Songs from the Sky

Shortly before I began work on Songs from the Sky (2004), I happened to be in Venice, a city famous for its liberal use of music in a liturgical context. I recalled the early seventeenth-century practice of replacing standard items of Vespers with musical motets, grafting them ‘onto’ the liturgy and leaving additional verses to be delivered by the priest, sotto voce. Following his own visit to St Mark’s Basilica, in 1608, Thomas Coryate described the music as ‘so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like’. Coryate’s remarks praise music alone. They diminish the significance of the liturgical context in which the music was performed and usher forth a possible, historical contention. It seems that, in early seventeenth-century Venice, music made a serious claim for the foreground by challenging its rank as an art at the service of something beyond itself.

Songs from the Sky makes a comparative investigation into Aztec ritual and Christian liturgical practice. It also refers to a phenomenon of our own time, known as the Early Music movement. The work sets an Aztex song-pom, ‘Fish Song’ (‘Michcuicatl’), in Nahuatl, its original language. ‘Fish Song’ is drawn from Cantares Mexicanos, a volume that dates from the late-sixteenth century and illuminates Aztex lore in the light of the new Christian faith. For example, the Aztecs find common ground between their own, symbolic use of the fish and New Testament stories of Christ and the fishermen. In Songs from the Sky, two narrators act as our guides during the first and last movements as they refer to esotecric aspects of both heritages. They move around the performance area, pause to speak at certain locations and in so doing, inscribe a large, five-point pattern, or ‘quincunx’. Similarly, the spatial relationship between the five locations of the wind instrumentalists delineates the same figure, which the Aztecs believed was of such significance that it underpinned the world itself. The narrators seem to be in control, but we are not entirely certain about their identities. Perhaps one of the them is a contemporary historian with an interest in Mexicana. Perhaps the other is from another age altogether. Sometimes they tell us what is happening (e.g. when the choir sings in Nahuatl) and sometimes they partake of the ritual itself by reciting excerpts from the Bible or Cantares Mexicanos. On another level, it might also be said that they prevent us from directing our ears towards the choir and make us wonder whether the music ought to be treated as background – as a theatrical cyclorama.

An interesting this about churches, particularly those of Gothic design, is the implied hierarchy of the seating as regards the distances of individual people from the activities of the priest. Notably, the social history of the concert has left us with a comparable paradigm: market economics usually determine one’s distance from the source of the music. And so, in Songs from the Sky, the narrators move through the central parting of the audience, as if they were priests carrying the Word to the congregation, as physical object and intangible sacrament, during a reading from the Holy Gospel. Thus, the narrators dispatch literary excerpts to particular ‘zones’ of the assembly. Indeed, depending on the location of one’s seat, it may or may not be possible to hear everything they say.

In contrast, the two central movements promote aesthetic experiences of a ‘purer’ kind. The narrators and instrumentalists exit at the end of ‘Summoning the Muse’ and so that aspect of visual, dynamic motion is removed from the area of performance. This absence of motion assists, as it were, in freezing our focus onto the music alone. Sound assumes a theatricality of its own kind. In the second movement, ‘The Song-Flowers of Rain’, the Aztecs tell us they are eager to be in Paradise and wish to be caught in the ‘net’ of Christianity. In the third, ‘Now God has Music’, they sing of the pleasure they derive from knowing that God – at last – has genuine music in the form of highly skilled, sung devotions brought to Mexico from the Old World. Accordingly, this movement reworks eighteenth-century Mexican composer, Manuel de Sumaya’s Lamentations – a composition clearly influenced by European contrapuntal technique – and thus invokes the spirit of the Early Music movement, flavoured perhaps by the Venetian polychoral tradition.

In the final movement (‘And Mexico Endures’), the narrators and instrumentalists return and the music oscillates between foreground and background once again. It responds to the emotions of the Aztecs, which fluctuate between rejoicing and weeping. Towards the end, the choir assumes the role of commentator and delivers the final (Biblical) excerpt of the work, which finishes with the phrase, ‘and to dust you shall return’. It echoes the conclusion of ‘Fish Song’ (spoken in translation by the narrators), in which the Aztecs accept both the difficulty of their lives and the promise of immortality. And so the lines from Genesis remind us of the mortality of the body and the ephemeral nature of human achievement.

It is sometimes said that the Early Music movement tells us more about ourselves than it does about the past. Insofar as it has shown that we are interested in music as something that is context-specific, that addresses a particular culture, at a particular time, I believe the statement to be true. The concert format as a musical event, as it has developed since the eighteenth century, has tended to suppress all aspects that do not address the ear. Movement, in particular, has become irrelevant. Songs from the Sky is part of a larger project that attempts to address the imbalance.

copyright © N.G.Brown 2004