Friday, 21 October 2016

Silence and slow time

I hope this doesn’t sound too poncey for words, but I spent last week singing music written by the Scottish composer Robert Carver. He was born around 1485, the year the Wars of the Roses ended with the Battle of Bosworth, and seems to have written some works when he was only about twenty-two. There were twenty of us singing a mass setting for ten voice parts.

This was an amazing experience for many reasons. The music was immense, overwhelming, magnificent: both huge and detailed, like the fan vaulting of King’s College Chapel. If you’re at all tempted to think of the fifteenth century as lacking in culture or sophistication, you hear instantly how wrong you are. And the harmonies Carver uses are more unconventional than what came later: there are chords you won’t hear in Bach of Handel, and would never encounter in pop songs or contemporary classical music.

The music also had a slow, intense pulse, called the tactus because it is the beat you would tap time to, and to sing it well you had to feel this, surrender to it. In later music it is quicker, but in Tudor music it is about 60 beats a minute – the same as a resting human pulse. To sing this music, we had to relax, slow down.

This has been a common theme for me, of late: I’ve been re-enacting, which means dressing up as a Tudor and attempting to talk like one, at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. To speak sixteenth-century English, the first thing you have to do is slow down. The words are shorter and the constructions simpler: if you gabble at modern speed it sounds ridiculous. But slow down, and you start to feel how it works.

Tudor shoes have leather soles. You can’t rush in them, or you’ll go head over heels. Tudor clothes are made of linen and wool and fasten with laces and buttons. You can’t dress in a hurry: you have to take your time. These are not modern clothes that you drag over your head: they are made to fit you exactly, and many re-enactors, including me, sew every stitch by hand.

Modern life has many advantages: unlike many Tudor women, I’ve been taught to read and write, and I’ve survived childbirth. But by golly we’ve made our lives complicated, and the rate of change seems to go on accelerating­. If I’ve learned one thing from my time in the sixteenth century, it’s the wisdom of slowing down.

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