Making recordings of quiet, spiritual music from the 16th century isn't so easy in 21st-century New York. So to record its last album, "Endbeginning," the all-male vocal ensemble New York Polyphony traveled to a medieval church in rural Lanna, Sweden. There the noise floor – the technical term for background noise – was exactly zero. In New York City, it's around 40 decibels.
“We recorded our first two CDs here and we competed constantly with New York City as you can imagine,” said Craig Phillips, the group’s bass. He remembered losing one pristine take to a car horn outside the church. The group will be going back to Sweden next January to make their next album, a program of English masses by Byrd, Plummer and Tallis.
“Don’t tell anybody because we’re still New York Polyphony,” joked Philips. “We're not Scandinavian Polyphony.”
When the ensemble came to the WQXR Café, the production team did its best to silence the station's own auditory distractions – the refrigerator ice machine, the humming of the water cooler. Despite the prosaic surroundings the ensemble evoked an otherworldly place with a program of sacred Renaissance music as well as a lullaby by Philips (“Sleep Now,” written under his pen name Alexander Craig).
This performance marked New York Polyphony’s second Café Concert and its first with a new lineup: Last fall, Geoffrey Silver, the group’s tenor since its founding in 2006, left and was replaced by the tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson (rounding out the ensemble is the countertenor Geoffrey Williams and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert).
Below is the ensemble's performance of the Agnus Dei from William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. The piece was composed in 1592, a time when the Catholic Mass was outlawed in England. As a result, it had to be performed in small, private settings. The café may not be such a stretch after all.
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & production: Brian Wise