Peter Stenshoel's Album of the week: Music in Catalonia until the 14th Century

Imagine traversing Spanish landscapes, toward the Northeastern region known as Catalonia, and, admiring the "Serrated Mountains" of Montserrat, stumbling upon a monastery hewn next to rough rock.  From the outside you hear the barest outline of haunting chant.  You enter a large cathedral and the full reverberation within the voluminous rock interior turns mere chant into woven sound patterns of geometric transcendence.  Boys' voices propel like Roman Candles, hang in mid-air, and fade as mens' voices respond and darkly blend against vaulted ceilings, all in honor of the Black Madonna of Monserrat, a statue said to issue miracles.

You have entered into the world of our Album of the Week.  Music in Catalonia until the 14th Century (or XIV Century, if you please) was released by Hispavox in Spain four decades ago and performed by La Capilla Musical y Escolania de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos and Atrium Musicae.  My original copy was purchased in Madrid.  The photograph shows my American release thanks to the Musical Heritage Society.

This thin slab of black plastic held a spell over me.  I had absorbed many releases of medieval and renaissance music, some of it ham-handed and clueless, most of it distinctly charming, but the intensity and care of this recording found me unprepared.  Not limited to chant alone, this celebration of 10th Century to 14th Century Catalonian tropes, sequences, and polyphony boasts rich variety and regional uniqueness.  Some lay the reason for this at the feet of historical precedents of the area.  Could this be remnant of Visigoth culture?  The Greek Colony of Sant Martí d'Empúries?  There are prehistoric dances shown in the cave paintings of Cogull (Lérida).  Oddly, Catalonia's priests encouraged dance within the sacred confines of the temple as the 14th Century "Red Book of Montserrat" (Llibre Vermell de Montserrat) provided the rhythmic music accompaniment. 

The Spanish label Hispavox recorded the pieces Angel used in the monster hit Chant, the album of Gregorian Chant which went triple platinum, inspired parodies, and introduced millions to the relaxation inherent in ancient monophony.  Although the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos are from Burgos, Spain, which is somewhat West from Catalonia, what that album and our album have in common is the natural reverberation of cathedral space.  Digital equipment can approximate it, but can never match it precisely.  Take a listen, here, to Capilla Musical y Escolania de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos and Atrium Musicae.  Let yourself rise and fall to these timeless natural echoes.

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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: School Days

For all the tribute bands and endless deconstruction exercises revolving around Thelonious Monk's corpus, none of it seems as lasting and significant as Monk's own recordings.  The exception is this little-known gem from Emanem Records.  In the fifties and sixties, Steve Lacy, the late soprano saxophonist, took it upon himself to study Monk's compositions in detail, playing them with an exhaustive adherence to the originals.  Sensing a consistency to the work, Lacy wanted to understand its architecture through and through.  In meeting trombonist Roswell Rudd, Lacy met a fellow traveler whose passions matched his own, and The Steve Lacy Quartet was born.

When Emanem released School Days in 1975, no document of this important band had yet been released.  Labels sat on their recordings of them.  Luckily, Vashkar Nandi and Paul Haines took it upon themselves to record this live performance at the Phase Two Coffee House in 1963.  Despite the fact it is a single microphone recording, the balance is surprisingly good.

Caught in the middle of its life, the band catches the perfect balance between freedom and fidelity to Monk's music.  Bassist Henry Grimes arrived late to the gig, so "Bye-Ya" and the surviving half of "Pannonica" are fleshed out all the more charmingly by just sax, 'bone, and drum.  The lack of a pianist--in a group playing a pianist's compositions--works better than expected.  I believe that's because the paucity of a chording instrument forces the group to extend themselves--New Orleans jazz style--to fill in what would be piano chords.

The videos I found on Youtube of Lacy and Rudd together lack the crisp recording quality of the record.  In the meantime, here's Steve Lacy playing Monk's tune, "Shuffle Boil."

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