13. Antoine Brumel (performed by Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel), Missa “Et Ecce Terrae Motus,” Sony Classical, 1506-1510 (recorded 1990), France
If it isn’t obvious by the end of this entry, you should be warned that I lack sufficient knowledge of Renaissance music to argue the greatness of Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass. It is instinct. I have only a spotty notion of the contributions of the major European vocal composers of the time. I’d prefer these entries not be leaden with citations, so I’ll permit myself to remain underinformed for now. RS gut check says Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus is inspired by a higher power, and that is going to have to be proof enough.
I have two recordings of Brumel’s Earthquake Mass. The Huelgas Ensemble recording referred to throughout, and another by the Tallis Scholars. I have heard it performed live once, by the Princeton Chamber Choir around 2012. The Huelgas Ensemble’s recording is a bit muddier, more reverberant, richer with low frequencies, as if the microphones were placed a few feet closer to the choir. Excluding a few audible flutters of turning pages, I have a slight preference for the Huelgas recording, but that is likely only because I am more familiar with how it divides the Mass into tracks. Both are great. Both capture the feeling of voices swelling from a supra-physical place, voices from heaven, that I recall from the Princeton Chamber Choir’s performance.
At that performance in Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ, where I’ve attended a few dozen concerts, I could see the singers, yet heard their voices coming from another place. I knew most of the ensemble personally. My wife sang. And I could only momentarily discern individual voices before they were folded back into the ensemble.
Uncommon (or unique?) for a Renaissance Mass, Et Ecce Terrae Motus is written for twelve parts. Brumel’s immediate Franco-Flemish predecessor, Josquin des Prez, wrote most of his masses for four voice parts. It is far more difficult for the listener to sort out twelve parts. The brilliance of the work is generated by a breadth of voices set in incessantly moving canon. Simple melodies are repeated, layered, embellished, layered, harmonized, layered, to the point where multiple movements of distinct dimension occur at once, like tectonic plates sliding past each other. Overlapping time scales, perhaps spanning Universal Time, the anno domini, and an hour on Sunday morning. In some respects, with it’s static harmonies, Et Ecce Terrae Motus predicts the drones and repeated, shifting melodic cells that would define American minimalism five hundred years later. Or, imagine taking Miles Davis’ solo on “Flamenco Sketches” and stacking all the notes vertically. When infrequent chord changes occurs, they are breathtaking.
Take the Agnus Dei II for example. The meta-motif is a pulsing I-IV-I, that modulates at intervals. Smaller, more elaborate, motifs, sung and repeated by individual singers, embellish the melodies embedded within the I-IV-I progression. Upon modulation, the leading voices feel both like melodic embellishments on the smaller motifs, and a harmonic modulation on the larger motif. Several voices rapidly landing on the same note in succession create an effect like a digital multi-delay or a sequencer playing slices of the same sample. This can be heard from syllable to syllable over qui tollis peccata mundi.
Side AA: Archie Shepp and Algerian musicians, “Brotherhood at Katchaoua”
12. Terry Callier, “Ho Tsing Mee (Song of the Sun),” What Color Is Love, Cadet, 1972, USA
Terry Callier’s knack for folding philosophical depth into a soul anthem (see also “Ordinary Joe”) drives “Ho Tsing Mee” to be a standout song of the reflective, politically conscious, orchestral soul that emerged around Mayfield, Gaye, Whitfield, Strong and others in the late 1960s. He does so without resorting to Right On, Right On funk slogans, casting doubt on the efficacy of Hippie-era one liners like, “love is the answer,” as the Vietnam war slogs on. (And I write that as someone who considers George Clinton to be the preeminent American proverb writer.) Callier pushes past slogans with a series of philosophical questions about God, nationality, war, suffering and empathy, connecting systematic observation to personal experience and philosophical abstraction with remarkably efficient language. A1 soul poetry.
These are the questions Terry asks. First, what do you tell a mother who has lost her only son in the Vietnam War? That everything is OK? That it was worthwhile for The Nation? Second, if you can’t change the people’s minds, then how will you change their hearts? Third (and Callier asks the Lord directly, on our behalf), why does God, creator of the universe and shepherd of all conscious beings, allow us to continue to suffer? With so vast a cosmos over which to reign, perhaps He does not hear us weep.
Callier’s existential despair is cast aside with a defiant “HA”, as the song bursts into the ultimate prayer, the mystics’ summation prayer to become one with God. “Make me one with the Father and the Son.” Or, the Sun, if we follow the title, expressing a desire to return to the prelinguistic peace of the natural world in the first verse: “in the beginning, when Earth and Heaven had no names, all’s peaceful, and everything was just the same.” If we are living in “the ending,” as far away from “the beginning” as possible, then only a reunification with God, a turning back to when the Son and the Sun were effectively the same, can save us.
Callier goes beyond expressing a desire to become one with God; he all but demands it in the song’s final, transcendent segment. The pacing of the arrangement by Charles Stepney, developed in stages to hint at the drama of the final segment, along with Callier’s delivery, suggest a complete awareness of the depth of the material. Flanked by thrilling, sixteenth note string runs, the bass and drums are huge. Cymbals are panned across the spectrum in an inflation of the scope of the kit. Callier sings a flurry of note syllables which recall the prelinguistic ambiguity/unity of sun and son, as his voice becomes more distant from the microphone, plate reverb is added, and he seems pulled into Heaven. Like Elijah on the flaming chariot. “Ho Tsing Mee” is both topical and philosophical, mystical and naturalistic, and retains its strength fifty years after the Vietnam War.
Side AA: Caetano Veloso, “If You Hold a Stone”
11. Shabazz Palaces, “Free Press and Curl [extended],” Black Up, Sub Pop, 2011, USA
Ishmael Butler’s first rap in “Free Press and Curl” is a pro-Black supernova, in which he introduces the elements comprising the vision of poetic* freedom developed throughout Black Up. Pro-Black, from the street to the mainframe. Sensual, instinctual, ambiguous over factual, formulaic, commercial. This is some of the best realized Afrofuturist music since Sun Ra’s Astro Black, Pharoah Sander’s Black Unity or Parliament’s Mothership Connection, with Shabazz Palaces lacing their starscape with Nubian ancestry, mbiras, Detroit house, and reappropriated narratives of technological superiority. (Another essay could be written on Shabazz’s ongoing interrogation of our accelerating co-evolution with tech devices. Every beatmaker knows.) All of Black Up, through to the Last Poets quotation, is conceptually coherent. The first three tracks, “Free Press and Curl,” “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum,” and “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt)” comprise a seven part introductory suite to The Palaces (or The Plush HQ, or the Gangster Star). Following the artists’ lead, I’m taking liberty with the limits of song and track. It would be incomplete to split off “Free Press” from “An Echo” and “(Felt).”
“Free Press” starts with rising voices (the ghosts of a space station you only thought was dead empty), before settling into the main beat – a pulsar of a pitched bass drum, ripping a clave rhythm alongside reversed cymbal swells. (Magnetic conveyor belts extracting the geothermal energy of an unstable moon.) Butler grabs us from the ancient ceremony we’ve glimpsed, with a human-to-the-marrow first line, as if to emphasize that the original people, the ancient voices, are right there, grounded in your neighborhood: “cried with Mooch at Papi’s wake / snuck an extra slice of cake.” Mooch and Papi do not reappear. The history in the lyric is not developed, but who couldn’t empathize with the childlike pragmatism of nabbing extra cake at their grandfather’s funeral while the adults are distracted? The grief is real. So is the cake.
Then comes the statement of purpose that will be woven over the next two tracks, and feature as the framework of the album. Instinct, sensuality and ambiguity are the path to freedom. Freedom is fundamentally poetic truth. “I run on feelings, fuck your facts / deception is the truest act.” Poetic truth (or emotional truth, or sensory truth) precedes the “racist sequences” and linguistic expectations that have been imposed. “You can’t lie to yourself, you can’t lie how it felt.” Shabazz Palaces are like Robert Graves honing in on Poetry, that Eden of a capitalized word. Butler goes deeper in “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” with it’s repetition of, “it’s a feeling.” In case you got crossed in metaphor, the two segments of the track are bridged with a statement of direct sensory experience: “ahh dude, the spicier the food [are you focused again?] / when you chew, fuck their rules.” Let the flavor, the taste, the feeling suffuse your being and bring purpose to every action. First truth, best truth. If you do something as simple as chewing food according to someone else’s rules, how can you consider yourself free? The album cover, with an S and P in arabesque calculator, is literally made of felt. Feel it if you’ve got the hands.
*Briefly, I will never use the word poetry as a euphemism to signify virtual, aspirational or ironic. Poetry is apex culture. Poetry contains our cultural potential, the seed glowing beneath the heaps of stolen narratives and bullshit we call history. Backwards from our original creation myths, forwards as the avant-garde of our language. It is the true experience hidden in the shadows of our nouns and verbs, or as Palaceer Lazarro says, “the diamonds beneath the subtlest inflections.” So if you thought I was fucking around, I wasn’t.
Side AA: Chiwoniso, “Zvichapera”