Saturday, February 04, 2012

Polychoral Splendors

Have you ever heard a 40 voice choral piece?  No, not 40 singers singing 4 or 8 parts; 40 singers, each performing a separate individual part.  That's what we heard last night.

When my husband bought us tickets for Cal Performances' Polychoral Splendors of the Florentine Renaissance, I mostly noticed that it featured His Majestys Sagbutts and Coronets (that's pronounced "SACKbutts", by the way).  I didn't realize until I heard the pre-concert lecture that we were attending the 21st century premieres of three choral works that haven't been performed since the sixteenth century.  None of these works has less than 40 voices, and one of them has 60.

That's right.  Sixty separate vocal lines, each sung by one singer.  From the program notes:  "... to experience the important spatial dimension of many choirs that are physically separated, a 16th-century version of 'surround sound' that is almost impossible to reproduce effectively on recordings."  (Although they did record the concert; and if it's ever on sale, I'll buy it.)  In Berkeley's First Congregational Church, we had the acoustics we needed.

The story behind this concert is absolutely fascinating, but it's also quite long, so I'll refer you to the concert program notes, which you can find online at Cal Performances.  (Warning:  it's 3.5MB.)  In very brief, it's based on conductor Davitt Moroney's scholarly research into "gigantismo" - the suggestion that in the mid-16th century, there was more than the one known instance of choral works written for 40 or more voices.  His research uncovered three of them, two from the court of Cosimo de Medici, in Florence, the third from Spain.  This was all part of the amazing flowering of art that produced the great visual treasures of Florence - who but Cosimo de Medici could have afforded a sixty-voice choir?  In fact, the pre-concert lecture noted that when Alessandro Striggio's mass, Missa sopra "Ecco sì beato giorno", was composed, there were only 5 places in Europe where it could be performed:  Florence, Vienna, Hamburg, Rome, and Madrid.  My composer can write more choral parts than your composer.

Listening to this music is like looking at a renaissance tapestry.  It's incredibly detailed and dense.  It isn't polyphony, there's no fugue.  The separate parts blend together into a sonorous wall, with brief illuminations as a soprano or a tenor soars above the sound and then blends back in.  I've never felt so much that I was in the presence of another age.  The sound was overwhelming.

I particularly liked the 40-voice canon on the Ten Commandments - ten 4 voice choruses, each singing the same canon 10 times.  When the 10th chorus comes in, all the choruses are singing all the words of all ten commandments at once (in Latin hexameter verse).  You'd think it would be total chaos.  In fact it's a brooding, introspective piece that is amazingly soothing.  You can't understand the words but you're supposed to know what they are.

Oh, the Sagbutts.  That's a proto-trombone, in case you didn't know.  They had a whole family of them, I particularly enjoyed the Gabrieli Canzon primi toni which they performed.  The really significant one was the grand bass sackbutt - I never could quite see the whole thing but it was so huge I wondered how long it was.  Wikipedia says that the double-bass or "Octav-Posaun" sackbut was pitched in A in Michael Praetorius' day, but the modern version is in B flat.  My husband, a former tubist, says that means the fully extended tube is 32 feet long, and the extended slide is probably 10 feet.  It had a "pusher" attached, because the slide is too long for a man's arm to extend fully.   Still according to Wikipedia, the only modern copy of the only surviving 17th century double-bass sackbut "is currently owned and played by Wim Becu," and that was the name of the performer last night.

Astounding music, all around.  Do read the program notes.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Life, Death, and Rules

This isn't the post I started to write last night.  In the interval, the power of the Internet has manifested itself again, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation has agreed that it made a mistake, apologized for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and agreed to restore it.  Apparently (as happened with SOPA/PIPA a few weeks ago), when we all rise up on Facebook and Twitter to complain, they actually do hear us.  Most of what I read on Facebook yesterday was about this.

It all began yesterday when the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced they had decided to drop funding to Planned Parenthood ($600,000 a year, used only for breast cancer screenings) because Planned Parenthood is under investigation by Congress, some of whose members suspect it of illegally using federal funds to perform abortions.  We have a new rule about donating to organizations being investigated, the Foundation said.  We're just following our rules.

I'm not the only Planned Parenthood supporter out there who thought this was nuts; or the only one wondering, if they were just following the rules, why they hadn't pulled the plug on their $7.5 million dollar grant (for breast cancer research) to Penn State, currently under investigation for ignoring child sexual abuse.  Is providing abortions really worse than ignoring pedophilia?  What a question.

Now that the Komen Foundation has been bombed out of a position that no one with any sense would have occupied in the first place, I want to consider some of the issues this incident raised.  The whole thing is a classic "be careful what you ask for" - one side effect was an absolute avalanche of support for PP, which the Komen folks probably didn't intend.  But it made me think.

In a fit of anger, I wrote this on Facebook:
The anti-abortion people essentially state that they would rather allow poor women (the only ones this affects) to die of breast cancer, than give them any opportunity at all to get an abortion, for any reason.
This was unfair to the majority of anti-abortion people, of course; that's the trouble with writing, or speaking, in anger.  But the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision appeared to take exactly that position.  They said they were stopping funding for cancer screenings because PP was "under investigation" - but Karen Handel, the Komen Vice President for public policy since last January, who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is "pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood," is reported (in an article in The Atlantic) to have driven the decision to create the rule about being under investigation, for the specific purpose of defunding PP. 

So, which is worse - a woman dying from breast cancer or a fetus being aborted?

The trouble with the abortion issue is that there are two lives involved - and each side of the argument insists that only one of those lives is important.  But when you bring breast cancer screening into the equation, in the way the Komen Foundation did, you turn it into a decision on who should die - the mother, or the child. But that's a fool's game, because any child's welfare depends on a living, healthy mother - not one who dies of (or even spends years fighting) breast cancer.

Americans don't like to talk about death.  I suspect that our culture feels if we can just be a little more brilliant and inventive, we can make the whole thing go away.  But we can't.  Sooner or later, all of us will die; the only question is when, and how.  That child saved from abortion by defunding evil Planned Parenthood?  Will die; the only question is when, and how.  The mother with breast cancer?  Will die; in her case, the question is, will she die sooner of cancer or later of something else.

I don't know anyone anywhere who thinks abortion is a good idea.  It's a last resort tool.  The anti-abortion side tends to demonize women who have abortions; I know some women who have had them, and the decision is, always, wrenching.  I'm not going to argue either side; those arguments are unwinnable.  But I want to point out that against the 3% of its time that Planned Parenthood spends doing abortions, it spends 35% of its time providing contraception, mostly to women who couldn't normally afford it - which has probably prevented more abortions than any right-to-life group in existence.

I'm glad that the Susan G. Komen Foundation has changed its mind.  I'm afraid they will find that, even after changing their minds and doing (what I consider) the right thing, they've lost some important credibility.  And only time will show what this has done to their donor base.  Everyone will now look at them and ask, now what?  And that's too bad, because they've done serious good in their day and may still do more.  Ms. Handel is still at the Foundation.