Friend of the factory, Sean Speer, goes to hear some dude-singing and grapples with the punctuation of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.”
“Do not fear the sound, it’s a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.”
-Suo Gân, Welsh lullaby
My girlfriend’s father was coming to town. He was flying in from Colorado and would be staying in New York City (Brooklyn, to be exact) for one week. Dad was staying with the girlfriend and I was to meet him for the first time while he was here. Girlfriend, dad, and I would be joined one evening by my girlfriend’s gay cousin and his boyfriend, the cousin’s gay brother and his boyfriend, and another cousin (female) who was married to a man who was the top fundraiser for his local Republican political club. To be sure, it was a motley crew.
Together, we would be going to an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a.k.a. “The Met.” The Metropolitan, for those who haven’t been or haven’t opened a coffee table book in the last half a century, is an enormous edifice, occupying exactly 1/32nd of the island of Manhattan and, within it’s four-hundred hand thick marble walls, lay the purloined treasures of most of the world’s cultures, stunningly arrayed in 2 million square feet of rarified air. It’s a magnificent testament to the initiative and ability of the American people to travel to foreign lands, meet foreign people, and loot all their best stuff. Only the British Museum has more ill-gotten booty and that’s only because they’ve been at it for a few more centuries.
The event was to be a concert.
The concert was a vocal concert.
No instruments whatsoever.
Dudes signing. It was an all-male concert. Men who would be singing soprano.
An all-male, vocal, classical medieval music concert.
You know: the music monks sing.
An all-male, vocal, classical medieval music concert that would take place in the medieval section of the Met, surrounded by stone saints and plaster angels who were delicately and masterfully crafted over 600 years before.
The performing group was named “Chanticleer” after the rooster from the medieval literary classic: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’ “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” (I believe the punctuation there is correct.)
Dear reader, part of the challenge of “art” is that we are all too frequently placed into a position where we are practically dared not to appreciate it. This was turning out to be one such occasion.
Fortunately, it’s a challenge people of my generation are used to and, frankly, “art” is thrust in our faces over and over so much every day that we’ve created defenses and tricks to deal with it. Our generation has entertainment that consists of nothing but a torrent of non sequitur references to other cultural references in an attempt to completely remove meaning from anything. Apparently, we find this funny. We grew up in a world where Ulysses was already half a century old. We have academics writing critiques of critiques of critiques. We don’t like people telling us what’s art and what’s not. Often it gets so damn complicated trying to figure out what we’re supposed to like and what we’re not. Everything is so laden with meaning.
Which is why, sometimes, it’s good to be simple.
Dear reader: it doesn’t get much simpler than Gregorian chant. There’s a reason it’s called “Plainsong.” The music basically consists of one tune. Not “one tune” as in “one song”, but literally one melody sung by all the men in unison. It’s as if John, Paul, George, and Ringo all came out on stage, each with a guitar in their hand, and all played exactly the same notes, in unison. There’s no complex interweaving of melodies, no crazy new scales, no complex mathematical reorganization of notes to challenge one’s composing skills. It’s just a bunch of guys singing one part.
But singing each note beautifully.
Chanticleer sang about a dozen songs. Some were the aforementioned Plainsong; others were slightly more complex pieces with different members of the group singing different parts. One particularly moving song involved a completely nondescript young-ish adult man who took the Soprano lead on a tune and sang like an angel. I started to get an idea of why the Italian Catholics would cut the testicles off little boys in order to enjoy music.
The highlight of the concert for me was a rendition of “Suo Gân.” This is a song most people recognize from a movie about a child during World War II (who would later grow up to be Batman and fight robots from the future). It’s a Welsh lullaby whose title literally means “lullaby.”
Suo = lull.
Cân = song.
And, like all lullabies, the song is essentially about a mother and child, keeping safe, and sleep. The truth is, all of us, at some level, want to be safe. We want comfort. We desire child-like wonder and beauty. The best art reminds us that it’s as simple as a human voice, simply sung.
The fact that the concert was in the Met didn’t matter. The fact that we were surrounded by medieval artifacts while listening to medieval music didn’t matter, either.
We sat in our chairs.
We closed our eyes.
We heard men sing a song of a mother to her child.
We loved it.