EVENTS & ENCOUNTERS

Y There would be no ‘graindelavoix’ without some crucial events & encounters in the life of Björn Schmelzer: turning points not only between living people, but also between old materials, images and strange transmitters of time: some scenes of Werner Herzog’s cult movie Herz aus Glas for example, the memorable moment with Thomas Binkley sitting on a rock accompanying a high voice that intones the trouvère song ‘chanterai por mon courage’; the first time Schmelzer saw and heard the confratelli of Castelsardo in Sardinia, singing a four-voice falsobordone in their headquarters, a vocal practice that shakes the fundaments of western music history; the encounter with Bart Meynckens, Paul De Troyer, Koen Laukens, Arnout Malfliet and Lieven Gouwy, singers who made it possible to turn dead traces into living vibrations, giving back to polyphony its geo-political and cosmic dimensions, connecting distant time and geographic layers.

Y Many other impulses could be added: an LP by the Hilliards with strange sound climates in the Dunstable motets; the Roland Barthes essay (misunderstood by everybody according to Schmelzer) that would give the emblematic name to the group. What interested Schmelzer in the ‘grain’, in the ‘grittiness’ was not the timbre as such, or the voice technique (although it’s a strange phenomenon why certain voices sound completely neutral to us and others reveal worlds, histories, territories, climates…). In the second part of the essay Barthes compares two opera protagonists, Boris and Mélisande, and writes about la mort au travail: one understands that the grain is not a state of being, but a way of acting, of doing. The voice should not be engaged in representing a repertory, but in immediate injection, producing what Barthes would call a non-pathetique pathos, a savage pathos. The grain is the condition of the voice to become a voice of the past, of the other, of an automatism, of a gesture.

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2002 marked the beginning of some public performances, invitations by and collaborations with people crazy enough to believe in such a weird formation as graindelavoix. We recall the small but very intense festival De Klankfabriek, curated by Paul Lambrechts and Guy Vandromme, the labo-projects and concerts, in Antwerp, Wismar (Germany), Leuven and Brugge2002, with Schmelzer’s former teacher Patrick Denecker, the encounter with Paul Vandenbroeck, like Schmelzer, a pupil of the great Belgian charismatic anthropologist René Devisch. The same year Björn Schmelzer met Jan Van Outryve who would become principal partner in crime in these years and with whom he would start building an ‘instrumental section’ of the ensemble.






Y Crucial was the supporting impulse of Yves Rosseel, at that time director of De Bijloke in Ghent, one of the few people in Belgium, who immediately understood the group’s potentiality and its director’s vision. Through him contacts were made with Carlos Cester and his Spanish music label Glossa. This would lead to a long term and on-going collaboration and the release of 9 cd’s which according to many became instant cult...

Y Another important encounter took place with Eddie Guldolf of C-Mine in Genk, one of the only concert organizers who dared to program graindelavoix, despite the first scepticism of Flanders’ early music scene, and who would make C-Mine an important partner and venue for new concert programs. The encounter with Guldolf would culminate in the production Muntagna Nera, much years later…

Y The release of the first recording, the interpretation of Ockeghem’s Missa Caput, was like a little bomb on that same scene, unchaining musicians and early repertoires from the moral and classical aesthetics, freeing the intrinsic potentials of these repertoires and opening them to previous unheard dimensions. The first to understand this, were not the musicologists or the curators, but artists themselves, painters, dancers, actors and of course, the audience, curious people, who believed in a very concete way that the past can operate as a fertilizer for the present and the future… From that moment on, every new cd of graindelavoix was expected with curiosity and every release was followed by around 30 international reviews, of which many were apparently contaminated by the approach of the group, resulting in an often colourful, equally polemic redaction.

Y Ockeghem’s Missa Caput, graindelavoix’s first cd, was recorded by Jo Cops, a fan of the first hour and regular sound engineer of Capilla Flamenca. The cd was made on some evenings ‘after hours’, in the gothic St Paul’s church in Antwerp, where also La Magdalene would be recorded, some years later. Björn Schmelzer did the montage together with Jo Cops. On the moment of the recording there was no plan to put it out, and no label. There was just the feeling that the recording had to be made.




Some of Björn Schmelzer’s aesthetic statements in the booklet of the first cd:

“The idea: a new sound should be given to Ockeghem’s music. A tone that can justify the monumentality of the work, the fragility of the solo passages and the separate voices, but above all that should appeal to the listener as a direct injection of the internal dynamics and movements.”

“A recording which can be considered as fieldwork by an ethnomusicologist, uniquely recorded in the original acoustics of a flamboyant Gothic church: Saint Paul’s in Antwerp (near Our Lady’s Cathedral where Ockeghem had sung for one year), sometimes waiting for the time until children playing outside went to sleep...”

“To liberate Ockeghem’s music (and 15th-century polyphony in general) from its pseudo-ethereal connotations, its pseudo-professional correctness and its pseudo-historical tedium: this is the challenge of our execution.”

“To work with professional ‘non-singers’: ‘singer-mediums’ who make the work function rather than only make themselves function. Singers who are genuine – we should be able to substitute the concept ‘singer’ – and make something audible in the work that until now has not been heard. Singers were selected for the unusual sound of their voices, for their improvisation and ornamental talents, for their capacity to push the vocal lines to the limit, for their elaborate and ‘smoky’ sound.”

These unusual statements provoked sceptic reactions in some specialized press (historical music performance is a serious matter, not to be confused with an artistic creative process) and were also largely misunderstood, changing ‘professional non-singers’ into ‘non-professional singers': some critics couldn’t see any difference, but it didn’t make Schmelzer ask new singers for their conservatory diploma.

Y In the beginning the biggest problem was to find singers and musicians that could fit in the project, that were willing to try out some new things. That was not always easy (to find these professional non-musician) and most of the time future collaborators were in fact encountered on the road, people who Schmelzer met at concerts and had affinity with the démarche, who were also bored by the sérieux of the classical music world, the lack of intensity and even in a way the lack of naivety, and the constant hiding behind pseudo-qualitative parameters, forgetting the most important: developing alternative performance practices and bringing the material to live!

From the first cast, graindelavoix continued working with Bart Meynckens, Arnout Malfliet, Paul De Troyer and Lieven Gouwy, very soon joined by Yves Van Handenhove and Thomas Vanlede, all singers from Flanders.

Y For the next projects Schmelzer invited Patrizia Hardt,





a singer with whom he was able to develop, for the first time, a new, expressive and virtuosic ornamental way of phrasing and he called Silvie Moors, a singer of folk music who could transform abstract polyphonic lines into touching, almost spoken, concrete gestures. They both would feature on the next cd Joye, with songs of Gilles Binchois, creating a vocal contraposto in the same repertory…


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The cd Joye started with some statements, ‘universals’ of lamenting traditions, in which also the songs of Binchois are inscribed:

“In the history of the lamenting three physical locations have been of great importance: the nomadic camp, the feudal court and the café. These three mark crucial changes in Western social and cultural order without however affecting that which joins them: the art of lamentation, the elegies concerned with lost memories and impossible love.”

Schmelzer wanted for Joye a duo of fiddlers, who could improvise, play à l’oreille and make heterophony of the polyphonic lines: he invited Liam Fennelly and Thomas Baeté to join. Both would become regular collaborators.





The beautiful, uncommon sound of Bill Taylor’s bray harp and the funny situation that the 'historical informed' musicians play the gothic harp with the brays off, because ‘it sounds ugly’, strengthened Schmelzer to invite him, forming a duo of plucked instruments with Jan Van Outryve, and build a small ‘orchestra’. The result you can hear on the Joye cd.




That only a few critics were aware of the work and novelty of the instrumental involvement in this kind of music, says something about the way these old repertoires are still ‘judged’, aiming, as it is common in ‘classical music’, to the perfection of a given ideal. Mostly, instrumentalists play colla parte, just doubling the line of the voice. Here musicians play constantly around the line, more à l'oreille, following a virtual score, that is not per se realized by the singers. The result resembles the way the singers of graindelavoix ornament their lines, creating a sort of heterophonic polyphony, a style nobody developed before, recalling some Mediterranean instrumental approaches.

James Manheim in his critic of this cd for All Music Guide summarizes well the novelty of the approach:

“(…)Björn Schmelzer tries to bring to the performance of early Renaissance music some of the passion and freedom associated with the historical-instrument movement in Baroque repertory. The effort has two aspects. First, Schmelzer asserts that the most important question in regard to instruments in the case of Binchois and fifteenth century secular song generally is not whether instruments should be used but rather how they should be used if they are used. His answer is startling: the small group of accompanying fiddles, harp, and lute does not simply double the vocal lines (or play the notated lines other than the cantus) but accompanies the vocalist heterophonically and gently, creating a kind of tonal cloud. The effect is medieval, for the performance comes off as an elaboration of a group of monophonic lines, and in general Schmelzer's conception of Binchois' music stresses its connections with its medieval antecedents rather than looking forward to the humanistic discoveries about music and text that were already in the pipeline. Schmelzer's second innovation has to do with ornamentation : noting that Binchois' music seems to rely structurally on contrasts between plain and ornamented phrases, he sets the (mixed-gender) singers free to ornament emotionally intense phrases in ways that go beyond what the composer indicates.

For Clemens Goldberg the result is convincing and grasping the essence of the repertory:

"This is a sensational cd. Graindelavoix tries a unique new way of colouring and ornamentation of the singing voice. The instrumental voices try to improvise in the style of Ars Subtilior. Whether this is fully historical remains to be discussed, it comes much closer to the spirit of this music than anything I have heard before."

In his review for the Berliner-Brandenburger Rundfunk Bernhard Morbach wrote:

"Darüber hinaus hat das Ensemble, das die Liedsätze auf ganz unterschiedliche Weise vokal-instrumental darstellt, aus der Grundlage von historischen Quellen ein subtile Verzierungstechnik entwickelt, die sich ideal mit der aufgezeichneten melodischen Substanz verbindet: Eine der genialsten CDs mit weltlicher Vokalmusik der Renaissance."




Lieven Gouwy, Silvie Moors, Yves Van Handenhove and Bart Meynckens recording Ockeghem's Mort tu as navré



The exhaustive cd booklets that Schmelzer writes became as legendary as the music itself, praised by some, severely critiqued by others who misunderstood and described them as unreadable…

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Y For the summerfestival Zomer Van Antwerpen in 2006, graindelavoix created a large baroque performance, based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, with marionettes, traditional music and madrigals by the 16th century Antwerp composer Jacquet de Berchem among others.




For this performance theorbo-player Regina Albanez would join, together with the performers Philippe Genet, Benedikte Van Steenkiste and Diony Hoogenboom, who would also make the stage design.



Y The cd Poissance d’amours, around the music culture in Brabant in the 13th century, recorded in the Predikherenkerk in Leuven, would receive some important awards: in Belgium two awards of the Classical Radio Klara, and in the Netherlands the prestigious Edison Award. Jolande van der Klis wrote in the jury report:

“Bij Schmelzer gaat intensiteit van de uitvoering uitdrukkelijk vóór homogeniteit van de samenklank. Hier gelden andere idiomatische wetten die, als je eenmaal gewend bent aan de merkwaardige sensaties in je trommelvliezen, verrassend snel overtuigen. Björn Schmelzer en de zeven zangers en drie instrumentalisten van graindelavoix verdienen lof voor de moed die nodig was om dit eigenzinnige pad te bewandelen en voor de ongehoorde resultaten waartoe dat heeft geleid."

Y Graindelavoix started to perform more and more abroad, in the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. The Flemish lute player Floris De Rycker joins the group.




Y At the festival of Jaroslaw in Poland, Schmelzer meets the actor and singer Marius Peterson who would integrate the group soon after. Also the Spanish soprano Olalla Alemán joins at that time. Both singers would give a decisive articulation to the ensemble's sound for the years to come.




Marius Peterson, contemplating the carpet at his beloved Studio 106 at Radio France, Paris, 2014



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Björn Schmelzer starts a collaboration with Moroccan sufi-singers living in Belgium: Rafik El Maai in Brussels and Hassan Boufous in Antwerp, who would become an important collaborator for many projects, opening questions on vocality, vocal traditions and the possibility of a comparative approach.




Y In 2009 graindelavoix and Björn Schmelzer receive the award of young musician of the year of the Belgian music press. An occasion for many interviews about the démarche of graindelavoix and its rising international reputation.
Read the interview by Michèle Friche with Björn Schmelzer, Le Soir, 21 october 2009 and Flanders Today article of the same day.
Read the interview by Stef Grondelaers for De Standaard with Björn Schmelzer.

 

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Y Björn Schmelzer corresponded with baroque specialist Sigiswald Kuijken. The letters were published afterwards and discussed in a public debate. The subject: the future of early music. You can download the letters here, in the Dutch original, or in an English translation. A note on the debate in Dutch can be read here.

Y An interesting review by musicologist Cristina Fernandes appeared in the newspaper Publico at the first concert of graindelavoix in Portugal. Read it here.

Y Graindelavoix releases its fourth album at Glossa, called La Magdalene. It is the first album with soprano Olalla Alemán.


Olalla Alemán singing a Spanish romance of the Cecus program, on the Sarrebourg Festival, july 2015 with Liam Fennelly, Thomas Baeté, William Taylor, Jan Van Outryve, Floris de Rycker and Katy Olsen


Other songs are performed again by Patrizia Hardt and Silvie Moors. For the polyphony a new bass, Toni Fajardo, is called in and becomes a fixed member for many years.




The cd received many international awards. Markus Stäblein, giving it a ‘Stern des Monats’ for the German Fonoforum, called it a ‘real revelation’, a ‘little revolution’ and a ‘discographic milestone’:

“weil die Musik der Spätrenaissance bei ihnen plötzlich in einem ganz neuen Licht erscheint und unsere Hörgewohnheiten komplett auf den Kopf stellt. Anders als viele der etablierten Formationen setzen die Belgier nicht auf einen überkultivierten, glatten und körperlosen Klang, sondern bevorzugen eine körnig-raue und sehr erdige Farbgebung.”

J.F. Weber (Fanfare) discovers a conceptual line of thought and a line of creativity in the work of graindelavoix:

“Schmelzer is becoming one of the most interesting program makers in the field of early music. Once you discover what he is doing, you will not want to miss one of his recordings. Start here, and then go back to the earlier ones, if you have missed them.” .

Stéphane Renard writes in the same way in l’Echo:

“En ces temps de flânerie musicale, on s'en voudrait de ne pas explorer l'un des projets les plus originaux de la dernière décennie.”

But he ends with an interesting listening advice to approach the aesthetic choices made by the group:  

“Mais ce cd s'impose surtout, et plus encore que les précédents sans doute, par la volonté réaffirmée de Schmelzer de ne pas seulement redécouvrir des oeuvres oubliées. Pas davantage question pour lui de les sacraliser au nom de l'histoire. Ce qui l'intéresse, au contraire, relève bien plus de la création que de la fouille archéologique. Au risque de ne pas se faire que des amis parmi les orthodoxes de la notation musicale, il invite son choeur à dépasser ce qu'il y a d'écrit sur de bien vieilles partitions. À charge pour chacun de laisser parler son subconcient autant que son savoir-faire, à developper en somme sa propre subjectivité.

From the magazine Pizzicato, La Magdalene received a ‘Supersonic award’. Pierre Schwickerath explains:

“Graindelavoix est un ensemble vocal tout à fait unique au monde dont la façon de chanter se reconnaît de suite. Aucun autre ensemble n'a développé comme lui, l'art d'ornement, tout comme aucun autre ensemble n'a jamais réalisé un travail aussi poussé sur l'émission du son vocal, aucun autre ensemble ne produit des voix si riches en harmoniques qu'elles donnent parfois l'impression de chanter en diaphonie.”

Also Georg Henkel affirms the consolidation of graindelavoix’s approach and position in the international scene, exactly by questioning the ‘routine and common ideas’ of historical music appreciation:

“Graindelavoix gehört gegenwärtig zu den interessantesten und innovativsten Ensembles für Musik des Mittelalters und der Renaissance. Jede neue Aufnahme stellt routinierte Interpretations- und Hörgewohnheiten in Frage.” Against the pure impression of the music on paper, Graindelavoix proposes an impure realisation: “Einer möglichst puren Abbildung der gedruckten Fassung stellt Graindelavoix seine sehr viel offenere, „unreine“ Interpretationspraxis gegenüber.”

But impurity implies a synesthetic colourfulness what Henkel describes well and enthusiastically in the following passage:

“Vollends überwältigt wird man als Hörer freilich durch die wahrhaft flamboyante Darbietung des Ensembles. Selbiges steigert den latenten Manierismus dieser ausdrucksvollen, für Kenner komponierten Musica reservata durch improvisierte Ornamente, die die vokalen Linien „kräuseln“ und der Musik einen chromatischen Schimmer verleihen. Ein Schimmer, der an die vielfach gebrochenen Blau-Rot-Violett-Töne gotischer Glasfenster erinnert.  Unüberhörbar sind weiter die Parallelen zu den elaborierten Maltechniken der Zeit. Die kontrapunktische Verflechtung der Linien ist nur eine Dimension dieser Musik und erschließt sich vor allem in der Lektüre. Bei einer Aufführung sind nicht weniger wichtig die steten Metamorphosen der Klangfarben, die Ausbildung harmonischer „Felder“ oder Weichzeichner- und Hell-Dunkel-Effekte, die der Musik ausgesprochene Sinnlichkeit, aber auch einen überreifen Hautgout verleihen.”

Interesting is also Henkels comment and his understanding of the complex layers of style perception that connects the music with our time:

“Schmelzer schreibt von den geradezu neo-gotischen Stiltendenzen der damaligen Kunst, in der traditionelle Elemente ohne Funktion in manierierter Übersteigerung begegnen. Den Eindruck einer phantastisch wuchernden „modernen Archaik“ erweckt auch Champions Messe.”

To summarize, for Henkel this cd is a new standard for the performance practice of renaissance music:

“Eine Platte, die nicht nur einen vernachlässigten Komponisten wiederentdeckt, sondern Maßstäbliches zur Aufführungspraxis der Renaissance beiträgt. Die Interpretationen sind elektrisierend, das Klangbild ist präsent.”

Guido van Oorschot in De Volkskrant is happy with the result and connects the beauty of the cd with the vitality of the performance:

“Is dat mooi? Jazeker. De vitaliteit is zelfs hartveroverend. Zingende pruillipjes kent de oude muziek al genoeg.”

Stephen Pettitt praises in the Sunday Times the “stunning decoration" of the polyphony:

This bold approach, justified by careful reading of contemporaneous sources, gives the music a singularly dramatic lift.”

Y The next year, 2010, Graindelavoix receives a Belgian Caecilia Award for La Magdalene. Read the laudation speech here


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The new release in 2010 is Cecus: Colours, blindness and memorial / Alexander Agricola and his contemporaries”, once more for the Glossa label. The cast is mainly the same as on the previous cd, except for Lluis Coll i Trulls who plays cornetto here: his wonderfully intimate playing in often very low registers reveals uncommon sonorities of the instrument and is more than once specially mentioned by the critics.



members of graindelavoix listening to Cecus recording takes in the sacristy of the church of Duisburg (B), winter 2010



Giovanni Cappiello writes in Eptachordon:

“L’esecuzione si dispiega così in una tensione continua, sprigionata nelle microesplosioni degli inconfondibili passaggi “in maschera”, tipici dei Graindelavoix, che iniettano una inaudita vena popolare nella distillata sapienza del contrappunto. Il tutto completato da una presa del suono di eccezionale presenza, che pone il punto di ascolto nel centro del palcoscenico sonoro generando sensazioni descritte al meglio da una frase delle stesse note di copertina: “l’orecchio sta toccando; vedendo, quasi”.”

Georg Henkel on ‘Musik an sich’ continues his detailed descriptions of soundcolors in the approach of graindelavoix:

“Allerdings hat der Stil von Graindelavoix durchaus etwas Rebellisches. So hat man die kunstvolle Polyphonie des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts eben noch nicht gehört: So exotisch. So farbig verziert. So impressionistisch schillernd und synästhetisch aufgeladen.(…) Diese kunstvoll mit Verzierungen und chromatischen Zwischentönen durchwobene Musik entwickelt in ihren wechselnden Texturen geradezu taktile Qualitäten und "blendet" gleichsam beim Hören die Ohren durch schiere Überforderung.”

And he is convinced about the interpretations, which for him are not more speculative than other ensembles:

“Angesichts der perfekten Darbietungen erübrigt es sich, den spekulativen Anteil der Interpretationen veranschlagen zu wollen (der ist bei anderen Ensembles auch nicht geringer): Es ist schlicht wieder einmal durchweg überzeugend, was Graindelavoix hier an unerhörten Potentialen ausschöpft.”

Bernhard Morbach accentuates in his review for the Kulturradio the visionary approach that will have its influence on the future performance on renaissance music:

“Hier ist es Björn Schmelzer gelungen, einige Quellen zu erschließen, welche die Ornamentation (improvisierte Verzierung) des aufgezeichneten Notentextes betreffen. Eine besagt, dass der Sänger dazu aufgefordert ist, durch improvisierte Figuration große Intervallsprünge zu überbrücken und melodische Konturen abzurunden. Wie man staunend vernimmt, kann man so auch eine neue emotionale Dimension der Komposition erschließen.
Gestützt auf die Einsicht, dass der Notentext nur das Fundament einer über ihn hinausgreifenden "Klanggestaltung" ist, gelingt es Graindelavoix, einen neuen, wenn nicht revolutionären interpretatorischen Akzent zu setzen – der freilich denjenigen Hörer provozieren wird, der sich an dem gängigen Renaissancebild orientiert. Der interpretatorische Ansatz Schmelzers wird die Auseinandersetzung mit der Vokalpolyphonie der Renaissance in der Zukunft nachhaltig prägen.”

Matthias Lange, on Klassik.com, praises the adventurous continuity of work and the profundity of the new developed sounds on the recordings:

“Björn Schmelzer und seine Formation Graindelavoix zeigen sich musikalisch souverän, interpretatorisch kreativ und konzeptionell mutig. Damit knüpfen sie an vorangegangene Projekte an. Und sie verweigern sich konsequent dem musikalisch Sicheren, Risikolosen – der einzig denkbare Platz dieser Musikerinnen und Musiker ist die vorderste Stuhlkante. Repertoire wird hinterfragt, aufmerksam neu gedeutet. Das schärft auch bei den interessierten Hörern alle Sinne für vielleicht schon vertraute Musik, die sonst von vielen Ensembles einfach nur auf vordergründig perfektem Klangniveau geboten wird.

Y In 2011 the cd Cecus is awarded Flemish cd-production of the year by the Classical Radio Klara. In the same year graindelavoix embarks into many different staged projects such as Cesena and Muntagna Nera.

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Cesena was a large collaboration with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and the dancers of Rosas, a production that premiered at the Court d’Honneur of the Avignon Festival 2011;






Six singers of graindelavoix would join the project: Olalla Alemán, Yves Van Handenhove, Albert Riera, Lieven Gouwy, Marius Peterson and Tomás Maxé. Through the collaboration Schmelzer encountered the dancer/choreographer and singer David Hernandez who would become a member of graindelavoix.

Read some interviews with Björn Schmelzer on the dramaturgy and musical choice of the Cesena production here:


Brussel Deze Week
, 'The War between the popes' in English
De Volkskrant in Dutch
Munt/Monnaie/Magazine in French and Dutch
And one of the first reviews, by Pieter T'Jonk for De Morgen.

Y The Cesena cd, the ‘soundtrack’ of the production with Ars subtilior music performed a capella, a cd that didn't stress the mathematical structure but more so the affective power of the late 14th century style, was released by Glossa. Although vocal performances of this music are mostly better accepted by the 'specialists', the uncommon sound and sonority of many songs were not received without controversy (see the controversy chapter).
The cd contained also extra songs that were not used in the dance production. On some tracks you can hear Thomas Vanlede, Toni Fajardo and Eurudike De Beul who were not on stage.

Y Muntagna Nera, a music theatre production that put the protagonists of the Limburg coalmine-blues again on stage after 30 years, was a collaboration with C-Mine Genk. Muntagna Nera was also graindelavoix’s answer to, and reaction on, the all too aesthetical, often tacky Italian-folk-recuperation in the early music scene.

While Cesena became a big international success, Muntagna Nera toured in Flanders and The Netherlands. The project was followed by a live-cd, released at EMI/Warner, that was very well received and got into the hit parade for some weeks.  The reviews of this production can be read on the cd page of Muntagna Nera.

Here you can read some interviews and articles on the project and its protagonists:
- An interview in Dutch for De Morgen with Maria Morgante, diva of -the Muntagna Nera
- An interview voor Staalkaart with Muntagna Nera protagonists in Dutch
- The C-Mine exhaustive brochure with interviews and texts by Stef Grondelaers on the members of Muntagna Nera


Olalla Alemán and Yves Van Handenhove singing and sliding down at Palais des Papes, Avignon 2011



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In the same year, Björn Schmelzer became the first creative fellow in musicology of the Utrecht Center of Humanities, an initiative of both the University and the Utrecht Festival of Early Music. The fellowship consisted in some lectures and seminaries given at the musicology department and finished with a public lecture in which Schmelzer summarized his activities and made a plea for a musicology in action bridging the academic and artistic work.
Schmelzer’s lecture in Dutch can be watched here. (video)

 

 


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Y A memorable concert was no doubt the one organized by Alkantara Festival in the refectory of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém in june 2012. Singers and dancers of the Cesena-production gathered to sing a full ars subtilior program by heart.
Audience and Publico newspaper critic Cristina Fernandes reacted with enthusiasm: read her comment here…

Y The memory work for the Cesena project was the starting point for graindelavoix to learn complete (and often complex) programs by heart, for example Ockeghem’s Missa Caput. An empirical work on reception and transmission of early repertories with huge consequences for the experience of singers and listeners, supported by the musicological research of Anna Maria Busse Berger, who in her book on medieval music and memory stated that manuscripts were never used to sing from and that polyphony was mostly sung by heart.
The memory work of a full ars subtilior program and an Ockeghem mass revealed interesting mechanisms of memorization, recreation in a polyphonic context and even the way composers constructed their work…

Singing polyphony by heart changes the bodily expressions of the singers considerably: the work of memory engages not only hands, but also eyes and the entire face, revealing something of the 'work/arbeit' that is invested in recalling and activating the memory...Expressions are not so much a play of emotions, but rather an intensive struggle of recollection.

Look for example at some pictures by Holger Schneider of the rehearsal in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig:

 















 

Y Flemish music critic Rudy Tambuyser makes a long interview with Björn Schmelzer in Dutch for the magazine Staalkaart may/june 2012 that can be read here
Later on Tambuyser summarized the work of graindelavoix in an essay for the Flemish magazine Ons Erfdeel. You can read it here…

Y In 2012 graindelavoix released together with Glossa the first cd of a trilogy of recordings based on the portfolio of the 13th century ‘cathedralbuilder’ Villard de Honnecourt and his fascinating portfolio of drawings and sketches. Mark Wiggins wrote an enlightening introduction to the not always easily understood comparative approach, on the search for operative practices, shared by craftsmen of all kind, builders, drawers, musicians, singers and how they approached their material. Read Wiggins' text here.
An extensive selection of critics on the first cd Ossuaires, can be read on the cd page.

Y For the performances of the Ossuaires project Schmelzer developed a feature film, together with Koen Broos, Wim Scheyltjens and many other friends, who would help or play a part in it. The film was initially made for the ciné-concerts but was later on further developed to become an independent movie. The project is currently in post-production.




The ciné-concerts are briefly discussed further on at the Controversy chapter below. Read here an interview of Agnes Van der Horst with Björn Schmelzer in the context of the Ossuaires ciné-concert for the Festival of Early Music Utrecht at the Dom church.




Y In 2013 graindelavoix prepared a new program around Ockeghem’s Missa Caput with a simple dramaturgy: during the performance the singers, who learned the whole program by heart, would circulate a real crocodile head, the same as the 15th century one that is kept in the town hall of Mons, perceived as the head of the dragon according to the tradition, and which is also the head (caput) of Ockeghem’s mass.




In a strange and simple way graindelavoix transformed the performance into a dramatic and multi-layered event. The work was prepared in Espaço Alkantara in Lisbon and toured afterwards in Europe with the following highlights: the invitation of Heiner Goebbels to perform the program at the Ruhrtriennale and the performance in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig for the A Capella Festival.




Read here a critic of the performance in Leipzig.
Read an interview with Björn Schmelzer for the Leipzig A capella Festival.

 

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Y Another memorable moment was the concert in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Cypriot polyphony. Read the review by Rosemary Carlton-Willis for Bachtrack.

Y Crucial for the development of vocal styles and contextualisation of repertories and practices is the collaboration with Adrian Sîrbu who sings with graindelavoix since 2010. A first encounter was made possible with the help of Maciej Kazinsky of the Jaroslaw Festival in Poland, a venue that supported from the start the adventures of graindelavoix. In the beginning the comparative approach was limited to Adrian’s expertise in Byzantine repertoire and similar chant traditions. More and more however he started to engage his knowledge of both traditional chant and classical voice training into other apparently further removed repertoires of western polyphony, culminating in an exploration and revisit of the ornamental practice of chant and polyphony in Italy in the 16th century. An on-going research on vocal phrasing and attractions in modality and the performance of cadential phrases in 14th century polyphony are still a big stimulus in the performance practice of the whole ensemble.

Y Mostly singers are encountered on the road and almost by accident, as it is mostly the expressiveness or timbre of a voice that opens possibilities for a collaboration, capacities that are often independent from training or expertise. This is also the case with François Testory, whose voice, a sort of 'hautecontre sauvage' Schmelzer considered very interesting for the further investigation on medieval vocality, and with Jean-Christophe Brizard, whose basso profondo voice would be engaged for repertoires with drone voices. Joachim Höchbauer was called in to replace Toni Fajardo who became a farmer. Together with the basses Arnout Malfliet, Bart Meynckens and Tomàs Maxé he would color the lower parts of many polyphonic programs.

 


François Testory and Adrian Sîrbu in Daroca, singing Machaut(c)Marius Peterson


Y In 2014 graindelavoix created a sound installation and sound event for the Undertones parcours of Kunsthuis Marres in Maastricht. During the whole summer visitors could hear the result in the crypt of the Servaesbasilica in the center. The program was based on the oldest office chants preserved in The Netherlands, composed for the liturgy of Saint Servaes. Four singers together with impro-musicians Margarida Garcia and Manuel Mota worked a week long to create something that would also involve the function of the crypt, sealing and capturing a constantly drifting body of a saint, and reinstalling the idea of the crypt as a huge resonance box: even if the crypt is empty, and the body on the move, it’s its radiance that counts…





Y The end of the summer of 2014 was dedicated to the creation and premiere of ‘Trabe dich Thierlein!’, a large production for which Schmelzer engaged David Hernandez, Margarida Garcia, Koen Broos and Philippe Genet, who also performed, to develop together a dramaturgy and design. A new singer joined the group: Ann-Kathryn Olsen, who would contribute in the continuous development of phrasing and ornamentation practices.
The performance, in a first phase prepared at Espaço Alkantara in Lisbon, was specially created for Kunstfest Weimar and the location at the Schloss Belvedere. Inspired by the Cesena production that was performed in the early morning, graindelavoix premiered the piece at dusk and dawn. Reviews of the performances in Germany and in Holland, where the piece was presented some days after Weimar, can be read further on at the ‘Controversy’ chapter.
This production was adapted for a Ghent performance in may 2015. The dramaturgy in this phase was reduced to the singers and a black and white projection with a voice-over, i.e. the voice of Schmelzer’s father who played the role of the old Goethe meditating in the orangerie of Schloss Belvedere, looking at the Ettersberg through large windows.





 

Y In the second half of the year, graindelavoix created an event in the cathedral of Antwerp for the international exhibition Holy Books, Holy Places…Photographer Koen Broos, long term collaborator, designed the lighting, as he did for Ossuaires  and Trabe dich Thierlein! Björn Schmelzer wrote an essay published as limited edition of 500 copies. The text is in Dutch and can be read or downloaded here.





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Graindelavoix started collaborating with Syrian singer Razek François Bitar, classically trained, but at the same time completely embedded in the traditional music and vocal sensitivity of his hometown Aleppo, for many different projects as Palermo 1140, Cipriano de Rore and the Cypriot Vespers. For Palermo 1140 graindelavoix invited also the sufi singers Achmed El Maai and Hassan Boufous, together with Mirna Kassis and Miriam Marinou, responsible for the Italo-Greek chant.


 

Y In the previous years Mark Wiggins made four interviews with Björn Schmelzer in the context of a new cd-release. You can read the interviews on the Glossa website or here:

- Björn Schmelzer and his Poissance d’amours (2008)
- Cecus: A conversation with Björn Schmelzer of graindelavoix (2010)
- The marriage of music and dance in Cesena from graindelavoix (2011)
- In the footsteps of Villard de Honnecourt (2012)

 

Y As a conductor Björn Schmelzer developed over all those years a typical style of directing, captured into drawings by the Polish artist Marianna Oklejak.


 

CRITIC & CONTROVERSY


Y The ideas and artistic projects that propose new views on early repertoires resulted in multiple cds. These are mostly enthusiastically received as a welcome refreshment and vital boost more than needed in a musical landscape that suffers from aesthetic sclerosis and stereotypical approaches. Graindelavoix never provoked without explanation and never renewed in a fashionable or cheap way. If graindelavoix builds with every project on a track of another aesthetics, it is by reframing the repertoires and questioning the way we approach tradition and history, religion, practice and culture, beyond the cultural categories, following the statement of Bruno Latour that ‘we have never been modern’… Seeing early repertoires again as artistic or operative practices more than as ‘classical music’ already inscribed in accepted formats, graindelavoix tries to activate the potentials that were often, intentionally or not, excluded by classical music paradigms and parameters, dismissed as amateurism, mere tradition, ‘non-informed performance’, untrained vocality, improvisation, ornamentation that distracts from the essence of a transparent counterpoint,  etc…
Not without surprise, from the start, the approach and sounding results of graindelavoix were surrounded by controversy. Probably graindelavoix is the only ensemble in the early and classical music world, with one or two exceptions, that brings up every time so many different reactions, leading to discussions about aesthetical values, parameters, historical performance etc…
Sometimes you get even the impression that some critics were waiting for a new cd or concert-program to be able to break the usual boredom of early music releases. Some critics and public reactions evoke misunderstanding or misconception of what is at stake for graindelavoix. While some critics don’t hide their reservations or scepticism, others feel personally provoked and answer these provocations with emotional attacks.
Many times the combination of a certain conceptual approach (in reviews sometimes dismissed as pseudo-intellectualism) with the appearance of naturalism (in reviews sometimes called spontaneism) is received as a confusing and disturbing provocation, resulting in opposite reactions, in such a way that what some call naturalistic or spontaneistic, is called forced, artificial and hyper-manneristic by others.

Y Björn Schmelzer always writes exhaustive cd-booklets without an illustrative or explanatory goal. For him they give an extra essayistic dimension for listeners that like to provoke their own thinking and like to go deeper into conceptual issues involved in the sounding result. Nevertheless, the booklet-essays are often described as pseudo-intellectual, unreadable, hermetic or esoteric, etc…

Y The combination of different sorts of singers, with different timbres and expressive and articulated phrasing, is often understood not as a result of musicological research and artistic choice, but as pure provocation and ‘bad taste’.

Y Often the reviews and commentaries, are the result of the shock of a cd or a concert program that worked as a catalyser, revealing something of the hidden prejudices that not only critics but also academics in human science still bear about past and patrimony and which are suddenly erupting, mostly uncovering the true implications and intentions of the writer’s ideological background.

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This is true from the start with the release of the first cd Caput in 2006. Philippe Vendrix for example, writing for Diapason, sees in the approach a waste of energy and talent, not more than one of these several attempts to give another sonority to the repertory, a sonority which he calls ‘goaty’ and opposed on historical grounds to the true sound of the French singers. The result remains cold as marble, evoking only indifference and doubts. The same for Mark Desmet of Le Monde de la Musique, who sees no need for a more daring approach, finding this in all previous Ockeghem recordings. Moreover, the result is not at all convincing to him, rather absurd, and he does not understand why you should use techniques of oral tradition in a “hyper-written repertory” as Ockeghem.

The most blunt attack to the approach is Simon Ravens' critic in Early Music Review, even blaming the label for their choice. Because of the difference of sound ideal of graindelavoix and the historical evidence:

“it becomes clear why Graindelavoix sound so comical in this repertoire. Ockeghem’s music is washed away by their effortful efforts and their director’s pseudo-intellectual conceit. Yes, it is really ridiculous.” For Stevens the cd sounds like a joke, the music brainless, like a murky surface, etc… For the result Stevens honours graindelavoix with his own award: Le canard mort, “any number of cd’s fail to take wing”…

This is not the only time ducks are recruited to dismiss the approach of graindelavoix. David Fiala who describes Björn Schmelzer in many of his diapason-reviews as “le trublion patenté de la polyphonie franco-flamande” mocks the extreme slow tempo of one of the ars subtilior songs on the Cesena cd, describing the singers as canards enrhumés.

Florian Wetter in Klassik.com, confesses that he doesn’t like the cd, but cannot deny the strength of the result, the consequence and inner logic of the approach. The same ambiguity and probably the rarity of hearing something profoundly new in a repertory that is mostly performed with fixed agreements, makes éminence grise of early music, David Fallows for Gramophone, claim that

“it is clear that a powerful mind has gone to work on trying to see and hear this music in a new way.”,

feeling he has to add that:

“This is either a truly innovative approach to the music or a load of pretentious ideas that rather lost their way. I think, probably, a bit of both.”

Y Some musicologists complain about the slow tempo of the pieces (although nobody knows how quick or slow these pieces should be performed). Steven Plank in Opera today writes: 

“Unsurprisingly, their performances also seek difference and distinction, be it with exaggerated tempo, degree of ornamentation and improvisation, or an especially “orchestrational” approach, switching and intertwining instrumental and vocal sounds with careful design. The search for distinctive modes of performance invites us to hear things with new ears. The opening “Adieu mes tres belles amours,” for instance is sung unusually slowly. And the exaggerated pace, somewhat jolting at first hearing, gives the affection of the text (regrettably untranslated in the liner notes) greater gravity. One pauses anew to savor the detail of the musical syntax and one lingers with the sensuous elegance of Patrizia Hardt's singing. There are trade-offs, however. The very slow speed seems to work against the level of note that was idiomatically the basic unit of motion, and thus may sound more like “slow motion” than expressive enhancement. Significantly, the slow speed well accommodates the florid ornamentation impressively added here by Hardt. Yet, based on figuration in the Buxheimer Organ Book, the ornamentation sounds anachronistic in the vocal appropriation, and its degree of floridity seems to work against the affective dolor that inspired the choice of a slow speed in the first place.”

David Fiala (Diapason) goes a step further in his mocking critic of Cesena:

“l’extrême lenteur et les glissandos du rondeau Espoir dont tu m’a fait culminent dans une regrettable version du rondeau Fumeux fume par fumée, une pièce mystérieuse qui a fait couler beaucoup d’encre et que Schmelzer interprète au premier degré comme une évocation des effets d’un excès de haschish sur des chanteurs fatigués.”

Ars subtilior with the voices of graindelavoix equals for him:

“à interpréter Boulez en imposant des phrasés de banda du Sud-Ouest.”,

a one-liner which is in fact not such a bad suggestion for the music of Boulez too.

Y As said before: what sounds wild and anarchic to one, is boring and too intellectual to another. Anne Genette in Crescendo listens with irritation to the 12 minute Mort tu as navré by Ockeghem and concludes:

“Et pourtant la réalisation est soignée, tout y a été pensé mais que voulez-vous, je préfère le naturel au fabriqué.

Nicely performed, thoughtful, everything is there, but the preference goes to the natural instead of the artificial…

Y It is a recurrent issue that critics don’t like the approach with ornaments and non-classical voice technique, but at the same time are paralyzed by its efficiency and immediate effect on the listener, experiencing something that is beyond their expectations, leaving them with an uneasy feeling. As David Fiala writes in Diapason on La Magdalene:

“La vocalité des onze chanteurs mixtes de Graindelavoix, qui ne reculent ni devant la nasillard, le rauque voire le criard, et multiplient les ornements presque sur chaque note, déroute durablement. Mais elle offre des moments de luxuriance sonore réellement inouïs”. 

Y You get the impression that the core of early music criticism is in fact the fear of and confrontation with the ugly (and everybody seems to agree on what that means), the unbearable, which at the same time is the ultimate consequence of the early music performance, ending in something like a musicological variation of the Freudian return of the repressed. This is clearly revealed in Fabrice Fitch’s enlightening comment in Gramophone on La Magdalene, claiming that his open-mindedness is approaching a limit here, describing the ‘uncanny’ as a hybrid monster that could walk out of a gothic novel: the ‘Corsican monk’:

“The choral director Peter Philips has proposed that if it were possibly to hear 15th century singers, the results might strike us as ugly. A number of groups, of which Graindelavoix is the latest, have appeared to test that hypothesis. Their house style is strongly reminiscent of Marcel Pérès’ Ensemble Organum in their “Corsican monks” period, in which the vocal timbres have the pungency of the cheeses of that island. That’s to say that listeners who regard the sound of early polyphony as synonymous with the English choral tradition will find this hard going. While I’d hardly put myself in that category, I confess that my own notions of what is bearable, let alone beautiful, are sometimes put to the test here. Suffice it to say that one singer in particular has me pining for the dulcet whinge of Liam Gallagher…well, almost. Critics of this approach might object that the recording is more about defending an aesthetic position than a piece of music or a composer. That said, this strikes me as Graindelavoix’s most convincing recording to date. Its centrepiece is a Mass by Nicolas Champion. How good a composer was he? Good enough for one of his works to have been attributed to Josquin by a well informed 16th-century theorist. It’s very fine music, and the ensemble’s coherence of vision (particularly as regards extemporised polyphony and ornamentation) is impressive. Anyone interested in the performance practise of early polyphonies should listen to this, for the questions posed by Graindelavoix are worth asking, even though their answers are unlikely to please everyone.”

No doubt the most appalling review ever, witnessing the unbearable experience of hearing La Magdalene in concert, appeared on Klassiek Centraal in 2008. Was it his past as a critic for a Flemish extreme-right wing magazine that triggered Ludwig Van Mechelen to put once and for all a insurmountable wall between “our Flemish polyphony”, so horribly mistreated by graindelavoix and their hybrid voice techniques, and all completely foreign, eastern influences that are a disgrace for the high art of the Flemish patrimony, showing according to him a historical mistake that threatens an uncontaminated and purely Flemish tradition?
The original critic in Dutch can be read here.
Although somehow isolated, this critic reveals the political importance of putting these repertoires out of a so-called neutral and purely aesthetical framework, in which they mostly are presented or are supposed to have emerged originally. These kind of articles shed also a disturbing light on some presupposed aesthetical qualities of repertoires that have a much more complex origin and dissemination in time and space, which often even invite us to think the longue durée of practices and repertoires and because of their intrinsic heterogeneity reconnect them with other, more layered time-space-experiences.

Y Although graindelavoix already performed before 2012 at the Early Music Festival of Utrecht, it was only since the première of Cesena, the coproduction with dance company Rosas, that almost every new program provoked a bit of a scandal.
Never ever a Festival performance got so much press attention as this one. Reason was the minimal lighting, the many silences in the production, the strange mix of singing dancers and dancing singers and the unexpected ‘modernity’ in a festival of Early Music. After some minutes people started to complain, to shout and finally to leave the space.

Read the review of Dutch press here:
De Nieuwe Utrechter  27.08.11
De Telegraaf
Trouw
De Volkskrant
Article Paume Sven Schlijper – (31/08/2011 )

In the same week graindelavoix performed a program called Wunderkammer of Roman polyphony around Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. Björn Schmelzer legitimated his ‘very different Palestrina’ in an essay for the Magazine of Early Music which you can read here in Dutch.
In this essay he explained what ‘virtuosity’ meant in the context of the Roman singing practices in the end of the 16th century and proposed a very ornamented and heterogenic voice approach. You can listen to some extracts of the concert on the concert program page.

Johan Van Veen’s harsh critic:

“(…) That was different in the concert by Graindelavoix under the direction of Björn Schmelzer. In his approach he wants to pay tribute to the various styles of singing which he believes were practised in Rome. This means that 'classical' voices are combined with voices which have their roots in traditional music. So far it is mainly secular music which he has approached this way. This is controversial in itself, it is even more so in Palestrina's music, and in my view utterly unconvincing. So far I haven't read a single plausible argument in favour of this approach. And I just can't believe that this mishmash of sounds, some of which remind me of the things you hear in a zoo, were practised and appreciated in the Sistine Chapel, where the Missa Papae Marcelli was sung, which Graindelavoix performed. It was presented as part of a mass for Easter, with the appropriate plainchant and some additional motets by Palestrina. The performance of the plainchant was even worse than Palestrina. A new approach to his music is fine, but the way Graindelavoix looks at it is without historical foundation and therefore a dead end.”

As always this was only one view on the matter.
Erik Voermans in his critic for Het Parool for example, was enthusiast. You can read his critic here.
Marijke Ferguson, for the Concertzender, was equally fascinated by the result. Read her poetic comments here.

Y In 2013 graindelavoix presented its ciné-concert in the Dom of Utrecht. In two meditating reviews Marijke Ferguson called it a disquieting event and a provocation. But she meant it in a positive way, stressing the main goal of early music. Read here her thoughtful commentary on Ossuaires.






Y Graindelavoix returned the year after, in 2014, with a performance Trabe dich Thierlein! that had just premièred in Weimar, the place for which it was created. The two performances in Weimar were unanimously very well received and three reviews are equally enthusiast, about the staging and about the musical performance.






In Utrecht, at the Early Music Festival some days later, people in the public started to shout after ten minutes because a spotlight shined too strong in their eyes and left the hall. Although the performers receive a standing ovation at the end, the feeling of misunderstanding and confusion remained. Apparently a lot of people going to the festival, just want to hear the music as they know it or as it sounds on a cd and conceptual stagings are harder to accept. The same sentiment emerges from the reviews and although their comments differ on crucial elements, they reveal also the ambiguity of an objective opinion, or as Carlton-Willis puts it in her critical comment:

“(the performance) also sharply divided the audience, with a number of walkouts during the concert but a roar of ecstatic “bravos” and “encores” at the end. When audience opinion is so passionately divided, you know that at the very least interesting art is being made or attempted. It is almost impossible to come to a single judgement about a performance such as this – and would we necessarily want to?”

Read the critics of Thea Derks and Rosemary Carlton-Willis here. The most harshly negative critic on Trabe dich Thierlein! in Utrecht comes from Spain, by Luis Gago, pointing his arrows directly on Björn Schmelzer describing him as postmodern enfant terrible, who looked for revenge for the failure of Cesena in darkness two years before, by pointing a strong spotlight on the public, becoming now a victim of his own clichés…Please, find the full critic here and don’t forget to laugh!

Katrijn Degans, june 2015