Concerts in Museums #1: Chanticleer at the Met

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


Dear Reader,

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 guitars.

No amps.

No instruments whatsoever.

Just singing.

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.

See? Simple.

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.

After the show, our group was to visit the home of an older woman who was somehow connected to the group. She lived just up the street from the Met, so we walked in the drizzling Autumn evening up Central Park a few blocks to an apartment building overlooking the park. In the lobby, an efficient doorman took our coats and gave us chits to retrieve them at a later time. An elevator was summoned and whisked us up several floors.

The apartment was large and spacious, decorated in that comfortable-yet-sterile way that so many wealthy homes emulate. An antique Chinese robe and several minimalist paintings adorned the entryway. The dining room table featured a spread of cocktail shrimp, olives as big as my thumb, slabs of salmon, and a wheel of cheese 2.5’ in diameter with a wedge broken out and crumbled artistically onto the plate upon which it sat.

A man wearing black and white (is the term “servant” still appropriate?) took drink orders from my bemused and somewhat stiff compatriots. Introductions were made to some new people. Proseco was served.

Continuing the dichotomy, I met another gay couple, one of whom taught and the other who worked at a nonprofit. Their warmth and friendliness contrasted with the bald-headed, expensively well-dressed, but nonchalantly aggressive Wall Street financier in the adjoining room. He said things that bothered me.

Glasses were raised, toasts given, and the whole thing made absolutely no sense to me. I could not make sense of the assembled group. I felt out of place, even though I’d spent days and days with some of the assembled on a house by a lake, zipping around the water via jetski by day, and getting sauced on good single malt by night. I couldn’t rectify that scene in rural Virginia with this, in New York’s Upper East Side.

Once my girlfriend and I had eaten our fill of shrimp, we quickly made a plan to extricate ourselves. We said our goodbyes and began making our way to the door. We were caught up in a mass of people in the living room, all with eyes focused on the baby grand piano in the corner, which was also, incidentally, blocking our escape. Not coincidentally, there was a silver-haired Spanish man sitting on the piano bench, hands poised above the ivories.

His fingers set to motion. An old Spanish waltz delicately but assuredly wafted from the hidden, taut strings.

We paused our decampment.

We pondered the vast Spanish vista. We wondered at the ancient world of cantinas, senoritas, and gauchos. We reminisced of wineskins, bull fights, and Spanish leather boots.

Regardless of the differences and situations of the people in the room, we were transfixed by this brief rendition of music. Once again, the environment faded to mere background and the music absorbed all attention.

The song ended, as it inevitably must. The girlfriend and I continued our escape, grabbing the father as we went, and continued our goodbyes.

Extrication successful, we once again reentered the cold and wet New York night. Home was waiting, soon to be full of slumbering, smiling angels.

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