Graindelavoix / Björn Schmelzer

Cecus: Colours, Blindess and Memorial

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The notes for this release by conductor Björn Schmelzer are given in English, French, German, and Spanish; the texts, mostly in Latin or medieval French, appear only in French and English. Some will contend that the notes are crazy, and indeed the same accusation was made against the vocal works of Alexander Agricola in their own time. But there is such a thing as salutary nonsense. Schmelzer's premise is that Agricola was blind ("cecus" in Latin), and that his music involved a detailed representation of the experience of blindness. More specifically, the evidence rests on an odd, textless Agricola composition, in three parts and apparently instrumental, called Cecus non judicat de coloribus ("A blind man does not judge colors"); here it is split into its two sections, with motets by Agricola and other composers in between. The evidence that this work is autobiographical, or even that Agricola was indeed blind, is hazy. Cecus non judicat de coloribus is a sort of catalog of contrapuntal devices, and its title could easily be interpreted as having a pedagogical function. But whether you buy it or not, Schmelzer's style, brilliantly realized by his ten-voice, mixed-gender chorus Graindelavoix (the name refers to the writings of French theorist Roland Barthes), is gorgeous. You have never heard Renaissance polyphony done this way, although maybe Leopold Stokowski would have enjoyed it. Think of it as being as far as can be imagined from the pure Tallis Scholars sound model. The singers' voices do indeed reveal plenty of "grain" as they follow Schmelzer in emphasizing passages of text that appear to relate to his thesis, with the males, at least, breaking at the high points into a kind of controlled yell. Schmelzer also adds various small consorts of instruments to some of the pieces. It's all well worth hearing, if only for the shock of the new, and who knows, whatever Agricola meant by "cecus non judicat de coloribus," it might be the next stage in Renaissance polyphony.

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