooral de rariteiten in die oude partituren. Waar wordt de muziek bizar? Waar zitten de dissonanten of contradicties? In plaats van die noten glad te strijken vergroten wij ze uit. Die obstakels zijn onze motor.’

Hij vergelijkt zijn aanpak met hedendaags theater. ‘Een gezelschap dat Shakespeare brengt, streeft ook niet naar een perfecte imitatie van het origineel, inclusief pofbroeken en archaïsche taal. Wij kijken op eenzelfde onbevangen manier naar polyfonische muziek. Alleen zijn we voorlopig de enigen met die benadering.’

Met ‘wij’ bedoelt Schmelzer de meerstemmige zangers van graindelavoix. Hij zoekt voor het ensemble bewust naar stemmen met een scherp randje, de ‘grain de la voix’. ‘We noemen onszelf de misfits. Ik zoek mensen die hun stem of keel op een aparte manier gebruiken. Meestal zijn dat niet de allerbeste klassiek geschoolde zangers, noch kenners van het polyfonische genre. Wel zijn het altijd slimme muzikanten en kunstenaars die de muziek weten te manipuleren en er iets bijzonders mee doen.’


Eigenzinnig zijn ook de twee Antwerpse componisten bij wie Schmelzer de mosterd haalde voor zijn tweeluik op Laus Polyphoniae: Hubert Waelrant en Séverin Cornet. De kans is groot dat die namen geen belletje doen rinkelen. Hun repertoire werd nog door niemand gespeeld. Dat van Cornet werd zelfs pas enkele jaren geleden ontdekt, in de bibliotheek van Salamanca.

‘Ik koos bewust voor twee underdogs’, zegt Schmelzer, die antropoloog en musicoloog is van opleiding. ‘Waelrant heeft ongelooflijk straffe, avant-gardistische muziek gemaakt met veel dissonanten. Ik vraag me echt af waarom hij niet is opgepikt.’ Met zijn keuze wil Schmelzer ook een genuanceerdere kijk op de Antwerpse geschiedenis aanreiken. ‘Dit muziekfestival zet de Gouden Eeuw centraal, de succesvolle gloriejaren van Antwerpen. Dat ruikt al snel naar chauvinisme en zelfverheerlijking. Net dan is het verfrissend om te zoeken naar figuren die daar niet helemaal mee samenvallen.’

De levens van Waelrant en Cornet lopen synchroon met de ‘Wonderjaren’ van Antwerpen en de daarop volgende ‘Hongerjaren’. Na wat een veelbelovende muziekcarrière leek te worden eindigden beide componisten in armoede en vergetelheid. ‘Maar ondanks tegenslagen bleven beide componisten geloven in hun muziek, vanuit een artistieke drift en een zekere naïviteit. Ik zie hen als donquichots. Het zijn twijfelaars en zoekers die altijd de foute keuzes lijken te maken en durven te mislukken. Dat schept een realistischer beeld van kunstenaars - en mensen in het algemeen - uit de zogenaamde Gouden Eeuw. Vijfhonderd jaar later kunnen we ons nog met hen identificeren. We herkennen hun verhaal, omdat het nog altijd ons verhaal is.’


Door zijn unieke aanpak ziet graindelavoix zichzelf eerder als een kunstenaarscollectief dan als een vocaal ensemble. Aan elk concert gaat research en veldwerk vooraf. Oude stukken worden getranscribeerd, Schmelzer gaat op zoek naar het verhaal dat hij wil vertellen en schrijft een dramaturgie waarin hij de muziekstukken doet passen. ‘Oude muziek is voor mij het vehikel om kunst te maken. De meesten kan dit soort muziek gestolen worden. Maar ik heb een zwak voor buitenbeentjes. Als niemand erin geïnteresseerd is, boeit het mij alleen maar meer.’

‘In het begin werden nogal wat wenkbrauwen opgetrokken’, zegt Schmelzer. ‘Wat wij doen, staat ver af van de reden waarom mensen naar oude muziek komen luisteren. Maar met de jaren hebben we respect gewonnen. Intussen komt het publiek om te luisteren naar wat wij doen met de muziek, ongeacht de componist of het werk dat we brengen.’

In zijn ideale wereld speelt oude muziek dankzij een innovatieve aanpak haar conservatieve imago kwijt. ‘Maar het blijft vechten tegen de bierkaai. Het purisme dat je niet mag ingrijpen in oude muziek is hardnekkig. Ik zou het mooi vinden als het genre op een bepaald moment zo emancipeert dat het label ‘oude muziek’ verdwijnt. Dat we, net zoals in dans, theater of beeldende kunst, via creaties uit het verleden tot iets nieuws komen. Wij proberen daartoe ons steentje bij te dragen.’

Very enthusiast review of "Rolling Stone - Missa do Terramoto”  in Público by Manuel Pedro Ferreira

Read the English translation here!

The encounter of a mass, a cavern and an electric guitar...

Unsurprisingly, Graindelavoix showed enormous individual and collective quality, with the direction of Björn Schmelzer enhancing the polyphonic clarity.

The concert begins with a black and white ethnographic film, Il Culto delle Pietre (Luigi di Gianni, 1967), which documents the annual procession to the cave where Saint Venancio lived. The inhabitants of Raiano (L'Aquila, Abruzzo, in central Italy), who could be taken for Portuguese of the same era, rub against the walls of the den, as if inside a relic, trying to transmit to them the protective and therapeutic properties of the hermit. The documentary, on this occasion, is stripped of its original soundtrack and  is now accompanied by an electronic sound track by experimental guitarist Manuel Mota. The environment is strange, static, gloomy; the musicians can barely be seen behind the reticulated screen.

After the film, I remembered what Almada wrote about Soror Mariana: "when the curtain went up I was not able to distinguish either because it was a very dark night and only halfway through did I discover that it was dawn because the Bishop of Beja said he had been waiting for the sunrise!" In fact, the darkness of the cave would envelop us until the end of the concert; this is based on the approximation that Björn Schmelzer made between the "cult of stones" in Abruzzo, the "rolling of the stone" from the tomb of Jesus Christ at the moment of the resurrection and the great earthquake that, according to Matthew, would have occurred at that time (the evangelist frequently uses the image of the earthquake to underline divine actions).

At the hour of Lauds on Easter Sunday, an antiphon summarizes Matthew's version: Et ecce terraemotus factus est magnus, angelus autem domini descendit de caelo, alleluia. The removal of the tombstone is not mentioned here. The first seven notes of the antiphon were taken by Antoine Brumel, at the end of the 15th century, to construct a Mass (cycle of texts from the Ordinary) written for twelve voices: an artistic monument that, for just over thirty years, has come to be punctually revisited by groups specializing in early music.

It is a dense, extensive, impactful work; without failing to respect conventions — illustrated in the Credo by the retention of time in the passage Et homo factus est — it is unusual for several reasons. The harmonies barely move, but the melodic decor is profuse, like gothic spiers topping wide cathedral spans. The canonical replication between voices, for example at the beginning of the Sanctus, is multiplied; the contrast between low voices in slow movement and the imitative restlessness of the upper voices recreates, in another style, the monumental effect of Pérotin's quadrupla.

The idea of an earthquake may even have inspired, in Kyrie, the insistent texture of its ending. This prayer, focused on the sinner, could perhaps justify the tenebrism of the staging, but what about the Gloria, which, moreover, would have been sung on the day of the Resurrection? The Mass was made to celebrate the Light, and therefore it would have deserved to leave the cave. But no: clearly Björn Schmelzer wanted to create a dark event, calling the concert Missa do Terramoto ... in times of catastrophe.

The use of Manuel Mota's skills on the electric guitar, composition and arrangements, which were heard not only in the first fifteen minutes and in the interstices of the Mass, but also during parts of the Mass (very audible presence at the beginning of the Gloria, at the end of Sanctus and in the Agnus Dei) made it possible to unify the concert under a concept of stony reverberation: permanence, minimal displacement, heaviness. In what remains, the interpretative options were original and convincing: given the unorthodox scope of the musical parts, the three four-voice choirs had the participation of one or two instruments each (cornet, serpent, two horns), in addition to two sopranos, one alto, three tenors and two basses.

Unsurprisingly, Graindelavoix showed enormous individual and collective quality, with the direction of Björn Schmelzer enhancing the polyphonic clarity, the organicity of the phrasing (which, in the end, even went to the limits of just tuning) and the internal differentiation of tempos, even managing, at the beginning of Agnus Dei, to sustain a slowness that was both extreme and inspiring. The final part of the Missa, whose handwritten transmission is very degraded, was treated as an experience of fusion between legible melodic lines and electronic speculation. This stony trance, risky, problematic, but consistent, had an enthusiastic response from the audience, which forced the musicians to repeatedly return to the stage to receive the applause.

Newsletter May - June 2023

Tuesday 16.05.2023
Grande Auditório - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian - Lisbon (PT)

Thursday 18.05.2023

Orangerie — Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen - Hanover (D)

Saturday 20.05.2023
Concertzaal -  Muziekcentrum De Bijloke  - Gent (B)  

Tuesday  13.06.2023  
Friedenskirche Sanssouci  - Musikfestspiele Potsdam - Potsdam (D)

ROLLING STONE                                                    
Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass in Times of Disaster

What can art and music mean in times of disaster and crisis? Graindelavoix consulted Pieter Bruegel (1569), who began painting grisaille (stone-colored) works in the 1560s in response to political disasters and iconoclasm, and the French composer Antoine Brumel (+1512), whose 12-part Earthquake Mass was rediscovered by Orlandus Lassus in the same period. For these artists, ‘resurrection’ is not an uprising, revolt or revolution, but a petrifying confrontation with the rumble of a colossal tombstone, with stone dust, rubble and a black hole. On the ruins of past and present, Graindelavoix recreates Brumel’s composition, anticipated by images from the short neorealist documentary “Il Culto delle Pietre” (1967) by Luigi di Gianni, an allegory of a modern world marked by inertia and superstition. Add to the color and grit of the voices the deliberate anachronism of four wind instruments (cornetto, horns, serpent), together with the interventions of the legendary Portuguese guitarist Manuel Mota, and you get an idea of Graindelavoix’s atlas of disasters.

Wat kunnen kunst en muziek betekenen in tijden van ramp en crisis? Graindelavoix ging te rade bij Pieter Bruegel (1569), die grisaille (steenkleurige) werken begon te schilderen in de jaren 1560 als reactie op politieke rampen en beeldenstorm, en bij de Franse componist Antoine Brumel (+1512) , wiens 12-stemmige aardbevingsmis werd herontdekt door Orlandus Lassus in dezelfde periode. Voor deze kunstenaars is ‘verrijzenis’ geen opstand, revolt of revolutie, maar een verstenende confrontatie met het gedaver van een kolossale grafsteen, met steengruis, puin en een zwart gat. Op de ruïnes van heden en verleden herschept Graindelavoix Brumels compositie, ingeleid door beelden uit de korte neorealistische documentaire “Il Culto delle Pietre” (1967) van Luigi di Gianni, allegorie van een moderne wereld getekend door inertie en bijgeloof. Voeg bij het coloriet en het gruis van de stemmen het opzettelijke anachronisme van vier blazers (cornetto, hoorns, serpent), en de interventies van de legendarische Portugese gitarist Manuel Mota, en je krijgt een idee van de rampen-atlas van Graindelavoix.

Teodora Tommasi, Florencia Menconi, soprano
Andrew Hallock, alto
Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, tenor
Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet, bass

Lluis Coll i Trulls, cornetto
Berlinde Deman, serpent
Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, horn
Christopher Price, horn
Manuel Mota, electric guitar

artistic concept: Björn Schmelzer
sound concept, compositions and arrangements: Manuel Mota (in collaboration with Tremblay, Price, Coll i Trulls & Deman)
live sound engineering : Alex Fostier
light design: Fostier, Garcia & Schmelzer
external ear & artistic advice: Margarida Garcia
production: Katrijn Degans

coproduction with Klarafestival Brussels, Muziekcentrum De Bijloke Gent & Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen

The project will continue touring during the Summer with performances in Hamburg (Elbphilharmonie/Kampnagel Festival), Utrecht (Early Music Festival) and Bern (Musikfestival)


In Gulbenkian Lisbon, on 16 May, there will be a pre-talk between Björn Schmelzer and Pedro Lagoa, artist and author of “Notes Towards a Volcanic Impulse / Notes para Um Impulso Vulcânico” and of the "Archive of Destruction” , 19:00 Sala do Foyer (Piso 1)

In polyphonic versions by Dering, Weelkes, Ribera, Desprez, De la Rue, Agostini, Ramsey, Tomkins, Tejeda and Gombert

The stories of David, Absalom and Jonathan read like biblical versions of antique tragedies, full of violence, murder, betrayal, uprising, revenge, and also of profound friendship and love, expressed as loss in lamentations. The power and universal quality of these laments is probably due to their intrinsic anachronism and flexibility of meaning to be re-interpreted in different personal elegiac or political contexts.
This gave rise to a small but important vogue of polyphonic David-lamentations in the 16th and early 17th century, based on the same lyrics and resulting in a unique and intimate repertoire of laments which scholars still fail to pinpoint historically and contextually.
It is exactly this ambiguity and lack of transparent meaning, enforced by its dramatic content, which opens these laments for new and retroactive interpretations, giving them a relevance that emerges only in the future.
One could read them as renaissance Anthems for doomed Youth referring to the famous poem by war-poet Wilfred Owen. They function like the wound that crippled French poet Joe Bousquet during World War I, of which he said that it existed before him and that he was born to incarnate it. Most of the laments were composed on both sides of the Channel, the battlefield par excellence of so many future wars, for lovers and children still to fall.
The concert is like a seance where the listener is invited to ruminate the same texts over and over but every time through slightly different emotional and changing affective forms, as a polyphonic atlas of laments.
Next to some classic English versions by Tomkins, Ramsey and Weelkes, Graindelavoix performs two lesser known laments by Richard Dering, one of which was composed in exile in Rome and published in Antwerp. Rather than associated with a royal demise, the English laments seem to be all rather part of an emulative artistic process, transcribed and collected for personal reasons by English scribe and friend of the composers, Thomas Myriell. The two Spanish motets (by Bernardino de Ribera and Alonso de Tejeda) are rarely performed, while the obscure Italian motet by Lodovico Agostini has never been performed before. For all of these we are happy to use wonderful new transcriptions by Jorge Martín Valle.

This programme will be performed again in the fall for Musica Divina in Geel (22 Sept), Eborae Musica in Évora (6 Oct) and Muziekcentrum De Bijloke in Ghent (10 Nov).

With Florencia Menconi, Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Gabriel Belkheiri, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet and Björn Schmelzer


De verhalen van David, Absalom en Jonathan lezen als bijbelse versies van antieke tragedies, vol geweld, moord, verraad, opstand, wraak, maar ook diepe vriendschap en liefde, uitgedrukt in lamentaties. De kracht en universele kwaliteit van deze klaagzangen is wellicht te danken aan hun intrinsieke anachronisme en hun flexibiliteit om telkens opnieuw te worden geïnterpreteerd in verschillende persoonlijke elegische of politieke contexten.
Dit gaf aanleiding tot een kleine maar interessante vogue van polyfone David-klaagzangen in de 16e en vroeg 17e eeuw, gebaseerd op dezelfde teksten, resulterend in een uniek en intiem repertoire dat historisch en contextueel in het vage blijft.
Het is precies deze ambiguïteit en het uitblijven van een duidelijke betekenis, versterkt door de dramatische inhoud ervan, die deze klaagzangen opent voor nieuwe en retroactieve interpretaties, waarvan de relevantie pas veel later duidelijk wordt.
Je zou ze kunnen lezen als renaissance
Anthems for doomed Youth, verwijzend naar het beroemde gedicht van oorlogsdichter Wilfred Owen. Ze functioneren als de wond, die de Franse dichter Joe Bousquet tijdens WO I verkreupelde, waarvan hij zei dat die wond vóór hem bestond, en dat hij geboren was om haar te belichamen. De meeste klaagzangen werden gecomponeerd aan beide zijden van het Kanaal, het slagveld bij uitstek van zoveel toekomstige oorlogen, voor geliefden en kinderen die nog moeten vallen.
Het concert is als een seance waarbij de luisteraar wordt uitgenodigd om dezelfde teksten keer op keer te herkauwen, maar telkens in net iets andere emotionele en wisselende affectieve gedaanten, als een polyfone atlas van klaagzangen.
Naast enkele klassieke Engelse versies van Tomkins, Ramsey en Weelkes, vertolkt Graindelavoix twee veel minder bekende lamentaties van Richard Dering, waarvan een in ballingschap in Rome werd gecomponeerd en in Antwerpen uitgegeven. In plaats van de associatie met een koninklijk overlijden, lijken de Engelse klaagzangen deel uit te maken van een artistiek, emulatief proces. Ze werden eerder om persoonlijke redenen getranscribeerd en verzameld door de Engelse scribent en vriend van de componisten, Thomas Myriell. De twee Spaanse motetten (van Bernardino de Ribera en Alonso de Tejeda) zijn veel minder bekend en zelden uitgevoerd, terwijl het obscure Italiaanse motet van Lodovico Agostini nooit eerder werd verklankt. Voor deze motetten maken we gebruik van de geweldige nieuwe transcripties van de hand van Jorge Martín Valle.

Dit programma wordt in de herfst opnieuw uitgevoerd voor Musica Divina in Geel (22 sept), Eborae Musica in Évora (6 okt) en Muziekcentrum De Bijloke in Gent (10 nov).

Met Florencia Menconi, Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Gabriel Belkheiri, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet and Björn Schmelzer


- A new recording for release in 2024 is in the making. It will be called EX NIHILO, Polyphony out of the Order of Things. After listening you will be convinced that sci-fi emerged with the dawn of polyphony.
- We are preparing two new concert programmes around Antwerp polyphonic underdogs Severin Cornet and Hubert Waelrant : Wonder Years & Hunger Years, for première at Laus Polyphoniae Festival in Antwerp on 22 August 2023.


- Een nieuwe opname voor release in 2024 is in de maak met de titel EX NIHILO, Polyphony out of the Order of Things. Na het luisteren weet je dat polyfonie de sci-fi van het verleden is.
- We werken aan twee nieuwe concertprogramma's rond de Antwerpse polyfone underdogs Severin Cornet en Hubert Waelrant:
Wonderjaren & Hongerjaren, in première op Laus Polyphoniae Antwerpen op 22 augustus 2023

Read the Long Interview with Björn Schmelzer in Slovakian Music Magazine Hudobný život, in English and Slovak

Hudobný život , Slovakian Music Magazine 03/2023/R. 55

Interview with Björn Schmelzer, published in Slovakian (original interview in English)

Below are Schmelzer’s original answers (in English), the introduction is an upgraded google translation…

(Note: After comparing the original interview with the published we discovered that some answers of the original interview were cut out in the final version. We put the uncensored version for our readers as an appendix: probably they were imagined as too anxiety provoking for the readers of the magazine, even with the warning in the title...)

The Unbearable Beauty of Anxiety

(Interview and edit by PATRIK SABO and ANDREA SEREČINOVÁ)

The earth shook that evening in the Vienna Konzerthaus. Not only in the title of the late Renaissance 12-voice mass by Antoine Brumel, but also in the receptors of the audience. The vocal group GRAINDELAVOIX, led by BJÖRN SCHMELZER, presented a new program called Rolling Stone in the world premiere. Pre-baroque polyphony rockers were leaving Vienna on tour and we were there.
Graindelavoix (from the French for "grain of the voice") was created on the threshold of the millennium, yet it is still a specialty for connoisseurs, and even in this target group, not to everyone's taste, exalted by a performance full of dynamic undulations, melismatic glides and revolutionary views of time passing in the Renaissance polyphony. The concert as part of the Resonanzen festival (January 24, 2023) was a feast for the senses, a challenge to perceive many contextual connections and build from them - perhaps even your own - image of a "rolling stone". And it happened in a technically stunning framework of perfect interplay and intonation. Brumel's "Earthquake Mass" (Et ecce terrae motus) has not been preserved in its entirety, and due to ongoing bacterial contamination, the destruction of the musical source will continue. The ensemble's artistic director and author of its concepts, Björn Schmelzer, refused to restore the old artefact, avowed the missing places and filled them with contemporary music by the Portuguese free jazz [sic], and experimental guitarist Manuel Mota. His music begins to sound already in the opening screening of the documentary Il Culto Delle Pietre (L. di Gianni, 1967), which is shown without its original soundtrack. The moments of ritual rubbing against a miraculous stone at a pilgrimage site in Italy stand out even more. Stone is an important motif in all components of the multimedia production – as an object of destruction during an earthquake, as a stone rolled away from Christ's tomb in Bruegel's drawing The Resurrection (to which Schmelzer refers and which was created with the illusory grisaille technique, evoking stone sculptures). The earthquake, in turn, is an accompanying phenomenon of Jesus' resurrection, which Brumel's mass captures in the form of a freely quoted motif of the grand final antiphon of the Matins to the 2nd verse of the 28th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. And to make more complex, it is also a symbol of destruction as such - paper that is destroyed by bacteria, social or ecological destruction, but also the anxiety of Jesus' empty tomb. However, we may be wrong, because as the interview shows, Björn Schmelzer is skeptical about the ability of others to understand his intentions. He provokes, explains, fascinates and his voice is heard...

The Graindelavoix ensemble is a leading representative of a new approach to the interpretation of Renaissance polyphony. The pillars of your style include, for example, a new perspective on tempos, frequent glissandos, exaggerated expression or conceptualism. How did you arrive at it?

It’s a complex question, and I don’t know if I can avoid a complex answer. I think that so called pre-modern repertoire has suffered under its denominator “pre-modern”: which seems to imply pre-subjective, objective, mathematical, artisanal and non-artistic…The historicist claim wants us to believe that there was not yet art music before, let’s say, 1800, and there was not yet a modern concept of art. This is in reality mostly used as an excuse to produce performances which are like “new objectivity”, and the pseudo-modest stance of performers as just mediums who transmit without any subjective intervention, just the material as written in the score and so on. So once you start to criticize this kind of historicism and understand its mechanism, everything changes.
It is clear that composers from the 15th century, for example Johannes Ockeghem or Josquin Desprez, were real artists in the proper sense, and not just great artisans. They used of course the framework of the catholic liturgy, or Gregorian chant (like modern composers would use neoliberal or other frameworks of content and labour possibility) but as contemporary composers they used it, manipulated it in order to curve it, to transform it with the tools of polyphonic counterpoint. This counterpoint rules are never applied in a slavishly manner, but every great composition is in fact a true exception of all these normative rules, composers were never just applying musical rules, but on the contrary engaged in sabotaging them, changing them, transgressing them.
So my approach is an engagement with this changing perspective on what music of the past is, to my idea, completely immersed in artistic modernity, meaning, creating a split or a crack in the given tradition, doing something which alienates identification. Think of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame: it must have been as weird, strange and alienating for the singers and listeners in 14th century Reims as for us today. That’s what we trans-historically share with the people from the past: our attachment to artworks which is not of identification but of strangeness and artistic alienation, so that’s why we can redeem these works from the past, they really still have something to tell us, they are not just monuments or illustrations of a glorious past, on the contrary.
I’m fascinated by art works from the past and how they are not falling together with the common culture of their own time, how they crack or cut with the symbolic normative order of a historical time: therefore they have an emancipatory potential, even for us now, and that’s what I want to make audible.

When interpreting, you also use unconventional vocal techniques, for example a natural voice with a nasal tone, a naturalistic way of singing with glissandos, which evokes the traditional polyphony as we know it from the regions of southern Italy. Is your goal to create such a sound "design"?

Well, they are unconventional from a certain established classical perspective, and in fact we talk about a period of not even 100 years from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century where a certain classical conformism was established. But once you go to modern avant-garde, you get all these things back, Sprechgesang, glissandi, ornaments etc…
It says enough when people have no categories to describe what they hear and can only think of folk singing or even non-western music etcetera. I’m not interested in exoticism as such, for itself: in fact we try out a lot of techniques and possibilities and integrate them in the final result. It’s mostly the listener’s inability to put a signifier on it, which makes them decide to find some security in common-sense exoticism: "oh this must be Arabic", when you hear just a sliding tone in a polyphonic piece or a more nasal sound…In fact I never work with these presumptions or categories.
I also don’t really understand why people call what we try to do: "rough singing"…in fact it’s full of micro-tonal nuances, fluidity, plasticity, virtuosity even, voice manipulations, so not at all the rigid use of the voice etc…but when something falls out of the existing categories, people have difficulty to describe the experience and fall back on not always very nuanced descriptions I fear.
Even if you listen to so called “non-western music” or so called traditional music: voices are all different, ornamentation too, even in the same style. It’s like in jazz or popular music, there are so called white voices (with almost no vibrato, but which could apply complex ornamentation) and there are more trembling voices, but also here the variety is infinite. Then there is the question of timbre, which I think is crucial, but hardly ever tackled in early classical music: often what is crucial in the listening effect of a repertoire is the least talked about, I’m intrigued by this kind of paradoxes.
Last comment here: I don’t believe in the so called ‘natural voice’, I think this is something that doesn’t exist. What would that even mean a natural voice? All voices are cultural, or at least in between the physical and the cultural. I agree that the voice is a very strange and ambiguous thing: something totally personal, but at the same time ungraspable, foreign, weird: one cannot even hear objectively one’s own voice: it’s through the other that we have to approach our own vocality. So the voice is at the same time totally intimate and what Lacan calls: “extimate", a foreign almost uncanny object.

How do you choose singers and instrumentalists for specific projects?

Often they emerge on my path, so to speak…some of them I approached because I was fascinated by their voice, others like to join and become part of the group because it fits somehow.
Nevertheless I imagine our ensemble as a bunch of "non-fitting" voices, we are like vocal misfits (laughter)…It’s this not completely fitting element, the profound heterogeneity of the whole of all the voices together, a sort of openness in the approach, in singing together, which produces our very specific sound, or better maybe even, vibe or aura.
I think it’s even more audible, not so much in the timbres of the voices, as in the timing, the rubati, the slidings and general almost non-physical mood of the whole.
I work already many years with almost always the same people, so something of a style emerges, just by doing it together.
It’s wonderful to see these musicians and singers with complete different backgrounds and styles and expertises working together, learning from each other, contaminating each other. My task is just to organise and make possible this mutual contamination between the singers and players. When that happens, of course some magic seems to happen (laughter)

How do you deal with criticism for your approach? How do you respond to it?

I meet with criticism almost all the time. As you can imagine we cause and produce a lot of anxiety among certain listeners (laughter)…I think anxiety as experience in art is not bad at all, it’s just that we are not used to it when encountering early music. A lot of people have chosen this kind of old music because they believe everything is said about it, so it’s safe and secure, there are hardly dissonance, this music according to them radiates a lost immaculate world of perfection, order and control, a lost paradise or safe haven against contemporary chaos.
This kind of listeners were aptly called by Adorno: “resentment listeners”.
And then they encounter our version of music they thought they knew. Of course it’s a shock, but I think it’s a fertile, productive one, that’s what art should provoke, no?
Of course music of the past is not a safe haven or a radiation of a perfect society. In their own way composers of the past articulated the tensions, impossibilities and contradictions of their own time, and it’s exactly this attitude towards the impossible or the unknown, which is trans-historical.
Every CD we release or concert we do is at the same time applauded and criticised: I think it’s a good sign.
And a secret I have to tell you: I secretly really enjoy to read bad critics: mostly they are much better written than good critics, they mostly show much more effort to critically engage with our performance, and even when they dismiss it, for me they often expose an act of (reversed) love. Only when you really love something, you would hate it so deeply too (laughter)…So please give me a bad critic instead of a badly written one, an abstract, empty éloge, often full of misunderstandings, because people never love what you do for the reasons you imagined they do or for the ones you intended, there is always a disappointment there. So that’s why I prefer bad critics.

In the accompanying text for the Rolling Stone project, you stated that you do not want your concept to be perceived as a crossover cliché of old and contemporary music. So what are Graindelavoix projects: a survey of contemporary art, a cultural-artistic excursion or an individual interpretive expression?

It’s funny that a lot of so called contemporary music is also already taken by this historicist mentality. What does contemporary music even mean? I’m convinced that early music, repertoires from the past are in general not made for their own time, in the sense that they were almost always misunderstood, badly interpreted, not appreciated, marginalised etc…So there goes he historicist fantasy! Music is always made for later generations, it gets forgotten, sometimes even almost lost, or manuscripts with music are hibernating for ages in a dusty library. And then someone, maybe idiots like us, feel touched by these repertoires, as if they speak to us…Adorno calls it: a message in a bottle…
Musical repertoires are in this in-between-state of performance: historical contemporaries were too close, too near to them, so they could not really approach them, and we are too far, too distanced from them…Again I like this paradox…
And of course I consider our interpretation or performance of these repertoires part of contemporary music. It’s like performing Shakespeare today, isn’t it? Nobody in theatre would say that it is not part of contemporary culture, because in theatre, happily enough, historicism is basically rejected, or approached with suspicion and rightly so…
That doesn’t mean you should not take historicity serious, but we should get rid of the fantasy of the original performance, the idea that the best interpretation was to be found in the past.
My conviction is that art works never belong to the time or world in which they emerge, that’s why we call them proper art works, they basically don’t belong in any way.
If they would belong we would call it folklore or functional music etc, but not art. Therefore art is in principle emancipatory, it breaks out of normativity and that counts also for art in the past.
For me trying to de-modernise early music is to domesticate it, to make it into “Gebrauchsmusik”, I find that ideologically very suspicious.

You refer to Brumel as the first "eco-composer" and point out that people often ignore reality until disaster strikes. Shortly after the premiere of your program in Vienna, Turkey was hit by an earthquake...

It was a little bit a joke to call Brumel like that, because nowadays it’s fancy that an artist shows his political or ecological awareness: but it results often, like in capitalism in general, in a new form of commodification: a program about ecology sells just better for festival, it’s a little bit the sad truth.
I think art in general has a special relation to disasters and catastrophes, music especially is linked to lamentations, conjuring loss and pain, and so on, these are dynamics that interest me really a lot. With the Earthquake Mass of Brumel what fascinated me was that it appears in a time of big social and religious crisis, the early 16th century, think of the reformation, the peasant revolts and iconoclasm, the independence wars in the Low Countries. As I said before art is our encounter, our engagement with the traumatic, with the impossible. I don’t see music just as a sort of aesthetic escapism, or offering some consolation when one is sad. Of course it can also fulfil this role, but for me more important is how musical works generate meaning, which is at the same time impossible to fixate, it remains ambiguous or mysterious, hence its enduring attraction or fascination.

In the score of Brumel's Mass, there are missing places, gaps caused by bacterial contamination. You decided to fill the unknown places in a very specific way. Do you want the listener to clearly perceive the information about the lost parts as a symbol of destruction?

I call the program a musical atlas of disasters or catastrophes, it helped even to create a sort of hidden narrative to structure the improvisatory interludes between the parts of Brumel’s mass.
In fact I wanted to demonumentalize Brumel’s composition and letting it appear and again disappear in and out of instrumental sessions which were created by Mota together with the other players.
Instead of overcoming the parts of the mass that were lost, by reconstructing them, and the listeners would just think it was the old repertoire, we thought it would be much more interesting to integrate into the performance the ruinous work of time itself, the Nachleben or afterlife of things, making audible destruction and decay; this was in the renaissance equally an obsession.
It’s not that you like to communicate in a symbolic way: it’s more that the loss of the music itself offers a possibility for another sort of creation: loss doesn’t need to be compensated, hidden or disavowed - I think bad art is invested in that, giving the listener a false feeling of satisfaction etc…-  we tried to confront the listener with a more complex image of the past, including its ruins, its catastrophes…the repetitive mood of Brumel’s mass fits well into this idea: repetition is always somehow linked to something traumatic, something is repeated because it cannot be integrated symbolically...

In Rolling Stone, you work with multiple layers. In addition to music, we perceive a documentary film, an iconic image or stage lighting. This multimedia brings the concert program to the level of conceptual audiovisual art...

In a way the Rolling Stone program has a very simple build up and the solution to project the film on this curtain, was the result of technical obstacles. I love this idea: that in the end creative freedom and ideas emerge from the restrictions itself that cause initial problems and failure. In a way as artists we should be more grateful for the restrictions we are confronted with. It’s like with subventions: of course one would like to get more money to do more, but in the end it is the restriction and limitation which allows one to remain faithful to its artistic cause, it’s never the possibilities (laughter)…
The projection based on the 1967 documentary Il culto delle pietre by Luigi di Gianni was from the beginning the starting point of the show: I asked the guitarist Manuel Mota, who is somehow a legend in his own field or scene of experimental improv music, to compose and create a new soundtrack that would accompany the film, which he developed together with the two horn players, cornetto player and serpent player. And out of this experience would slowly emerge the Earthquake mass composition of Brumel…

Appendix with cut out questions and Schmelzer’s answers:

The interpretation of Renaissance polyphony from original manuscripts was to some extent also an improvisational art and required singers to have knowledge of the complex rules of historical music theory, counterpoint, musica ficta, and mensural notation. To what extent do you use improvisation during the rehearsing process or on the stage?

Mostly we don’t use improvisation, we also don’t sing from original manuscripts. Of course we add stuff, like musica ficta (chromatic alterations) and ornamentation etc…
My interest is rather to get rid of the score in the rehearsal process or performance, which is in fact the same as realising it: a sort of de-realising the score: it means rather than improvisation, to try to activate all virtual elements of a score, its absences, gaps, emphasizing contradictions, cross-relations…I call it : squeezing out a score, a concept which in a way comes from medieval theology and is called with a Greek word: kenosis. It means :emptying out, externalising, alienating…Luther translated it as: Entäußerung…In theology it’s the move from something substantial to a subjective changing of this substance, so it’s nicely applicable to a score or a musical diagram. In art you see this evolution in the middle ages from a Christ on the Cross as a victorious king to Christ as a man of sorrows, full of blood, a mocking king, a complete wasted subject…for me that’s how one should approach polyphony too, making it subjective, it means going till the end of its potentiality, squeezing out all what is there written and suggested in the score. It’s a weird kind of historicism, in a way, maybe the problem with historicism is that it was never historicistic enough, and that it should be applied to all absences, virtualities, horizons, negative elements, almost never counted for.

Brumel reflects Christ`s resurrection as an earthquake also in musical semantical way. Can you see an analogy to the biblical „timore magno“ (great scare) of prophets, apostles, or the Virgin Mary when they are confronted with the voice of God, angels, and the resurrected Christ? Is it fear of the fact that something we believed in actually happened?

I like the idea that in the Bible the Resurrection is a psycho-acoustic phenomenon, nobody saw it, it’s a pure act of faith, there is basically nothing to see. And the rolling away of the stone is just a terrible noise, making appear an empty grave, a black hole (as in Bruegel’s engraving).
Of course our dramaturgy points also at another earthquake, which happened on Good Friday, when Christ dies on the cross. It’s the moment the curtain in the temple rips and it appears there is nothing behind the curtain so to speak, we somehow re-enact that moment just before the Credo. Christianity is one of the only religions that has in its core a profound atheism: that’s why art and its ambiguity could be engaged in this tradition I think.

As Andrew Parrott says in the book "Composers’ Intentions: Lost Traditions of Musical Performance" there are two boundary attitudes in approach to an old repertoire: either to try to „reconstruct“ the original aims of composers of the past (and we know this is impossible) or try to discover our own way how to enjoy the old music today. Where in between these poles is your own point of view?

Let me say that I try to find still a third, alternative way, not the first one, which, as you say yourself, is not really an option, but also the second option sounds all too neoliberal to me. Or you must understand enjoyment in the psychoanalytic way binding pleasure with displeasure, or the displeasure as pleasure: in this sense yes, we should redeem this old music because it has the potential to offer challenges to us today, to trigger us! I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that you cannot change the present and of course not the future which still has to come, but you can paradoxically change the past, and it is a condition for change in the future. So well, here lays the important task for early music performers to change the past through performance and offering to contemporary listeners something of an unheard past. Not jus performing what listeners already know, but trying to transform or crack something in what they think they know already, offering some tools for emancipation and subjectivity to go on.


Neznesiteľná krása úzkosti


Zem sa zachvela v ten večer vo viedenskom Konzerthause. Nielen v názve neskororenesančnej 12-hlasnej omše Antoina Brumela, ale aj v receptoroch publika. Vokálny súbor GRAINDELAVOIX pod vedením BJÖRNA SCHMELZERA uviedol vo svetovej premiére nový program nazvaný vábivo Rolling Stone. Rockeri predbarokovej polyfónie vyrážali z Viedne na turné a my sme boli pri tom.

Graindelavoix (z franc. „zrno hlasu“) vznikol ešte na prahu milénia, napriek tomu je stále špecialitou pre znalcov, a ani v tejto cieľovej skupine nie je každému pochuti exhaltovaný prejav plný dynamických vlnení, melizmatických kĺzaní a prevratných pohľadov na čas plynúci v renesančnej polyfónii. Koncert v rámci festivalu Resonanzen (24. 1. 2023) bol pastvou pre zmysly, výzvou vnímať mnohé kontextuálne prepojenia a stavať z nich – azda aj vlastný – obraz „valiaceho sa kameňa“. A dialo sa to v technicky ohromujúcom rámci dokonalej súhry a intonácie.

Brumelova „Omša zemetrasenia“ (Et ecce terrae motus) sa nezachovala v celku a pre pokračujúcu bakteriálnu kontamináciu bude deštrukcia prameňa pokračovať. Umelecký vedúci súboru a autor jeho konceptov Björn Schmelzer odmietol starý artefakt reštaurovať, chýbajúce miesta priznal a vyplnil ich súčasnou hudbou portugalského free‐ jazzového a experimentálneho gitaristu Manuela Motu. Jeho hudba začína znieť už v úvodnej projekcii dokumentu Kult kameňa (L. di Gianni, 1967), ktorý je premietaný bez zvuku. O to viac vynikajú momenty rituálneho trenia sa o zázračný kameň na pútnickom mieste v Taliansku. Kameň je dôležitým motívom všetkých zložiek multimediálnej produkcie – ako predmet deštrukcie počas zemetrasenia, ako odvalený kameň z Kristovho hrobu na Bruegelovom obraze Vzkriesenie (ku ktorému Schmelzer odkazuje a ktorý bol vytvorený iluzívnou technikou grisaille, evokujúcou kamenné sochy). Zemet‐ rasenie je zase sprievodný jav Ježišovho vzkriesenia, ktorý Brumelova omša zachytáva v podobe voľne citovaného motívu veľ konočnej antifóny ranných chvál na 2. verš 28. kapitoly Matúšovho evanjelia. A aby to nebolo také jednoduché, je zároveň symbolom deštrukcie ako takej – papiera, ktorý ničí baktéria, spoločenskej či ekologickej skazy, ale aj úzkosti z Ježišovho prázdneho hrobu.
Lenže, možno sa mýlime, pretože ako vyplýva z rozhovoru, Björn Schmelzer je skeptický, pokiaľ ide o schopnosť druhých pochopiť jeho zámery. Provokuje, vysvetľuje, fascinuje a jeho hlas je počuť...

Súbor Graindelavoix je popredným reprezentantom nového prístupu k interpretácii renesančnej polyfónie. K pilierom vášho štýlu patrí napríklad nový pohľad na tempá, časté glissandá, naddimenzovaný výraz či konceptualizmus. Ako ste k nemu dospeli?

Je to komplexná problematika a neviem, či sa mi podarí vyhnúť sa zložitej odpovedi. Myslím si, že repertoár nazývaný ako „predmoderný“ trpí týmto označením, ktoré implikuje významy ako predsubjektívny, objektívny, matematický, remeselný, neumelecký... Historici sa nás snažia presvedčiť, že pred rokom, povedzme, 1800 neexistovala umelecká hudba, neexistoval moderný koncept umenia ako takého. Takto sa najčastejšie ospravedlňujú prístupy v štýle „novej objektivity“ či postoje interpretov, ktorí sa s falošnou skromnosťou stavajú do pozície mediátorov, realizujúcich čistý notový zápis bez akejkoľvek subjektívnej intervencie. Ale keď sa začnete kriticky vymedzovať voči tomuto druhu historizmu a pochopíte jeho mechanizmus, veci sa začnú meniť.
Skladatelia 15. storočia, napríklad Johannes Ockeghem alebo Josquin Desprez, boli, samozrejme, skutočnými umelcami a nie iba šikovnými remeselníkmi. Iste, používali formát katolíckej liturgie alebo gregoriánskych chorálov, no manipulovali s ním, „ohýbali ho“ pomocou nástrojov viachlasného kontrapunktu. Ani pravidlá kontrapunktu neuplatňovali otrocky, každá veľ ká kompozícia je reálnou výnimkou z normatívnych pravidiel. Skladatelia sa angažovali skôr v sabotáži, zmene a prekračovaní hudobných pravidiel, nielen v ich používaní.
Ja sa zúčastňujem na tomto meniacom sa pohľade na hudbu minulosti, ktorá je podľa mňa totálne umelecky moderná, snažím sa odtrhnúť od zaužívanej tradí‐ cie, vzdialiť sa „identifikácii“ doby. Spomeňme si na Machautovu Messe de Nostre Dame. Musela na spevákov a poslucháčov v Remeši v 14. storočí pôsobiť rovnako zvláštne ako dnes na nás. To je to, čo s minulosťou zdieľame naprieč obdobiami: puto k umeleckým dielam, ktoré nie sú typické, dobu identifikujúce, ale zvláštne, bizarné. Fascinuje ma tvorba, ktorá sa rozchádza so symbolickým normatívom svojej doby, vďaka čomu mala emancipačný potenciál vo svojej dobe a má ho aj dnes. Chcem, aby práve toto bolo počuť.

Pri interpretácii využívate aj nekonvenčné vokálne techniky, napríklad prirodzený hlas s nosovým tónom, naturalistický spôsob spevu s glissandami, ktorý evokuje tradičný viachlas, ako ho poznáme z regiónov južného Talianska. Je vaším cieľom vytvoriť taký zvukový „dizajn“?

Iste, z určitého klasického pohľadu sú tieto techniky nekonvenčné, ale hovoríme o období asi 100 rokov, od polovice 19. storočia, keď sa zakorenil istý klasický konformizmus. V modernom avantgardnom umení sa opäť objavuje Sprechgesang, glissando, ornamentika... Ak poslucháč nemá kategórie, signifikát pre to, čo počuje, zvyčajne mu napadne ľudový spev či, dokonca, mimoeurópska hudba. Začuje nosový tón alebo glissando v polyfónii a pomyslí si: „Toto musí byť arabské!“. Mňa však nezaujíma exotizmus ako taký, nepracujem s týmto aspektom. Áno, hľadáme, skúšame rôzne techniky a možnosti, ktoré integrujeme do konečného tvaru.
Nerozumiem ani tomu, prečo sa to, o čo sa snažíme, zvykne nazývať „surovým spevom“. V skutočnosti je naša interpretácia plná mikrotonálnych nuáns, tekutosti, plastickosti aj virtuozity v manipulácii hlasom, takže vôbec nejde o rigidné spievanie. Keď sa niečo vymyká z jestvujúcich kategórií a ľudia majú problémy svoju skúsenosť opísať, často sa uchýlia k zjednodušujúcim označeniam.
Pri počúvaní „nezápadnej hudby“ alebo takzvanej tradičnej hudby znejú napriek jednému štýlu tiež úplne odlišné hlasy aj ornamentika, podobne ako v jazze alebo v populárnej hudbe. Existujú takzvané biele hlasy (s takmer žiadnym vibratom, no schopné realizovať zložitú ornamentiku), potom viac vibrujúce hlasy (aj tu je variabilita nekonečná), máme tu timbre, farbu tónu, ktorú považujem za kľúčovú (avšak málokto sa ňou zaoberá pri skoršej starej hudbe)...
A môj posledný komentár k otázke – neverím v takzvaný „prirodzený hlas“. Podľa mňa nič také neexistuje. Všetky hlasy sú kultúrne, alebo sa pohybujú niekde medzi fyzickým a kultúrnym. Hlas je čosi veľmi zvláštne a nejasné. Na jednej strane je veľmi osobný, zároveň však neuchopiteľný, zvláštny, cudzí. Veď svoj hlas nemôžeme ani objektívne počuť, pretože k našej vlastnej vokalite máme prístup len sprostredkovane, cez druhých. Hlas je teda dokonale intímny a zároveň cudzí „ex‐ tímny“ objekt, ako to pomenoval Lacan.

Ako si vyberáte spevákov a inštrumentalistov na konkrétne projekty?

Často na nich narazím, niektorých som sám oslovil, lebo som bol fascinovaný ich hlasom, iní sa radi pridajú a stávajú sa súčasťou súboru, pretože zapadnú. Náš súbor vidím ako balík „nepasujúcich“ hlasov. Práve prvok nedokonalosti, zásadná heterogenita celého súboru, spojenia hla‐ sov, otvorený prístup k spoločnému spevu – to všetko vytvára náš „vibe“ či až akúsi auru. Nejde ani tak o konkrétnu farebnosť, je to skôr v „timingu“, rubátach, kĺzavých pohyboch a v tej takmer „nehmotnosti“ celkového dojmu. Keďže už dlho väčšinou pracujem s rovnakými ľuďmi, štýl sa vytvára už len tým, že spolu robíme. Je úžasné pozorovať týchto hudobníkov a spevákov s odlišným štýlom, školením a špecializáciou, ako sa jeden od druhého učia a navzájom sa „kontaminujú“. Mojou úlohou je len im to umožniť a potom sa stane aj zázrak. (smiech)

Stretávate sa s kritikou za svoj prístup? Ako jej čelíte?

Takmer celý čas sa stretávam s kritikou. Asi si viete predstaviť, že v mnohých poslucháčoch vyvolávame úzkostné pocity. (smiech) Podľa mňa však úzkosť ako zážitok v umení vôbec nie je zlá, len na ňu nie sme zvyknutí v kontakte s hudbou starou niekoľ ko storočí. Mnohí sa k nej obracajú, lebo je pre nich istotou a bezpečím: takmer sa v nej nevyskytujú disonancie, bolo o nej už všetko povedané, a preto je strateným rajom nepoškvrnenosti, poriadku a kontroly v kontraste s chaosom dneška. Adorno takýchto poslucháčov nazýva „resentimentálnymi.“ Keď sa stretnú so známou hudbou v našej verzii, je to pre nich šok. Ide však o produktívny šok, ktorý by malo umenie vyvolávať, nie? Hudba minulosti nie je naším bezpečným prístavom ani projekciou dokonalej spoločnosťou. Skladatelia v minulosti vyjadrovali napätia, nedostatky a protirečenia svojej doby a práve tento postoj k neznámemu, nedosiahnuteľnému je nadčasový.
Každý náš projekt – nahrávka alebo koncert – býva ocenený i kritizovaný zároveň. Myslím si, že je to dobré znamenie. Ja si potajme užívam negatívne kritiky, pretože sú väčšinou oveľa lepšie napísané ako tie pozitívne, odhaľujú oveľa viac snahy autora kriticky vnímať našu interpretáciu. Hoci ju odmietajú, pre mňa to často odhaľuje lásku „naruby“. Len ak niečo naozaj milujete, dokážete to aj do hĺbky nenávidieť. (smiech) Radšej chcem negatívnu kritiku než zle napísanú recenziu, prázdne pochvaly, často plné nepochopenia. Ľudia aj tak milujú to, čo robíte, z iných dôvodov, ako by ste si želali, aby to milovali.

V sprievodnom texte k projektu Rolling Stone ste sa vyjadrili, že nechcete, aby bol váš koncept vnímaný ako crossoverové klišé spojenia starej a súčasnej hudby. Čím sú teda projekty Graindelavoix: prieskumom súčasného umenia, kultúrno‐umeleckou exkurziou alebo individuálnym interpretačným vyjadrením?

Je vtipné, že už aj veľkú časť takzvanej súčasnej hudby zasiahla historizujúca mentalita. Čo vlastne je súčasná hudba? Som presvedčený, že diela starej hudby nevznikli pre svoju dobu – takmer vždy boli nepochopené, zle interpretované, nedocenené, marginalizované... Čiže tu sa končí fantázia historika! Hudba je vždy vytvorená pre neskoršie generácie, zabudne sa na ňu, niekedy sa dokonca takmer stratí alebo rukopisy hibernujú stáročia v prašnej knižnici. A potom niekoho, možno bláznov ako sme my, tento repertoár zasiahne, akoby nás zrazu oslovil. Adorno to nazýva „správou vo fľaši.“ Súčasníci boli príliš blízko, aby mohli „vykročiť“, my sme zasa príliš ďaleko. Páči sa mi tento paradox.
Našu interpretáciu tohto repertoáru považujem, samozrejme, za súčasť súčasnej hudby. Je to predsa, ako keď stále hráme Shakespeara, nie? Nikto v divadle by nepovedal, že to nie je súčasťou súčasnej kultúry, pretože v divadle je historický prístup prakticky odmietnutý alebo sa naň hľadí so zdravou podozrievavosťou. To neznamená, že by sme nemali brať historickosť vážne, ale mali by sme prestať fantazírovať o „originálnej interpretácii“, o tom, že najlepšia interpretácia pochádza z minulosti.
Som presvedčený, že umelecké diela nepatria do doby alebo sveta, v ktorom vznikli. Nazývame ich skutočnými umeleckými dielami, lebo nepatria nikam. Ak by patrili, označili by sme ich napríklad ako folklór alebo úžitkovú hudbu. Preto je umenie v zásade emancipačné, vymaňujúce sa z normatívnosti, čo platí aj pre hudbu minulosti. Snaha demodernizovať starú hudbu znamená pre mňa domestikovať ju, premeniť ju na „Gebrauchsmusik“. Je to ideologicky veľmi podozrivé.

O Brumelovi hovoríte ako o prvom „eko‐skladateľovi“ a poukazujete na to, že ľudia často ignorujú realitu, až kým nenastane katastrofa. Krátko po premiére vášho programu vo Viedni zasiahlo Turecko zemetrasenie...

Tá charakteristika Brumela bola myslená trochu ako vtip, pretože dnes je trendy sa v umení prezentovať ako politicky alebo ekologicky uvedomelý. Lenže ako to už býva v kapitalizme, vedie to potom k novému spôsobu komodifikácie. Konkrétne, program o ekológii sa lepšie predáva na festivaloch. To je trochu smutná pravda.
Myslím si, že umenie má špeciálny vzťah ku katastrofám. Hudba sa viaže napríklad k lamentáciám, zaklínaniu strát či bolesti. Na Brumelovej „Omši zemetrasenia“ ma fascinovalo, že sa objavuje v období veľkej sociálnej a náboženskej krízy, na začiatku 16. storočia, čiže v časoch reformácie, roľníckych povstaní, obrazoborectva, vojny o nezávislosť v Nizozemsku. Ako som už povedal, umenie je naše stretnutie s traumatickým a nemožným. Nepovažujem hudbu len za druh estetického úniku či ponuku na útechu. Pre mňa je dôležitejšie, že hudobné diela generujú význam, ktorý je nemožné fixovať, zostáva tajomným, a preto fascinujúcim.

V partitúre Brumelovej omše sú vypadnuté miesta, medzery spôsobené bakteriálnou kontamináciou. Neznáme miesta ste sa rozhodli vyplniť veľmi špecifickým spôsobom. Chcete, aby poslucháč jasne vnímal informáciu o stratených častiach ako symbol deštrukcie?

Program nazývam hudobným atlasom katastrof alebo pohrôm, čo pomohlo vytvoriť aj určitý skrytý príbeh na štruktúrovanie improvizovaných úsekov. Chcel som odmonumentalizovať Brumelovu kompozíciu a nechať ju, aby sa objavovala a mizla v rámci inštrumentálnych interlúdií, ktoré vytvoril Manuel Mota s ostatnými hráčmi. Namiesto toho, aby sme chýbajúce úseky v partitúre rekonštruovali a vyvolali v poslucháčoch dojem, že počúvajú pôvodnú podobu diela, bolo pre nás zaujímavejšie integrovať do vystúpenia aj deštrukčný prvok zubu času.
Nie, nejde o komunikáciu prostredníctvom symbolov, strata hudby samotnej skôr ponúka možnosť na ďalší spôsob tvorivosti. Strata nemusí byť kompenzovaná, skrytá alebo zapieraná, ako to robí umenie, ktoré ponúka falošný pocit spokojnosti. My sme chceli poslucháča konfrontovať s komplexnejším obrazom minulosti, vrátane jeho ruín a katastrof. Repetitívny charakter Brumelovej omše do tohto konceptu zapadol dobre. Opakovanie je vždy nejako spojené s niečím traumatickým. Niečo sa opakuje, pretože sa to nedá integrovať symbolicky.

V programe Rolling Stone pracujete s viacerými vrstvami. Okrem hudby vnímame dokumentárny film, ikonický obraz či scénické osvetlenie. Táto multimediálnosť posúva koncertný program na úroveň konceptuálneho audiovizuálneho umenia...

V určitom zmysle má program Rolling Stone veľmi jednoduchú štruktúru a riešenie projektovať film na záclonu pred pódiom si vynútili technické prekážky. Veľmi sa mi páči myšlienka, že kreatívna sloboda a nápady vznikajú nakoniec samy osebe z obmedzení, ktoré na začiatku pôsobia ako problémy a zlyhania. V určitom zmys‐ le by sme ako umelci mali byť vďačnejší za obmedzenia, ktorým čelíme. Projekcia dokumentu Il culto delle pietre z roku 1967 od Luigiho di Gianniho však bola od začiatku východiskovým bodom vystúpenia. Oslovil som gitaristu Manuela Motu, ktorý je legendou vo svojom odbore aj na scéne experimentálnej improvizovanej hudby. Požiadal som ho, aby skomponoval a vytvoril nový „soundtrack“, ktorý by sprevádzal film. Vytvoril ho spolu s hráčmi na dvoch lesných rohoch, cinku a serpen‐ te. No a z tohto úvodu sa postupne vynorí Brumelova „Omša zemetrasenia“...

Björn Schmelzer honoured as knight in the French Order of Arts and Letters

Persbericht - Graindelavoix
Björn Schmelzer benoemd tot chevalier in de Franse Orde van Kunsten en Letteren!

We zijn verheugd bekend te maken dat Björn Schmelzer, artistiek leider van het onconventionele Belgische muziekgezelschap Graindelavoix, geridderd werd door het Franse ministerie van Cultuur. Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres is één van de belangrijkste culturele onderscheidingen van Frankrijk. De ceremonie vond plaats op 17 maart in de Franse ambassade te Brussel.
's Avonds brachten Schmelzer & Graindelavoix in Bozar voor het Klarafestival de Belgische première van hun nieuwe project Rolling Stone, een eigenzinnige interpretatie van de legendarische Aardbevingsmis van de Franse polyfonist Antoine Brumel, geïnspireerd door zowel de actuele situatie als de grisailles van Bruegel.
Schmelzer & Graindelavoix waren 5 jaar lang in residentie bij de Fondation Royaumont nabij Parijs en traden op de belangrijkste Franse podia op, waaronder ook de cour d'honneur in Avignon (in samenwerking met Rosas).
Björn Schmelzer is zeer vereerd met deze erkenning uit Frankrijk. Hij brengt in herinnering dat hij meer dan 20 jaar geleden de naam graindelavoix ontleende aan een essay van de Franse schrijver en filosoof Roland Barthes en dat het Franse denken een onophoudelijke bron van inspiratie blijft voor zijn werk en artistieke projecten. Hij beschouwt dit niet enkel als een erkenning voor zichzelf, maar voor de hele Graindelavoix équipe, voor de muzikanten en artistieke medewerkers, sound designer en productieteam.
_ _ _

Communiqué de presse - Graindelavoix
Björn Schmelzer nommé Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres en France!

Nous sommes ravis d'annoncer que Björn Schmelzer, directeur artistique de l'ensemble Belge non conventionnel Graindelavoix, reçoit le titre de Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres du Ministère de la Culture de la France, l'une des plus hautes distinctions culturelles françaises. La cérémonie avait lieu à l'Ambassade de France à Bruxelles le 17 mars.
Le soir, Schmelzer & Graindelavoix interprètaient à Bozar (Klarafestival) la première belge de leur nouveau spectacle Rolling Stone, une interprétation hétérodoxe de la légendaire Missa Et ecce terrae motus du polyphoniste français Antoine Brumel, inspirée par la situation actuelle, ainsi que par les peintures en grisaille de Bruegel.
Schmelzer & Graindelavoix ont été en résidence pendant 5 ans à la Fondation Royaumont près de Paris et ont interprété sur les scènes les plus prestigieuses de la France, dont la cour d'honneur d'Avignon (en collaboration avec Rosas).
Björn Schmelzer est extrêmement honoré de cette reconnaissance de la France. Il rappelle qu'il a “approprié" le nom de graindelavoix il y a plus de 20 ans à un titre d'essai de l'écrivain et philosophe français Roland Barthes et que la pensée française a inspiré depuis toujours son travail et ses projets artistiques. Il considère le titre non seulement une reconnaissance pour lui-même, mais pour toute l'équipe de Graindelavoix, pour les musiciens et collaborateurs artistiques, l'ingénieur du son et l'équipe de production.
_ _ _

Press Release - Graindelavoix
Björn Schmelzer honoured as knight in the French Order of Arts and Letters!

We are delighted to announce that Björn Schmelzer, artistic director of the Belgian maverick music ensemble Graindelavoix, receives a knighthood from the French ministry of culture (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), one of the highest French cultural honours. The ceremony took place at the French Embassy in Brussels on 17 March.
At night Schmelzer & Graindelavoix performed at Bozar for Klarafestival the Belgian premiere of their new show Rolling Stone, an unconventional interpretation of French polyphonist Antoine Brumel’s legendary Earthquake Mass, informed by the contemporary situation as well as Bruegel’s grisaille paintings.
Schmelzer & Graindelavoix have been in a 5 year’s residency at the Fondation Royaumont near Paris and performed in France’s major cultural venues including the cour d’honneur of Avignon (in collaboration with Rosas).
Björn Schmelzer is extremely honoured with this recognition from France. He reminds us that he “appropriated” the name graindelavoix more than 20 years ago from an essay-title of French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes and that French thinking has inspired his own work and artistic projects ever since. He sees this as a recognition, not only for himself, but for the whole Graindelavoix équipe; his long-term artistic collaborators, sound engineer and production team.

(c) drawing Marianna Oklejak

Belgian première of Rolling Stone in Klarafestival, Bozar

This Friday, 17 March, Graindelavoix will be voluntarily exiled to the underground of Bozar Brussels for the Belgian première of ROLLING STONE (Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass in Times of Disaster) for the Klarafestival

Join us, last tickets here!

What can art and music mean in times of disaster and crisis?
Graindelavoix consulted Pieter Bruegel (1569), who began painting grisaille (stone-colored) works in the 1560s in response to political disasters and iconoclasm, and the French composer Antoine Brumel (+1512), whose 12-part Earthquake Mass was rediscovered by Orlandus Lassus in the same period. For these artists, 'resurrection' is not an uprising, revolt or revolution, but a petrifying confrontation with the rumble of a colossal tombstone, with stone dust, rubble and a black hole. On the ruins of past and present, Graindelavoix recreates Brumel's composition, anticipated by images from the short neorealist documentary “Il Culto delle Pietre” (1967) by Luigi di Gianni, an allegory of a modern world marked by inertia and superstition. Add to the color and grit of the voices the deliberate anachronism of four wind instruments (cornetto, horns, serpent), together with the interventions of legendary Portuguese avant-garde guitarist Manuel Mota, and you get an idea of Graindelavoix’s atlas of disasters.

Graindelavoix / Björn Schmelzer, artistic direction

Teodora Tommasi, Florencia Menconi, soprano
Andrew Hallock, alto
Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, tenor
Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet, bass

Lluis Coll i Trulls, cornetto
Berlinde Deman, serpent
Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, horn
Christopher Price, horn
Manuel Mota, electric guitar

artistic concept: Björn Schmelzer
sound concept, arrangements and compositions: Manuel Mota
(in collaboration with Tremblay, Coll i Trulls, Price and Deman)
live sound engineering : Alex Fostier
light design: Fostier, Garcia & Schmelzer
external ear & artistic advice: Margarida Garcia
production: Katrijn Degans

coproduction with Klarafestival Brussels, Muziekcentrum De Bijloke Gent & Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen

Discover the New Album of Manuel Mota, Guitarist of Graindelavoix's Upcoming Brumel Program

Check out here the new album of our colleague and brother in arms guitarist Manuel Mota!

Friday, 17 March, we join forces for the Belgian première of Rolling Stone, Antoine Brumel's Earthquake Mass in times of Bozar Brussels, for the Klarafestival!

tickets here:

Graindelavoix with Jan Michiels opens Festival Kortrijk

On March 1st, Epitaphs of Afterwardsness, a collaboration with pianist Jan Michiels opened the Festival of Flanders - Kortrijk.

With Florencia Menconi, Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Tomàs Maxé and Arnout Malfliet

concert photos by Gregory Vlieghe

Newsletter March 2023


Wednesday 01.03.2023  
Sint Elisabethkerk - Wilde Westen - Festival van Vlaanderen Kortrijk  (B)  

Friday 03.03.2023
Amuz - Antwerpen (B)

Saturday 04.03.2023
Kraakhuis -  Muziekcentrum De Bijloke  - Gent (B)  
RECORDING sound installation for KL Plaszow Museum (closed event)

Friday 17.03.2023  
Bozar - Klarafestival - Brussels (B)

Friday 17.03.2023
French Embassy - Brussels (B)
CEREMONY (private event)- Björn Schmelzer, receiving Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministery of Culture

Machaut - Bach - Kurtag - Ligeti

Music dies at birth, Leonardo da Vinci mused, trying to demonstrate its inferiority to the eternal existence of a visual artwork. Music has always been decomposition, sounding decomposition.
This program is an attempt to create a dialectical resonance between two composers miles apart: Machaut and Kurtág. Rather than restoring Machaut to its so-called originality, our performance explores the subjectivity of the work itself by alternating and confronting it with works by György Kurtág, one of today's most important composers.
The listener is invited to answer the question that the performers ask themselves along with the work: what happens to a 14th-century composition of Machaut's caliber when it is set amidst several other carefully selected musical epitaphs, from the 18th, 19th and 20th century? What is the role of the Nachleben, or afterlife? And how does the performers change their own commitment and investment in resonance with the other works? What does it mean if musical works are primarily epitaphs of their own demise? And how can this incessant demise be inscribed in the performance itself, being preserved as listening experience?

Muziek sterft bij geboorte, mijmerde Leonardo da Vinci, waarmee hij haar minderwaardigheid probeerde aan te tonen tegenover het eeuwige bestaan van een visueel kunstwerk. Muziek is altijd al ontbinding, klinkende ontbinding.
Dit programma is een poging een dialectische resonantie tot stand te brengen tussen twee mijlenver van elkaar verwijderde componisten: Machaut en Kurtág. In plaats van Machaut in zijn zogenaamde oorspronkelijkheid te herstellen onderzoekt onze uitvoering de subjectiviteit van het werk zelf door het te alterneren en te confronteren met werken van György Kurtág, een van de belangrijkste componisten van nu.
Wat gebeurt er met een 14de eeuwse compositie van het kaliber van Machaut als ze wordt opgesteld te midden van enkele andere, minutieus geselecteerde muzikale epitaven, uit de 18de, 19de en 20ste eeuw? Wat is de rol van het Nachleben, of afterlife? En hoe verandert de uitvoerders hun eigen geëngageerdheid en investering in resonantie met de andere werken? Wat betekent het voor de luisteraar als muzikale werken op de eerste plaats epitaven zijn van hun eigen ondergang? En hoe kan dit onophoudelijk “ten onder gaan” ingeschreven worden in de uitvoering zelf, en behouden blijven als luisterervaring?  

Florencia Menconi, sopraan
Andrew Hallock, contratenor
Albert Riera, tenor
Andrés Miravete, tenor
Tomàs Maxé, bariton
Arnout Malfliet, bas

Jan Michiels, vleugelpiano & buffetpiano Björn Schmelzer, artistieke leiding

Lees hier het interview van Julie Hendrickx (Amuz) met Jan Michiels en Björn Schmelzer
Lees hier het Epitaphs-interview van Johan Geerts met Björn Schmelzer

Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass in Times of Disaster

What can art and music mean in times of disaster and crisis? Graindelavoix consulted Pieter Bruegel (1569), who began painting grisaille (stone-colored) works in the 1560s in response to political disasters and iconoclasm, and the French composer Antoine Brumel (+1512), whose 12-part Earthquake Mass was rediscovered by Orlandus Lassus in the same period. For these artists, 'resurrection' is not an uprising, revolt or revolution, but a petrifying confrontation with the rumble of a colossal tombstone, with stone dust, rubble and a black hole. On the ruins of past and present, Graindelavoix recreates Brumel's composition, anticipated by images from the short neorealist documentary “Il Culto delle Pietre” (1967) by Luigi di Gianni, an allegory of a modern world marked by inertia and superstition. Add to the color and grit of the voices the deliberate anachronism of four wind instruments (cornetto, horns, serpent), together with the interventions of the legendary Portuguese avant-garde guitarist Manuel Mota, and you get an idea of Graindelavoix’s atlas of disasters.


Wat kunnen kunst en muziek betekenen in tijden van ramp en crisis? Graindelavoix ging te rade bij Pieter Bruegel (1569), die grisaille (steenkleurige) werken begon te schilderen in de jaren 1560 als reactie op politieke rampen en beeldenstorm, en bij de Franse componist Antoine Brumel (+1512) , wiens 12-delige aardbevingsmis werd herontdekt door Orlandus Lassus in dezelfde periode. Voor deze kunstenaars is ‘verrijzenis' geen opstand, revolt of revolutie, maar een verstenende confrontatie met het gedaver van een kolossale grafsteen, met steengruis, puin en een zwart gat. Op de ruïnes van heden en verleden herschept Graindelavoix Brumels compositie, ingeleid door beelden uit de korte neorealistische documentaire “Il Culto delle Pietre” (1967) van Luigi di Gianni, een allegorie van een moderne wereld getekend door inertie en bijgeloof. Voeg bij het coloriet en het gruis van de stemmen het opzettelijke anachronisme van vier blazers (cornetto, hoorns, serpent), en de interventies van de legendarische Portugese avant-garde-gitarist Manuel Mota, en je krijgt een idee van de rampen-atlas van Graindelavoix.

Teodora Tommasi, Florencia Menconi, soprano
Andrew Hallock, alto
Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, tenor
Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet, bass

Lluis Coll i Trulls, cornetto
Berlinde Deman, serpent
Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, horn
Christopher Price, horn
Manuel Mota, electric guitar

artistic concept: Björn Schmelzer
sound concept, compositions and arrangements: Manuel Mota (in collaboration with Tremblay, Price, Coll i Trulls & Deman)
live sound engineering : Alex Fostier
light design: Fostier, Garcia & Schmelzer
external ear & artistic advice: Margarida Garcia
production: Katrijn Degans

coproduction with Klarafestival Brussels, Muziekcentrum De Bijloke Gent & Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen

RECORDING Sound Monument Plaszow

In collaboration with the Polish KL Plaszow Museum and on invitation by sound designer Michal Libera, Graindelavoix works on a recording for a sound installation monument at the former German Nazi Labour and Concentration Camp (1942–1945). The recording will be part of a sound monument parcours that aims to develop tangible traces of the camp's past, using the land as a carrier of a history that is difficult to access.


In samenwerking met het Poolse KL Plaszow Museum en op uitnodiging van geluidskunstenaar Michal Libera werkt Graindelavoix aan een opname voor een geluidsinstallatie-monument in het voormalige Duitse nazi-arbeiders- en concentratiekamp (1942–1945). De opname zal deel uitmaken van een parcours dat tastbare sporen van het kampverleden wil ontwikkelen, waarbij het terrein wordt gebruikt als drager van een moeilijk toegankelijke geschiedenis.

Andrew Hallock
Albert Riera
Marius Peterson
Arnout Malfliet

by the French Ministry of Culture

Very honoured to announce this wonderful news!
The ceremony will take place on 17 March 2023 at the French Embassy of Brussels.
Schmelzer will receive the insignia from the hands of the Embassador François Sénémaud in the presence of the musicians and collaborators.

copyright pictures Frank Emmers & Marianna Oklejak

graindelavoix vzw  Boudewijnssteeg 8 - 2018 Antwerp

graindelavoix receives structural support by the Flemish community

and is in residency at Muziekcentrum De Bijloke

Een concert als museum van het onzichtbare Een gesprek met Jan Michiels en Björn Schmelzer

Naar aanleiding van het concert Epitaphs of Afterwardsness in Amuz op 3 maart 2023 interviewde Julie Hendrickx Jan Michiels en Björn Schmelzer.

Lees hier online.

Een concert als museum van het onzichtbare
Een gesprek met Jan Michiels en Björn Schmelzer

Hoe goed kent u de laatste trends? Dark academia? Schemerige bibliotheken, donkere overlopen, historische gebouwen, een zwakke flikkerende verlichting, nonchalante overhemden, wollen capes, schriften gevuld met aantekeningen en ideeën, zware houten bureaus bedolven onder zulke schriften, naslagwerken en boeken, zo veel boeken (Austen! Proust!), een unheimlich schilderij aan de muur. U vat het uiterlijke plaatje. Dark academia is natuurlijk niets meer dan een romantisering van het idee van kennis en hoe die te vergaren. Waarom ik de behoefte voel u dit te vertellen? Wel, Björn Schmelzer en Jan Michiels zijn onbedoeld (en waarschijnlijk al even onbewust) on trend. Alleen gaat het bij hen niet om een romantisering van kennis, maar om kennis als levenskracht.

Zowel bij pianist Jan Michiels als bij Björn Schmelzer, artistiek leider van graindelavoix, speelt kennis natuurlijk geen kleine rol. Het woord ‘kennis’ mag hier allerminst worden opgevat als een gestold weten. Want “de oorspronkelijke context van het oudemuziekrepertoire, de reconstructie, is altijd een fantasie. We zijn die muziek hoe dan ook al kwijt. Zelfs op het moment dat een componist zijn compositie neerschrijft, is de betekenis al weg van hem.” Aan het woord is Schmelzer, die het liefst keer op keer onze oren uitwast. Samen met Michiels is hij curator van dit bijzondere concert dat de piano – een concertvleugel en een buffetpiano – combineert met 14de-eeuwse polyfonie. Er zijn twee headliners die avond, Guillaume de Machaut en György Kurtág, en onder hun muziek schuilt één verborgen narratief, namelijk dat verlies betekenis genereert.

Laat ons even teruggaan naar die 14de eeuw, toen de Machaut zijn legendarische Messe de Nostre Dame componeerde voor zijn eigen nagedachtenis. Voor zijn zielenheil moest de mis na zijn overlijden in 1377 elke zaterdag weerklinken in een zijaltaar van de kathedraal van Reims. Schmelzer vertelt: “Een traditie die werd volgehouden tot het einde van de 15de eeuw, maar daarna in onbruik raakte. Tot de 19de eeuw leidde het werk dan een sluimerend bestaan in een door de componist zelf samengestelde verzameling van zijn oeuvre. Pas in de 20ste eeuw werd de mis opnieuw uitgevoerd en ondertussen is ze een mijlpaal en referentie voor hedendaagse componisten.” Naast deze mis is het werk van Kurtág een leitmotiv in het programma. Het betreft hier geen gelukkig toeval, want “Kurtág kan als eeuweling (hij viert op 19 februari zijn 96ste verjaardag, n.v.d.r.) niet alleen de muziekgeschiedenis van de 20ste eeuw in enkele noten vatten, hij absorbeert eigenlijk de volledige muziekgeschiedenis.” Michiels verwoordt niet alleen de kunst van Kurtág voortreffelijk, maar eveneens zijn eigen bewondering voor de man, wanneer hij zijn composities vergelijkt met diamanten: “Kurtágs werk bestaat vaak uit niet meer dan beknopte stukken, maar ze glinsteren door dit programma heen.”

De Machaut en Kurtág worden door Schmelzer en Michiels niet ‘gewoon’ gecombineerd, maar letterlijk met elkaar versneden. “Het Kyrie, dat eigenlijk negen minuten duurt, hebben we opgedeeld,” licht Schmelzer toe, “je hoort dus drie keer Kyrie en drie keer Christe. Daartussen speelt Jan korte stukken van Kurtág die functioneren als poëtische passages of tropen. Net zoals het Kyrie in de middeleeuwen trouwens ook werd ‘getropeerd’.” En ergens tussen die composities en hun lijfelijke beroering, daar zit u. Bijna op de bezwete huid van zangers en pianist, met een nieuw, eigenaardig gevoel van tijd. “Door al die combinaties krijg je bijna de indruk dat de composities van Kurtág ouder klinken dan de mis van de Machaut, hoewel die niets van haar avant-gardisme verliest.” Meer zelfs, want “door de Machaut te combineren met Kurtág, reikt Kurtág ons eigenlijk een sleutel aan om de Machaut te begrijpen.” En daar raakt Schmelzer de kern, de eenvoudige kern: door de historische context los te laten, kan het werk opnieuw spreken. “In een museum hangen de kunstwerken ook niet in hun oorspronkelijke context, ze krijgen opnieuw betekenis door de manier waarop ze worden gepresenteerd, door wat er in hun nabijheid hangt. Betekenis wordt mede gecreëerd op het moment zelf.” Beschouw dit concert dus gerust als een museum van onzichtbare kunstwerken. Temeer omdat wat je hoort, al onherroepelijk voorbij is. “Muziek is klank in ontbinding. Je ervaart een verlies, je voelt aan dat een nieuwe betekenis wordt geboren.”

Samen trekken Schmelzer en Michiels die lijn nog verder door: want wat als die oorspronkelijke betekenis, die wij zo graag hebben, nooit bestond? Het is geen vaststaand gegeven dat muziek steeds correct werd begrepen vanuit de intentie van de componist. Schmelzer: “Ik vraag me voortdurend af hoe die zangers dat hebben beleefd, op de dag dat de Machaut daar met die partituur op de proppen kwam, en tijdens zijn wekelijkse wederopstandingen daarna – zelfs vandaag klinkt die muziek nog steeds radicaal.” “Alle grote muziek, muziek die de tands des tijds heeft doorstaan, is muziek die in haar eigen tijd niet helemaal werd begrepen.” Michiels refereert aan Bach die als beginnend organist de geloofsgemeenschap eerder choqueerde dan in vervoering bracht, en naar de latere strijkkwartetten van Beethoven. Hij weet het eigenlijk goed samen te vatten wanneer hij zegt dat kunstwerken – om precies te zijn: hij nam eigenlijk het woord ‘meesterwerken’ in de mond – altijd opnieuw ontdekt willen worden. In dit museum geen gestolde kennis!

Betekenis stapelen
Schurkt dit trouwens niet erg dicht aan bij de enige constante in het leven; dat niets kan blijven zoals het is? Dat verandering de enige wetmatigheid is waarop we echt kunnen rekenen? Waarom verwachten we dan van kunst, en in dit geval van oude muziek, dat haar betekenis statisch blijft? “We horen muziek en we moeten vaststellen dat de ervaring reeds een herinnering is”, aldus Schmelzer. Afscheid nemen omvat, volgens mij, ook dat je al vooruitblikt,” valt Michiels hem bij, “die afscheidsgedachte is een draad doorheen dit programma.” Een zilveren draad dan. Want zilver is als het ware een neutraal startpunt dat details mooi accentueert, dat wanneer de spot er vol wordt opgezet, ook de helderste reflectie geeft.

Na een stroom aan muziek – textuur na textuur – is het een onbestaande compositie die u die avond achterlaat. Als u die bewuste vrijdagavond van de derde maart doorbrengt in AMUZ, dan hoort u daar de virtuoze toucher van Jan Michiels die als laatste, rond tien na negen, Bachs Chaconne (uit zijn tweede vioolpartita) in een bewerking van Brahms, voor de linkerhand speelt. Je hoort hoe de piano de vioolpartij probeert te imiteren – Brahms schreef de vioolpartij ook bijna letterlijk over, een octaaf lager. De vingervaardigheid van de violist wordt benadrukt door het labeur van de vijf linkervingers van Michiels. Bach schreef de Chaconne voor de plotse dood van zijn eerste vrouw, Maria Barbara – zo wordt gezegd. Brahms maakte er dan weer een bewerking van, omdat de melodie hem bleef achtervolgen, hij kon niet zonder. Het liefst van al had hij violist en goede vriend Joseph Joachim constant aan zijn zijde staan, zodat hij de melodie kon horen. Op repeat. Vanuit de donkere zijbeuken hoort u rond datzelfde tijdstip ook de zangers van graindelavoix. Zij geven een stem aan de verborgen koraalstemmen die Bach in zijn Chaconne wist te smokkelen. Verlies na verlies – of betekenis na betekenis, hoe u wil – stapelt zich op: de componist die zijn vrouw verliest, flarden van oude repertoires die de Chaconne bespoken, de pianist die zijn rechterhand mist en dan “het onherroepelijke verlies van de muziek waarin tegelijk haar redding schuilt.”

Denkt u eraan, die derde maart, bij het wegebben van het laatste applaus, dat het altijd al om afscheid draaide. En om kennis, meer bepaald het weten dat we het verleden alleen maar kunnen kennen vanuit ons hedendaagse perspectief.

Julie Hendrickx

International première of Rolling Stone at Vienna Konzerthaus

Join us tonight for the international premiere of our new project Rolling Stone in Vienna Konzerthaus with Florencia Menconi, Teodora Tommasi, Andrew Hallock, Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, Tomàs Maxé, Arnout Malfliet, Berlinde Deman, Pierre-Antoine Tremblay, Christopher Price, Lluis Coll, Manuel Mota, Alex Fostier and Björn Schmelzer.

Photo of performance in a church
Zoomed in photo of performance in a church