Performing a 16th Century Choir Book
In October 2011 the Boston College Libraries acquired Christobal de Morales' Missarum Liber Primus (1546), a collection of early Spanish liturgical music for voice. Once the book was delivered, our work included basic conservation treatments to stabilize the volume, and the creation of a digital facsimile. In May of 2013 Michael Noone, Chair of the Music Department, developed a proposal to capture a performance from the original text, and to record high quality audio and visual documentation of the book "in action" in the collegiate gothic Ford Tower of the Burns Library. Over a weekend in November 2013, Ensemble Plus Ultra, an early music group directed by Noone, sang from the original text, exploring performance practice and antique musical notation, and transforming the Margaret Ford Tower into a recording studio. Video and audio captured from this project will be built into a website on performance practice. As a final treat, the work was performed live in Gasson Hall on November 18, 2013, to an audience of over 200 students, faculty, and staff. This project was funded by the Jesuit Institute, the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the Music Department, and Boston College Libraries.
My role in the project was to consult at the proposal stage, where I am named as a co-investigator. Then the task shifted to envisioning how to get the Burns space to function as needed for a production crew of seven, six musicians, and other staff. The rehearsal and capture took place over a weekend which also happened to include a home football game. Logistical issues ranged from parking to electrical capacity (we blew one circuit), feeding everyone regularly, and arranging for alarms not to go off, HVAC fans to be silenced, and fire exits to remain clear. More to the point, I was also chiefly responsible for the safe handling of the book, served as the designated page-turner, and was interviewed on camera about the format, structure, and materials of the volume.
A single book may be an object of desire, of study, and here, transcend its material bounds to become a vessel of worship and song. With a choir book in particular there is a sense of dormancy, of music literally ready to spring forth, unlocked through vocal performance. This project witnessed and captured 16th century paper and ink literally given breath by 21st century voices.
The Missarum is purpose built—this is not a book of hours that you put in your pocket in between moments of private devotion — it is a large volume meant to be used by a group of people enacting a specific ritual in a particular place. So its function dictates its form, and to be functional — to be used to make music in public — brings this volume to life.