Café Concert: New York Polyphony

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Video: New York Polyphony performs live in the WQXR Café

When radio programmers discuss "urban music" formats, 14th-century Gregorian chant is generally not what immediately springs to mind. Don’t tell that to the members of New York Polyphony. "We like to have something of an urban vibe to the way we’re bringing this really ancient music to modern audiences,” explained Geoffrey Williams, the group’s countertenor.

Come again?

“We sing a lot of early music but we’re more interested in creating a music experience that is contemporary and edifying to the listener,” adds Craig Phillips, the group’s bass voice. “We’re not a purist group. We’re not a period-practice group. We’d like to bring a lot of this music toward classical mainstream.”

Since its founding in 2006, New York Polyphony has developed a reputation for its crystalline performances of English Renaissance music, French medieval chant, and the occasional contemporary work, as heard on recordings like "Tudor City," a WQXR Album of the Week. But they've also honed a hip, youthful image built around well-tailored suits and publicity photos on dank subway platforms.

The group’s latest project goes even further in tapping pop sensibilities. In May the quartet announced an online Gregorian chant remix competition, an invitation to listeners to remix three chants that they recorded and made available to download: Victimae paschali laudes, Gaudeamus in omnes Domino and Beati mundo corde. The winning remix for each chant will be decided by the group and receive $500, as well as being released as a digital EP on Ariama.com, the online classical music store from Sony Music (the entry deadline is June 20). For the project, the quartet also partnered with Indaba Music, a site where musicians find collaborators for projects by uploading and sharing their music.

Dressing up centuries-old chants in modern garb is a not altogether new phenomenon: in the early '90s, a pop group called Enigma set the pure voices of monks to a synthesized backbeat, becoming an international pop smash and spawning various imitators. The New York Polyphony musicians stress that their project strives for something much deeper. “You could actually take the creativity to another level,” said Phillips. “Instead of just putting a dance beat with some monks singing, people have really taken it apart, they’ve rebuilt things. It’s very creative. It’s a lot higher concept.”

So far the group has received over 600 entries in their contest, including Steve Reich-style deconstructions, Indian music syntheses, various techno and dance-music styles and even a Barry White-styled reinvention.

When asked if this might be a springboard for a larger project, Phillips and Williams say they’re open to possibilities. “It might be,” said Phillips. “Next time around, maybe we could find some gifted collaborators that could find some project that we would build from the ground up.”

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