Finding Voices, and Looking Devotional: Reflections on Rehearsing the Musical Aspects of ‘The Play of Adam’

Three months ago the choir for ‘The Play of Adam’ met and began an exploration of Gregorian chant, and how it fits within the drama. Coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds from the Schools of History and English and MEMS but not music theory, it’s exciting to explore an important and fresh (to us!) part of the medieval soundscape in relation to drama, performance, liturgy, and audience.

The way we approach chant is through practice, informed by our performance experience and historical grounding. As such I lead rehearsals with a few questions in mind:

  1. How does Gregorian chant function in ‘The Play of Adam’?
  2. How can we go about performing it?
  3. What is authenticity, and is it possible to attain it?
  4. How does chant fit with the soundscape of the modern world?
  5. How does it interact with the environment(s) in which it is/was practiced and performed?

There isn’t space to address all of the issues raised by these questions; issues we are still battling with, particularly when it comes to imagining how the medieval clergy would have performed it and how (or if indeed we want to) capture that. Instead I’ll talk a bit about how I’ve seen the choir grow into the music, and perhaps how we’ve begun to imagine it whilst singing.

Essentially, the chants seem, from our polyphonic, emotive, harmonic, post-punk perspective to favour words over melody: the rhythms are steady and meditative, and at times the lines lead to places unfamiliar to our modern ears. At first I found everyone approaching the lines tentatively in fear of being exposed for singing the wrong note because everyone keeps the same line. Breathing is also difficult, it has to be staggered to create a sense of an unbroken line of melody, and if this melody isn’t supported the pitch also has the tendency to drop. Gradually, we have found speeding up the chants to a steady pace the best way of keeping pitch, and also the easiest way to remember the melodies.

At one rehearsal Kate mentioned how chant was akin to rap in the way it has a kind of rhythmic reflective vibe, and this is an analogy which works in our connection with the subject matter of the chant. If we think of its purpose as a liturgical device to enforce biblical narratives and catholic concepts, but also within the minds of those feeling the chants as they sing them, it is akin to a piece of poetry read aloud or set to music. ‘Let’s look devotional’, is something I’ve said like a broken record every time we come to stand and perform a chant, and now as we get towards the work in progress performance there is a kind of energy coming from the choir, a wholeness, and an intention to the sound I hope will come through on Wednesday as contrast and relief to the pace of the spoken lines…

— Hannah Liley