One might argue that ancient codices containing some of the oldest Western repertoire are, in a sense, composers; while some volumes may identify the names of individual composers apart from anonymous works, certain manuscripts have an overall character that suggests a sum of its parts may have a recognizable value in understanding its overall content. That's partly why it's a pity that a complete recording has not, until now, been made of one of the major medieval manuscript sources, even though numerous digital recording formats make the prospect of such a large project easily practical. With Olive Music's Codex Chantilly Vol. 1, Tetraktys -- an early music ensemble led by Kees Boeke and featuring the transparent voices of Jill Feldman and Carlos Mena -- have decided to tackle the big one: the Codex Chantilly, aka Bibliothèque du Musée Condé 564. Compiled between 1400 and 1410 with a couple of additions from perhaps the 1420s, this manuscript is said to reflect the taste of the secular court at Avignon during the last years of the Western Schism, when two bitterly opposed popes claimed leadership of the Roman church and Europeans were obliged to pick their allegiance to one or the other; a situation unthinkable in the twenty first century. None of the music in the Codex Chantilly is sacred, and it's hard to determine whether what motivated its unique virtues in content and style reflects a kind of medieval humanism, just plain decadence, or a combination of the two. Nevertheless, the music in the volume is extremely hard to read owing to its unique type of notation and the inherent strangeness of style among the various pieces included. While the music in the Codex Chantilly relates in a general sense to late medieval practice observed in other manuscripts of that time, by comparison certain pieces sound more likely to have been composed by aliens from outer space than by fourteenth-century composers.
Tetraktys takes a disarmingly simple and practical approach to realizing the music in the Codex Chantilly; texted lines are sung by either Feldman, Mena, or both singers to a bare-bones accompaniment provided by medieval harp, played by Marta Graziolino, and two vielles or vielle and occasional flute, played by Silvia Tecardi and leader Kees Boeke, respectively. This texture is sufficiently varied from piece to piece and never wears thin; the differences between the eight pieces themselves dictate the sense of variety throughout the album. Realizing the music as it lies is certainly enough; there is little to no elaboration among the instruments outside of realizing one strophe of a text a slightly different way as compared to another. Tetraktys has a great command of the rhythmic element in this music; Solage's S'aincy estoit has to have one of the most obtuse and asymmetrical strophes in all of music, almost like a passage from a John Cage number piece. But the way Tetraktys grasps not only the notes but the all important silences between the notes makes it possible for the listener to grasp the subtle cycles within the piece and it does not come off as a continuous outpouring of polyphony as is sometimes such a temptation when one is dealing with old music like this. Moreover, Tetraktys' realization of Je ne puis avoir plaisir is not just a sing-songy tune with a catchy refrain; the virelai has a definite rhythmic profile to it. It also uses the full, long texts with their many verses, so instead of a three-minute pass through one verse of Jacob de Senleches' Je me merveil, you get the full six verses in 14 minutes, which gives the complex musical texture ample time to breathe and sink in.
There is no better musicology than performing a piece of music well and hearing it done that way, and in the course of this project Tetraktys has made some discoveries. While the attribution of the anonymous virelai Je ne puis avoir plaisir to Antonello da Caserta has been established for some time, Tetraktys suggests that a likely candidate for author of the anonymous ballade De quanqu'on peut might be Matteo da Perugia; familiarity with Matteo's distinctive style indicates that this observation is dead on. With Olive Music's Codex Chantilly Vol. 1, that's eight pieces down; only 105 to go. Tetraktys is doing this wholly worthwhile project on its own dime; those interested in supporting this effort, which is estimated to run to 15 CDs, might want to check out www.o-livemusic.com.