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The Kiss of Divine Nature: The Contemporary Perotin

DVD Review

Alicia M. Doyle

Notes, Volume 63, Number 1, September 2006, pp. 164-166 (Review) Published by Music Library Association

DOI: 10.1353/not.2006.0085

Despite the fact that the Hilliard Ensemble is given top billing in the title, this really is not a performance DVD, but rather a more abstract film that addresses the way contemporary culture directly affects interpretation of Catholic dogma, art, architecture, and music. Director Uli Aumüller ties all of this together with one overarching thread: that performances of Pérotin historically have reflected the culture of the time of the performance and not the culture of the time of Pérotin. This unifying theme provides a creative springboard for Aumüller who presents a series of four separate narratives that are woven visually, au- rally, and philosophically. The resulting film is one in which the performance of Pérotin’s music clearly reflects the culture of the first years of the third millennium rather than the first years of the second.

Aumüller, in following the unifying theme makes little attempt to create any sort of authentic context for the performance of two-, three-, and four-part French Gothic polyphony. The filming does not take place in the cathedral of Notre Dame, as would be expected, but instead in a variety of locations including Lübeck, Laon, Troyes, Schleswig, Pfullingen, Notre Dame, and St. Denis. The music itself is however performed in an authentic manner.

The Hilliard Ensemble’s performance of eight French polyphonic pieces from the 12th and 13th centuries serves as the cantus firmus to Aumüller’s four-part narrative polyphony. The musical performances mostly take place in Lübeck, at the reconstructed St. Petri (the original building was

destroyed in 1942), where the starkness and simplicity of the architecture contrasts beautifully with the ornate nature of the sung polyphony. Aumüller mentions in one of his commentaries on the second disc that the stark background of this edifice allows more imaginative freedom on the part of the listener as there is no visual ornament, but rather a blank canvas upon which the best decorator—the imagination, is provided the freedom to create. Despite the historically inaccurate performing venue, the musical performance of the Hilliard Ensemble is consistently impressive. Rhythmic animation drives their interpretation of the music, resulting in a lively, directional performance. This style of performance is of course representative of cur- rent musicological thought—that the music of the Ars Antiqua was a bit more animated, or “ecstatic” as mentioned in the film, rather than lugubrious and drawn out as was the performance norm for most of the 20th century.

The second “voice” is a series of scenes from a heated scholarly symposium where historians of various disciplines discuss Pérotin and issues surrounding the culture in which his music was created. In this choreographed sequence of events, a mood of narrative tension is created through the presentation of intellectual prizefighting with the scholars constantly interrupting each other and promoting their own disparate viewpoints. The physical arrangement of the event is curiously in the choir of the cathedral, with the speaker standing in the center, between the two choir stalls. At moments of controversial discourse, the seated listeners pound on the wood of the individual choir stalls voicing their support or dissent. Who said musicology wasn’t a spectator sport?

Informal, almost voyeuristic snippets of seemingly spontaneous conversation define the third narrative voice in the texture. The symposium scholars, as well as the choreographer Hans Kresnik and the two dancers, are “caught” discussing the issues of culture and performance while engaged in activities like grocery shopping, strolling through scenic landscapes or the halls of gothic cathedrals, and in backstage preparation.

Lastly, a series of collaborations between historian Martin Burckhardt and choreographer Kresnik are added. The two invent situations in which Pérotin’s music, biblical texts, and various two-dimensional graphic depictions of the Virgin are subjected to interpretation. Beyond the inauthentic addition of interpretive dance, many of the images curiously are often not of the Gothic era but rather the Renaissance. Overall, this sequence of events has the result of providing shock value, with “colorful” (to be diplomatic) dialogue between the dancers, the choreographer and Burckhardt, and many scenes of the dancers in the nude.

Each of the four separate narrative approaches play off each other in a very intriguing, albeit not truly informative matter. The information medieval scholars thrive on: manuscript names and dates, folio numbers, indications of rhythm and pitch, paleographic issues, comparison of the same work in different sources, etc., are not included. Also unfortunate is the awkward translations into English in the informational booklet and the subtitles which are often imprecise and misleading.

The packaging of the DVD, like Pérotin’s organum quadruplum and the four narrative threads of the film, is in a quartych form. Upon unfolding the outer leaves of the packaging, a twenty-page informational booklet, two DVDs and a “bonus” audio CD are revealed. The informational booklet (in English, German, and French) contains a brief description of Pérotin and his role in Western music history along with a discussion of the inspiration for the film. The DVD tracks are listed, starting with the thirty-three tracks (thirty-four with the credits) of the film, each of which are provided descriptive titles, clearly indicating which tracks are musical performances. The thirty-fourth track is the credits, but they roll over a performance of a two-part Benedicamus Domino and clearly belong to the filmic vision. At the end of the book- let the text of the eight works performed in the film are provided along with translations of the Latin text into English and German.

The first of the two DVDs, “Thy Kiss of a Divine Nature—The Contemporary Pérotin,” is the main event; the ninety-five minute film is in German with the option of English subtitles. The second DVD, also in German with the option of English subtitles, actually contains two separate films: “Perotinus Magnus—The Vision of a Film Project,” and “Who was Perotinus—Myth or History.” The first is a sixty-five minute work explaining, or at least commenting on, the main inspiration for the project and provides further information and understanding of the film through a series of behind-the-scenes segments and an interview with the director. The second film on this disc (again sixty-five minutes) is one in which the dialogue between two unseen persons is set to visual imagery from the film.

Also included on this disc is a “sound- track” of more than an hour’s worth of music from the film and a brief six minute “Making of” track which is worth viewing, at minimum to see how well the Hilliard Ensemble performs while being pulled back and forth across the floor on two rolling platforms. Scenes from the filming are also included as a track on the second disc, as is a series of still shots.

Finally, the true gem is uncovered, the audio CD. This collection of Ars Antiqua polyphony recorded by the Hilliard Ensemble is worth the price of the entire package. The CD contains seventy-five minutes of music. All of the singing is masterful, but what has remained in my consciousness is the amazing countertenor voice of David James. The audio/visual quality is superior; the films are viewable with three audio track choices: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 ad DTS 5.1, and the audio CD is recorded in 2.0 stereo.

Again, this is not a documentary. If you are looking for a recreation of 12th and 13th century musical life at Notre Dame based on documentary evidence from primary sources and years of devoted study to the man and the music, this is not your DVD. If you are examining the culture of the early 21st century as witnessed through the interpretation of late 12th and early 13th century French liturgical polyphony, then this is your film.