Meet the Music Makers: Cappella Pratensis

In conversation with Stratton Bull, artistic director of Cappella Pratensis:

UChicago Presents: Renaissance polyphony is a unique and powerful tradition that has captivated musicians and audiences alike around the world. How did you come to start performing and studying this music?

Stratton Bull: Well, I'm a countertenor, so it's a bit my stock and trade. That is, early music is what we do, of course – Baroque repertoire, but also Medieval and Renaissance.  I did all of those in my study time in my earlier years. But as time has gone on, I gravitated more and more to Renaissance polyphony. It’s just such a fascinating world. It was through the conservatory in The Hague originally, and then through this ensemble, Cappella Pratensis, that I really zeroed in on performance practice for Renaissance polyphony.

UCP: One of the unique features of Cappella Pratensis’ performances is the performance practice. The group performs in a semicircle, reading from facsimiles of original choir books on a single stand. Can you tell me more about the historical origins of this practice, and how it affects the group’s sound?

SB: The stand is the most visible aspect of our approach, but what we really want to do is get to the essence of the music in all sorts of different ways. Pronunciation, dealing with questions of musica ficta or Gregorian chant background – there are so many aspects that you can use to enrich what you do, but one of those aspects is the actual performing situation. And it's true that  in a church situation, the ensembles at this time sang from one large choir book, and they all grouped around a large music stand. They were looking at their own parts – it’s not like a modern score with all the parts one above the other; there are no bar lines in the score, so you get a sense of flow in the notation, which is very much part of the style of this music. But as you say, you also get a physical setup, because you're standing with a group of people in a crowd in a clump, as it were, which you could compare with the more traditional way of choral singing in that it's in a semicircle, let’s say, with everyone with their own music. It creates a very physical link between the singers and changes the dynamic within the group, and in a very organic way that's very suitable to the music.

What’s important is that again, it's not a gimmick that we came up with – you can see in lots of pictures that this was the way they performed, so that's why we do it – to try to get into the heads and into the voices of the performers of the time.

UCP: Cappella Pratensis was founded in the Netherlands, but now comprises members from throughout the world. Do members come into the group primarily from a Renaissance-Polyphony background, or do most cut their teeth on this music after joining the ensemble?

SB: We have a bit of a mix on that score. We have a number of singers that came into the group through courses that we give – we work a lot on education, so when a young singer comes to a course and gets a chance in that course to try this way of doing things, then we try to reel them in and make them part of the group. So we've got a number of singers that have come in that way.

But we have other singers who are experienced ensemble singers but indeed, that person’s ensemble experienced doesn't necessarily mean they know about singing from original notation, from mensural notation. And those people have to do something of a crash course in this way of singing. It’s interesting that even the best singers don't necessarily have that skill. So it's not the kind of group where you can just call someone up at the last minute say, could you come in and fill in. It’s one of the hazards of our way of doing business.

UCP: You mentioned the workshops that Cappella Pratensis leads. Clearly, this is a very specialized form of singing, which makes Cappella Pratensis uniquely poised to give instruction on the finer points of Renaissance performance practice.  How did the group first come to giving these workshops?

Well, it's a known fact that lots of ensembles do have an aspect of educational outreach, whether they give their own courses and so on. We have an annual summer course that we've been giving for years or workshops in conjunction with concerts, just because you have an aspect of expertise that you bring with any group, especially ensemble singing is a very particular way of singing that asks for certain approach. So I think lots of groups like to share their experience. But because we have this extra dimension of working from the sources, that's a real extra layer of expertise that we bring. Especially, we like to share with young singers, people just starting out, so that that becomes a basic part of their baggage. Like you were just saying, you have more experiences ensemble singers, but maybe they don't know anything about this kind of thing. But if you get people when they're young, it becomes natural. And what you hope is that people are going to go off and start their own groups and widen the larger project they're working from original sources. And that's happening, but it's happening very slowly. But we certainly feel it’s part of what we do.

UCP: Beyond the aforementioned considerations of performance practice, there is deep scholarship involved the preparation of the group’s repertoire. What goes into the process of researching and rehearsing these works through a historical lens?

SB: I think it starts with the language. We know for instance that when it comes to Latin, there was not a standard Latin dialect as there is now, with church Latin being somewhat universal. From that time, you hear people describing, Oh, the French they sing Latin like this, and the Germans, they do this, so it's pretty clear that there were very regional accents to the Latin, and that there were also regional accents to the music itself. The French music was very mellifluous and flowing, as the French language is; the English were known to be very exuberant in their style, and in certain kinds of music from the turn of the 16th century in Evensong choir books, there are very extravagant pieces; Italian pieces often tend to be very sonorous and more harmonic in their approach. So you can talk a little bit about national styles, and you're trying to pick up the accent of the style in order to bring out the intrinsic qualities of a piece even better.

So that's how the language comes. Other things include – I mean, when you look at one of these scores, often the words are scattered over the page somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of the notes that they should be attached to. But it's up to you to work out that the texting of a piece. There's a whole question of what they called musica ficta, and that is the addition of sharps and flats and inflections to the line according to a whole system of rules of the time. So actually, the notes that you're looking at aren't necessarily the notes you want to sing, interpreting whether those notes are sharpened or flattened or left natural is part of the job of the singer, so you have to spend some time working that out as well. Other things include correcting mistakes, finding the right source, or a source that's legible – some sources are completely illegible – so it's a very labor intensive business, the way we go about things. It would be much easier just to go and photocopy something. Also, there's just the commodity of the score that you have to come to terms with. Luckily nowadays because of digitization, the sources are much more available than when we started this process. You can go online and find beautiful color reproductions of lots of the materials. In the past, you had to write to museums and get horrible black-and-white copies of scratched microfilms, so in that sense it’s a good time to work from sources, since lots are available.

UCP: Your program, The Imitation Game, focuses the composers and works that influenced, and were subsequently influenced by, Josquin. Can you tell me more about this particular musical lineage?

First of all, we're living in an age of copyright and lawsuits and people stealing each other's ideas and getting upset about it. That wasn't the case back then; it was quite a normal thing to take music from someone else and embroider upon it. Although you know, nowadays, I think especially within, let's say, the hip-hop world, where you take a little bit of a bass line out of a Michael Jackson song and make it the basis for a whole new song – there's actually a lot of that going on, except I think there are more lawyers involved in it now than there was back then [laughs]. But in that time, it was it was a case of somehow honoring your predecessors by taking a piece of theirs and wanting to present it again. You’re trying to show your respect for the for the work that they did, but at the same time, you're attempting to go them one better. This idea of emulation – that you'll add a voice, or make a richer texture in some ways, add some other element to it, put a canon into it that wasn't there before – and you want to kind of show that, Well, you're great but I can go you one better. And there’s this sort of double game going on at the time. And this is what we're trying to show, that Josquin did this with pieces by his predecessors, and especially how his successors look back on him. Josquin was someone who had an incredible, kind of legendary status from very early on, still during his career. And somehow attaching your name to the Josquin mystique increased your own status. So you get a lot of composers taking work by Josquin and making a mass out of it, or making a new piece that incorporates it and combines it with something else, or adds some more voices to it.

So that's the process that we wanted to look at. In particular, we're looking at songs and how songs were the basis for bigger compositions. It's a bit like jazz standards. You know, you have this repertoire of songs that come from musicals or Tin Pan Alley or whatever that make up the pool of materials, and then you go to town with it. You use it as the basis for an improvisation, or in this case, for a mass, or working it into a motet somehow. That’s a constant through this program, how the song is the basic material and then how it gets developed and imitated.

UCP: I know there are plenty of composers who approach their own music through rich and deep engagement with Renaissance polyphony, and have produced works that, while they are new and original, very much call back to the music of the 15th and 16th centuries. I know you gave the premiere of a mass by Antony Pitts in 2016 that you subsequently recording – does Cappella Pratensis have other composers like Pitts that you’d be interested in engaging?

SB: We're certainly more and more open to that idea. For instance, we're working this fall with the Australian composer Kate Moore on a project in the Netherlands, where she's going to write a new piece for us together with another ensemble. We’ve also been working with a jazz saxophonist trying to find the points of contact between that idiom and what we do – so that's something that we're open to. What's important to us is that the core of what we do is still present, even if we reach out into other styles – that somehow the way of making the musical line, which is kind of the core business of what we do, is still there in other styles. That was what worked very well with the Pitts, for instance, because that piece was very strongly inspired by 15th century music in particular, like Ockeghem. And so that sort of richness of the sonorous harmony that you get with Ockeghem was very much present in that piece, even though it had a very fresh and new sound to it. So definitely, that is part of what we do, but it's always a step – it's taking the core businesses and then applying it one step removed from what we do. But the repertoire of the 15th and 16th century is really still our main bread and butter.

UCP: In 2021, the world will be commemorating the quincentennial of the death of Josquin de Prez, the group’s namesake. Does Cappella Pratensis have plans to join in on this Josquin celebration? 

SB: Yes, absolutely. There's no way we could get around it, since he is our patron saint. In any case, there will be lots of Josquin concerts, and we hope to be a part of that in various different series. We’re planning our own Josquin festival events in the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in the southern Netherlands where the group is based. I know the festival in Antwerp that we often perform at, the Laus Polyphoniae, will also have Josquin as a theme in 2021, so we'll be involved with that as well. And we have been slowly putting together a number of Josquin programs over the last couple of years. This Imitation Game program is the latest one, so by the time we get there, we'll have an interesting offering of different programs.

UCP: It seems to be a heyday for this this kind of music. I know that several groups in the previous few seasons that were performing the music of the Reformation, since everything is hitting the 400-, 500-year mark in the first two decades of the of this century.

SB: Yes, it's amazing. Especially the 500th for the music we do. For the last indeed 20 years or so, it seems almost yearly there's been another 500th. Last year was Heinrich Isaac, who's one of the great composers of the of the Low Countries, and this year it’s Pierre de la Rue, and there's a whole bunch of other ones – less famous, but actually just as great. Josquin will kind of be the pinnacle. It's the end of that generation, and then you'll be moving on to the next group. So it’ll be interesting to see how big a deal it is with him, because to be fair, Renaissance music is a kind of a world of its own. But Josquin is kind of a pretty big name, so it'll be interesting to see if he breaks out of that world.