Gregorian Chant, Plain Chant, and Spirituals
Review by Vincent Duval, Cornucopia, September 1992
This recording is the flowering of a seed planted by Paul Hindemith when Ruff was a student at Yale in the 1950's. It was in Hindemith's class that he was introduced to and came to love the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, particularly that of Gabrieli and the other Venetian masters of St. Mark's Cathedral. Perhaps more importantly, he began to draw connections between this body of music and the songs and sprituals of his youth in the South. The shared roots and connections between chant, sprituals, jazz, and the music of the Western classical tradition fascinated Ruff, a fascination culminating ina visit to the basilica in 1984 armed with horn, tape recorder, and some melodies.
Most of the music on this recording is drawn from Liber Usualis, the offical book of chant for the Catholic liturgy. The final four selections are sprituals that Ruff knew by heart from his childhood in Alabama.
My reaction upon first hearing was surprise. Ruff's test of the acoustical richness of St. Mark's with the music of its past yielded almost uncanny results. The end of each note is almost indistinguishable from the perfectly resonant, perfectly dying echo, which is more a continuation of the original sound than an echo of it. The end of each cadence tapers infinitely down, challenging the listener to distinguish between sound and silence.
In his autobiography, A Call to Assembly, Ruff says that he found the cathedral itself was an instrument to be played. This is most evident in the plainchant. The chants move in an even yet flexible flow. As the rhythm move the chant along, the melody rises and falls regularly, broken by melodic turns, repetition of psalm tones, and the addition of other smaller melodic structures. The ear tends to pick up the highs and the lows and the "bumps" within the melodic structure, with the result that one hears an ever shifting succession of fourths, fifths, thirds, sixths, etc. that do not follow each other so much as they meld with one another in a vibrant, ringing fashion. The chant glides along, accompanying itself in a way that is amazing to hear -- one might almost think that it had been sythesized electronically.
Whereas the chants were augmented and enriched by the cathedral, the four spirituals, it seemed to me, were simply well-received. Because of their greater rhythmic complexity and variation, and a greater distinction between individual melodic elements -- as opposed to the regular ebb and flow of the chants, the magic of the basilica was not as capable of capturing and comgining these elements to create something new. Though beautiful, the spirituals were left to speak for themselves, while the chants were transformed by the magical qualities of that ancient space.
Vincent Duval received his BME from UMass Amherst and teaches music in New Hampshire public schools. Willie Ruff's home page
A Call to Assembly - A review of Willie Ruff's autobiography
Gregorian Chant ... - A review of a recording at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice
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