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tallis in tacoma

The Tudor Choir trundled off to the Tacoma Art Museum to sing an excellent concert of polyphony by Thomas Tallis last night. The concert was short format – one hour, no intermission – and the repertoire selected was just wonderful. From the opening Loquebantur to the bombastic Missa Puer Natus to my personal favorite Suscipe Quaso to the final Lamentations, one was reminded as to just how good a composer Tallis was. The room, which was the high-ceiling entry foyer to the museum, was also very well suited to this particular style of singing.

This event was in conjunction with the currently installed piece “The Forty Voice Motet”, by sound artist Janet Cardiff, which is a minimalist installation that loops a performance of Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium” on 40 speakers, configured in a circle. The motet consists of forty parts, and each part for the installation was recorded from the individual singer perspectives. The Cardiff piece is surprisingly powerful, and it shows off the splendid architecture of Tallis’ work very well, since the 8 choirs are located in sequence around the room. The performance itself is fine, but not astonishing – there are pitch problems and the usual lost singers. This works, though, as it gives you a feel for what it is like to really perform the piece (which I am lucky enough to have done 3 times). Once you start, random people will be lost, pitch may go north or south, and you, as only one of the forty parts, have no real ability to correct things…

The concert was also held the day of the opening of the Tacoma exhibition of the St. John’s Bible, which is billed as the first handwritten, illuminated, Bible to have been produced in over 500 years. While other religions, noteably Islam and Judaism, as well as the more obvious Asian cohort, have continued their traditions of producing beautiful and painstakingly wrought handwritten holy texts, Christianity seems to have stopped once the printing press made things easier. Folios from the brand-new Bible were on display, and while I was impressed with the effort in so many ways, the artistic side of it seemed somehow stuck in the conservative 1960s, and left me flat. The book is sumptuous, however, and deserves to be seen close up, despite this extremely conservative approach to the illustrations. After all, monastic scribes are rarely thought of as the leading edge…