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Tallis Scholars & Christoph Grund

And Behold, There Was a Great Earthquake

For most of his life, Antoine Brumel (c. 1460 – c. 1512/13) remained firmly in second place behind his more famous Franco-Flemish counterpart, Josquin. There is one exception: his Herculean "Missa Et ecce terrae motus", better known as the “Earthquake Mass.”

One could easily be forgiven for thinking that the hour-long, 12-voice “Earthquake Mass,” which at the time of its composition was likely the largest-scale work ever attempted in Western music, earned its appellation for its inherent musical qualities.  In reality, the mass is musically based on an Easter antiphon, “Et ecce terrae motus est” (“And behold, there was a great earthquake” from Matthew 28:2).

The work foreshadows polychoral writing, with Brumel organizing the 12 voices into four groups: three discanti (top voices, akin to today’s sopranos), three contratenori (akin to today’s altos), three tenors and three basses, each voice functioning as an individual line of counterpoint. Harmony moves slowly in this music, counteracted by vigorous rhythmic movement and waves of contrapuntal triads. Especially in the acoustically reverberant settings of a flamboyant Gothic cathedral (or perhaps, the slightly more pared-down Pierre Boulez Saal), the music swirls around you, gently in the lower voices, which are grouped together in thick harmonic texture, and more hurriedly in the upper voices, which feature distinct melodic detailing. The mass is less earthquake and more submersion, like being handed off between contrapuntal oceanic currents underwater.

Polígonos by Samir Odeh-Tamimi is earth-shattering. Premiered in 2017, the piece opens with hammered-out pianistic clusters that are transmuted into electronics. Instead of the buoyant 16th-century contrapuntal undulations of Brumel’s declamatory Credo, we have a ground-shaking musical experience in which natural, acoustic sound is set in counterpoint with electronic sounds and electronically manipulated acoustic sounds emanating from the piano. The piano is plunged into a cold realm of artificial sounds, and—in this realm—sounds strangely mystical, bewildered and nostalgic. The piano has been, effectively, exiled.

As Edward Said points out, exile has its origin “in the age-old practice of banishment” and is a harsh, uncompromising condition. Though Polígonos can be read in such stark terms—especially when contextualized in the largely acoustic music of the Western canon—Tamimi, a Palestinian-Israeli composer, has used a truly integrated musical-cultural counterpoint of the Western avant-garde and traditional Arabic music to create a uniquely melded language of maqam, Sufi mysticism, Xenakis - inspired stochastic processes, and equal-temperament. Polígonos is an earthquake mass for one instrument.

—Prof. Dr. Mena Mark Hanna