Renaissance polyphony, readily available for decades on any number of high-quality recordings, has become a sort of go-to bliss-out music, for listeners who are drawn to gorgeous harmonies, sung a cappella and bathed in cathedrals of reverb, and who can't quite bring themselves to purchase an Enya CD.
Those folks are on to something, and they're amply rewarded by the music, even if few notice the rigorous counterpoint practiced by Josquin des Prez (late 1400s), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (mid-late 1500s) or Carlo Gesualdo (late 16th century), the notorious Prince of Verona and alleged murderer with a futuristic harmonic palette.
Composer Hannah Lash thinks about counterpoint more than most; among her other classes, she teaches 16th-century counterpoint at Yale, where she's an assistant professor, and her personal relationship to Josquin's music goes back even further. More than a year ago, Lash was approached by Jeffrey Douma, director of the Yale Choral Artists, to compose a new piece for his ensemble.
Her work, "Out of the Depths I Cry (after Josquin)," will be premiered at Echoes: Early Music Reimagined, a concert that takes place on Friday, June 20, at 8 p.m. at the Church of St. Mary in New Haven. The program of Echoes juxtaposes works by J.S. Bach, Thomas Tallis and Josquin with new works by Lash, Sven-David Sandström and Ted Hearne that are intended to reflect on those pieces in some way.
Lash's "Out of the Depths" responds to Josquin's late five-voice setting of a motet, "De Profundis" (a text he set many times), which involves a three-voice canon — voices chasing each other, a la "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" — that maintains strict spacing and intervals between the voices, plus two additional vocal parts. Feeling as though merely glancing off the surface of Josquin's setting would be disingenuous, Lash wanted to compose a motet that responds to Josquin's treatment of dissonance and the same rhythmic constraints he set for himself, without simply mimicking his style.
"The way Josquin makes it act so plastic and beautiful was intriguing to me," Lash said. "I wanted it to be Hannah Lash if I had lived in the 15th century," she said.
The first step was to transfer the Latin text into what she calls a "completely secular English." "It wouldn't be honest for me to set a religious text," Lash said. From there, it took Lash eight attempts before she was happy with the final work, a 10-minute composition for five vocal parts, three of which are strict and the other two freer, like Josquin's "De Profundis."
"It drove me a little bit crazy," Lash said. "The eighth setting felt really personal to me. It was a real labor of love… I can proudly say it's as though I time-warped myself."
Some of Lash's earlier work — the triptych "Friction, Pressure, Impact," for example, composed for piano and cello — shows an affinity for lines and a certain starkness of texture that's at least superficially indebted to Renaissance polyphony: In "Friction," the cello and piano engage in some highly imitative counterpoint, and "Pressure," which despite persistent cello chords, has a very linear quality to it. (A drone is central to "Impact," so much so that when it disappears temporarily, it's a real sea change.)
Still, Lash never got lost in Josquin's style the way she had to during the composition of "Out of the Depths." Along the way, each setting got Lash a little closer to the sound she was after. "Each one became more expressive," she said. "I didn't give myself any leeway." Part of the challenge involved capturing the harmonic nuances of what is essentially pre-tonal music — in terms of harmonic function, it doesn't work the same way as, say, Bach or Mozart — without handing in a finished work that sounded like an academic study.
"Harmonic shifts are something that are very hard to get hold of and do beautifully," Lash said. "It was the harmonies [of the eighth setting] that felt really right to me… When something is right, it's just right. The heart knows it... You want your output to sound personal, not like an exercise. That's why I had to write those seven versions. I wanted it to feel like a Lash piece."
The five parts of "Out of the Depths I Cry Out (after Josquin)" will be divided among the sections of Douma's ensemble, a professional group that debuted in 2012 with an all-Handel program at New Haven. This will be their third time participating in the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, a series of performances, lectures and other events that sprawls across New Haven gathering places for two weeks every June.
"It's such a fantastic group," Lash said. "Their sound is phenomenal." After the performance, Lash said her composition will live on as a potential stand-alone work for vocal ensembles of all sizes.
"There are a lot of choral groups looking for new music and a 10-minute piece," Lash said. "For me, the ultimate goal would be a movement of a larger piece, a movement within a requiem mass."
ECHOES: EARLY MUSIC REIMAGINED takes place on Friday, June 20, at the Church of St. Mary, 5 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$55. Information: artidea.org