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Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes"
My fascination with Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes" -- the aspect of the piece which intrigued me enough to select it for this exercise -- begins and ends with one name -- not that of Perotinus Magnus (as you might suspect) but that of contemporary composer Steve Reich.[footnoteRef:0] My own interest in musical analysis very often involves the question of what composers are doing now. If we approach the aesthetics of music from a perspective that is informed by Harold Bloom's approach to the aesthetics of literature, a critical approach that has been exemplified by (for example) John Fallas suggesting that the creation of Schoenberg's Serial Technique was a sort of Modernist revolutionary break with past aesthetics[footnoteRef:1], on the order of Bloom's description of the invention of "Romanticism" in literature, whereby we analyze any composer by means of his sense of "the burden of the past" and his own approaches to music of the past. It is fundamentally a way of understanding all art as revisionary of prior art (consciously or not) which means that the line separating artistic activity from critical activity becomes blurred (as it does in the theoretical writings of Oscar Wilde on the subject of the aesthetics of criticism, as collected in Ellmann's anthology The Artist as Critic). I personally am fascinated by Reich -- moreso than (say) Philip Glass or the phenomenally-overrated Nico Muhly, I think Reich deserves to be considered the authentic composer of our own moment in time, if only because Reich's own concerns with looping and with the controlled and minimalistic manipulation and replication of pre-recorded segments of sound (almost as though certain pieces seem to have been improvised Bach-style upon a pipe-organ of phonemes, because they rely on recorded speech being manipulated musically) all seem to both be influential in popular music at large (one can argue that Reich to a certain degree presages, or permits, certain stylistic features of hip-hop, that it was his example that made hip-hop possible, or made it possible to take it seriously as an aesthetic phenomenon) and also within the history of composition. So the fact that Steve Reich -- writing in what seems to be so perfectly the moment we live in now, with computerized digital recordings sampled and altered and so fussed with that we seem to have entered an era of Electronic Mannerism -- himself has confessed to a fascination with the 800-year-old oeuvre of Perotin the Great is ample reason for me to consider that there must be something within Perotin the Great that, despite such a massive gulf in time, still is able to speak to our own particular musical moment (to the extent that this particular moment in the history of music has any aesthetic hallmarks which are not pre-eminently about the effect that new technology is having on the actual production and reception of music). [0: I must state at the outset that my discussion of Reich throughout this essay is informed by the discussion of Reich in The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening Meaning, Intention, Ideology, by Arvad Ashby (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004).] [1: Fallas, John. "Hard Complexities" (Review of "The Pleasure of Modernist Music," ed Arvad Ashby.) In Musical Times, Winter 2004 Issue.]
The background information that I have discovered largely relates to exploring that gulf of time and culture that lies in the eight hundred years which separate Perotin and his intended audience with our own musical moment. The reception of Steve Reich is registered in the writings of Alex Ross or plenty of other critics and theorists of contemporary music, but the contemporary reception of Perotin was recognized by the advanced intellectual culture of pre-Renaissance humanism, the sort of intellectual world described with an anatomist's gusto for details by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.[footnoteRef:2] This is a world of absolute intellectual certainty, although Eco describes many ways in which the medieval world was actually forced to respond to certain issues, such as outbreaks of Heresy and ecclesiastical Schisms (both of which often entailed low-level warfare or certainly imposition of capital punishment on a persecutorial scale). Such an issue, in Perotin's time, was the issue of musical polyphony: in other words, the idea that there could be separate voices in a musical piece which did not compete or cancel each other out dissonantly (in the manner of, say, Eliot Carter's string quartets) [2: For Eco's own explanation of how he constructed the world of a medieval monastery from the ground floor up, see his A Postscript to "The Name of the Rose."]
What fascinates me most is the fact that Perotin writes exclusively for religious occasions in a pre-Reformation Europe for the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, his music is coming down with the official status of sanctity, in an era when it was seriously debated whether the interval of a fourth (and our desire very often to resolve it upwards to a fifth, as in Leonard Bernstein's "Maria") might in itself not be interestingly dissonant, as we might describe it, so much as wicked in and of itself, a "Devil's Interval," which was improper for music that possessed the offical status of sanctity. This is not to say that certain modern composers did not have profound spiritual intentions for their own music: certainly Philip Glass is enthusiastic in his embrace of non-Western religious experience in works like "Satyagraha" or "Wichita Vortex Sutra," in which Glass tries to embrace Buddhism and work within the logic of its devotional practices (such as meditation) in the way that Perotin is working within the religious logic of medieval Catholicism.[footnoteRef:3] What fascinates me is that this strange sound of pre-modern composition has so much in common with certain uncanny contemporary musical experiences: it has the weirdness of listening to a sort of human bagpipe, or playing the numerous voices of the ecclesiastic choir as one might play a work for four voices upon a pipe organ: the human voice itself is used rather instrumentally and mechanically by Perotin in the same way that tiny sound clips are manipulated by Steve Reich as though they were an instrument (or in the way that a host of non-musical sound effects, such as scratching vinyl records on a turntable, have become part of the musical vocabulary of hip-hop in precisely the same way, as though learning how to play around with the recording equipment and the past library of sounds (the way that most hip-hop artists are essentially serving as DJ's, and picking out which random sound clip -- like the use of "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross in the incongruous context of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money, Mo Problems" -- will basically serve in the same way that the lowest unchanging voice of Perotin's composition, what Chaucer (who lived slightly later but within the same basic musical context) might call the "burdoun" or "burden" of the piece, essentially an unwavering reminder of what key the piece is supposed to be sung in, as though a Glee Club conductor blows the pitchpipe but does not stop blowing it so that the a cappella singers will not stray en masse from being in tune. [3: That is because the Glass piece is itself a mediation upon a poem -- rather than the more traditional "setting" of a poem -- by Allen Ginsberg, entitled "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which sort of implies a kind of sacred inspiration behind the production of the work which entitles it to the status of a "Sutra" like (say) the Kama Sutra. See Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1997 (New York: Harper Collins, 2006) page 888.]
But of course this is a fact of performance using live singers. In terms of studying the actual piece from the standpoint of one who is required to pay attention to such things as fingering, what we are talking about is not the intriguing way in which Perotinus was really only intending or expecting to hear this work performed by human voices (for the musical technology of his own day would not permit the use of, say, the piano-forte to which we are so accustomed, since it had not yet been invented) and so the actual writing, the interplay of voices, when viewed purely as an instrumental piece, seems actually somewhat jejune and sorely lacking in the mathematical complexity of Bach's counterpoint technique. Indeed, if one were to play "Viderunt Omnes" as (say) a piece for organ recital, one would quickly long for a two-part invention just to relieve the absolute tedium of Perotinus' style. This is, again, another reason why I liken Perotinus to Glass, Reich, or the contemporary Minimalist school: a little bit of his work goes a long way, precisely because the experience can be so cognitively hypnotic.
But I feel that it is precisely that element of the piece -- the meditative element, the sense that the composer's mind is contemplating its own perfection to better understand the perfection of God -- which made…[continue]
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