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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Subtle Decadence:
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Ars Subtilior

by Robert Wood

Baude Cordier's rondeau "Belle, Bonne, Sage"

Austere three-part harmonies intoning liturgies in Latin. Monks in robes copying out ledger lines by candlelight. Music notated partially in red ink and shaped like a heart?

It’s an extreme case, for sure. But the iconic musical valentine (shown above) by 14th century French composer Baude Cordier nevertheless fascinates in its flamboyance amid the more sober images we tend to associate with the musical Middle Ages. How to explain this quirky musical wink?

For one, as an example of the mannered style known as ars subtilior—“the more subtle art”—which forms the sonic and structural basis of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s upcoming works Et Atendant and Cesena. A modern coinage, ars subtilior is the name used to refer to a small group of mostly secular works, created around the papal court at Avignon in the late 14th century, that attempted to push notational and rhythmic techniques of the time to their limits. A call to innovation had been made by a small coterie of court intellectuals for whom complexity in music was king. Composers answered, producing music that not only helped to flatter the cognoscenti’s arcane erudition but that also ushered in one of music history’s first periods of technical decadence. Innovation had been advocated not for expressive ends, but for innovation itself.

At least one catalyst was a treatise—attributed to Italian-born composer Philippus de Caserta, whose music is featured in De Keersmaeker’s Cesena—that implored composers to achieve a subtiliorem modem, a subtler style, in their music. But subtle the results were not. In historian Richard Taruskin’s words, a kind of technical arms race resulted, producing music of such stunning complexity that many have wondered whether it was even meant—or possible—to be performed at all.

The intricacy was often a product of combination. The medieval equivalents of different time signatures were often stacked on top of one another, calling on performers to combine all manner of duple and triple time in ways that would have required unwavering concentration in performance. Red notation was used to indicate similar changes in rhythmic values within individual lines. And eccentric flags were appended to notes to alter their values more still. In this stunning canon by Johannes Ciconia, also featured in De Keersmaeker’s Cesena, you can hear these different rhythmic indications at work. Listen as the disparate voices perform the same melody at subtly varying, and seemingly irrational, speeds to create a disorienting blur of sound:

Not until the 20th century would comparable rhythmic daring be attempted in music. Consider a work like Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,” in which one piano plays a repeated 12-note pattern while another plays the same notes but at a slightly faster tempo, causing the parts to gradually move out of and back into phase. There are echoes of Ciconia’s canon here, particularly in the way the music isn’t so much precisely controlled (or is it?) as it is merely the consequence of an initial rhythmic instruction (in Reich, the instruction to speed up one part; in Ciconia, the “time signatures” governing the respective lines). Undoubtedly, none of this is lost on De Keersmaeker. Watch a 2009 performance of her work set to Reich’s hypnotic piece, in which each line is “danced”: 

In En Atendant and Cesena, gestures and movements will be similarly structured by the music’s meandering lines, articulating diverging rhythms through dimly lit space, converging in unexpected unisons, colliding as conflicting meters run their opaque course.  

One last curiosity: that complicated ars subtilior notation? It was often completely gratuitous. As often as not, it was a mere trick of affected erudition whose desired effects could have been achieved by simpler means. So why the complexity?  

Some say it had to do with the newly heightened status of music as a written text. During the years preceding the printing press, singers would only occasionally learn their parts directly from scores, meaning that any eccentricities of notation—to say nothing of score shapes—would have been lost on them. Yet back at the cognoscenti club, where notation could be fetishized for its own sake, it was increasingly tempting to experiment with the myriad ways notes could render sound all the more subtilior. The written form of music had become a fascination in its own right, helping to consolidate a new class of musical technocrats obsessed with the Next Wave in medieval sound.  

Postscript: many of the works featured in En Atendant and Cesena (including Baude Cordier's heart-shaped work above) were taken from a famous and beautifully appointed French manuscript known as the Chantilly Codex. You can view the entire thing online, courtesy of the It takes a while to download, but the wait is well worth it.

1 comment:

  1. de Keersmaeker also cited the calamities of the age in which ars subtilior came into being as motivation for making En Atendant and Cesena: