The countertenor, composer and artistic director Marnix De Cat is a welcome guest on stage in Belgium and abroad, who has appeared several times at Laus Polyphoniae, starting right back in 1995. You can hear him during Polyphony Connects with his own Pluto Ensemble and with the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam. He also composed our festival tune. Rosa is Marnix De Cat’s polyphonic arrangement of Gorki’s famous song Mia.
AMUZ: How did you go about adapting a pop song? Did you imagine how someone like Josquin des Prez would have tackled it?
Marnix De Cat: I still remember when Luc De Vos asked me to write an arrangement of his Mia in ‘Gregorian style’ – he meant historic style. We were touring with Capilla Flamenca in Spain at the time. Frank Claes had already translated the lyrics into Latin and Luc wanted a nice, historic-sounding version. Lieven Termont, the ensemble’s baritone, wrote out the melody of the song with the Dutch words underneath, and then we looked at how we could fit the Latin words to the melody. It was a good translation and the words clicked straight into place. However my concern as an arranger was how to ensure that the average listener would still recognise the melody. I experimented a little with fragments of the melody and a fugue structure, but then the resulting arrangement was no longer recognisably Mia. I also tried slowing down the melody to turn it into a cantus firmus (literally “fixed song”, a melody used as the basis for a polyphonic work – Ed.) in the tenor part, which was often done in the time of the Flemish polyphonists, but this also made it unrecognisable.
It turned out better simply to put the melody in the upper voice. It was only when we were recording it that we decided to sing the first verse in two voices, a tenor and baritone, and the second voice in four voices, so that there would still be an alternation like the one you would hear between a verse and refrain. In terms of style, I used 16th century polyphony as a basis, a bit like Orlandus Lassus, but there are also combinations of notes that wouldn’t occur in purely historical polyphony. Some chords also come from the original song. Rock music is based on three chords: the first, fourth and fifth scale degrees. In polyphony, you look for interesting relationships between the melodic lines. The text is crucial, and I used it the way Lassus would have done. It determines the harmony or colour I give to the music at certain points. For example, it turns dreamy at the end, on “somniare”. I tried to stick to a classic, polyphonic composition, with a nod in the direction of more modern harmonisation here and there.
AMUZ: At certain points there are a few hocket effects: an old composition technique that sounds like hiccupping jumps.
Marnix De Cat: That has to do with the rhythm of the original song that contains a lot of syncopated rhythms. When I wrote all the voices homophonically, following the main melody, it sounded too jazzy and lost its strong, fixed metre. So I had to mess with it a bit, and I pinned the underlying voices to the strong beats. That makes it fun for the composer as well, being forced to fit the floaty, contemporary melody into a counterpoint format.
AMUZ: How did you learn the rules of counterpoint? By performing the music? Or by reading treatises?
Polyphony has been a recurrent theme throughout my career. I trained as an organist and also won first prize for counterpoint at the Lemmensinstituut in Leuven. But performing polyphony from many different periods of history gives you a sense of how it evolved and how the rules of counterpoint work. The rules of Pythagorean numerology and mathematics are also important. They have to do with our essence, our being and the universe, and are translated into musical rules in the work of philosophers such as Boethius. That has kept me occupied for the past thirty years both musically and philosophically, because what is so fascinating is how the two disciplines interact. It is true that there are different types of polyphony and counterpoint, but the rules have not changed. They have simply relaxed or changed with the passing of time, as tastes have changed. What started out as a basic rule of counterpoint long ago still applies today. Dissonance needs to be resolved into consonance.
AMUZ: Which composers have a good mastery of counterpoint?
Marnix De Cat: The big names are the first that occur to me, such as Josquin des Prez or Orlandus Lassus. But that begs the question of why that is. Did they study counterpoint at great length, or was their talent innate? We still have counterpoint today, however, even in minimal music. Arvo Pärt is a composer who seeks simplicity: sometimes that simplicity is closer to harmony and sometimes closer to counterpoint.
We also hear things differently from people in former times. The way polyphonists were trained and the context they worked in were very different. They were trained to think polyphonically. They could improvise on Gregorian melodies on the spot.
AMUZ: In what ways can you listen to polyphony?
Marnix De Cat: There are various approaches. You can explain to the listener how a certain composition is structured. You can show how various voices progress and point out things that people don’t hear the first time they listen because all the voices are singing at once. But everybody listens differently. You can focus on the upper voice, which is what we are used to doing when we listen to pop songs. That is the first listening. You would be listening to the melody, with an accompaniment beneath it. But in polyphony the melody might be in different voices, shifting from one voice to another, or it might be sung slowly as a cantus firmus. Do you need to know how something is structured to enjoy it, though? Some people do, but others don’t: they just want to be immersed in a fantastic swirl of sound. It is still a mystery why music moves us. Is it because it is complex? Sometimes the simplest polyphonic pieces are the ones that make the greatest impression.
As a performer, you have to be able to inhabit the notes on the page. Other people wrote those notes and the performer has to bring them to life. Performing music means hearing, feeling and singing all at once. You have to position yourself as a small part of a larger whole. That is a philosophical attitude as well: you have to give all you have as an individual, but at the same time you are only one small aspect that can only be fully expressed within that larger whole.