In our previous post on early music, we looked at instrumental dance music from the 1200s – the secular, passion-inflaming noise so hated by the church. In this follow-up piece, we look at religious choral music.
The composer who is simply known as Perotin – known also at the time as ‘Perotin The Great’, or ‘Perotin The Master’ – was recently described to me as “the Steve Reich of the 13th Century” (Perotin was certainly a big influence on Reich – his 1995 piece Proverb is a tribute to the great master). His full identity is lost to history, although he was suspected of being a theologian, and he was a member of the ‘Notre Dame school’ of composers who pioneered polyphony in choral music.
Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes piece is – in its most basic incarnation – a Gregogrian chant dating back to the 11th Century. Gregorian chant was monophonic, traditional, and sung by choirs. The Notre Dame school were particularly interested in evolving this very rigid vocal architecture, and over the course of the lifetimes of two of the Notre Dame’s leading lights – Perotin and his teacher Leonin – some pretty mind-spinning variations on the Viderunt Omnes were birthed, or more likely, blasted up into the sky.
Leonin slowed the monophonic chant down into a low drone, and then added an echoing polyphonic topline. Perotin went even further, stretching each syllable of the chant into tectonic vocal drones that could last for minutes at a time. As the drone shifted at a world-turning pace from syllable to glacial syllable, Perotin would use more voices to weave a complex lattice of flickering vocal patterns above and around that pulsating bass texture – they sound like lazer beams.
Clerics and composers of the era noticed that in Perotin’s hands, the words of the Viderunt Omnes became mangled, unrecognisable – like a precursor to that slowed down x1000 Rebecca Black song that ends up sounding like MBV.
So, really, as well as being the Steve Reich of the 13 Century, he was also the Sunn O))), death metal, My Bloody Valentine, and Rebecca Black!