Armonico Consort arrives at Lighthouse on Saturday 2 February to perform one of the most ambitious programmes in its history. Here, Armonico’s artistic director Christopher Monks talks to Christopher Morley about the UK tour of Supersize Polyphony 360˚

Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Supersize Polyphony 360˚ offers audiences a surround-sound experience, with the choir performing massive polychoral works from the 16th century. Alessandro Striggio's 60-part Mass Ecco Si Beato Giorno is paired with the famous 40-part Spem in Alium motet by Thomas Tallis which it inspired, the English composer persuaded to cock a snook at his Italian colleague.

The 26-strong Choir of Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge, collaborates with Armonico Consort in the project, and they will all be joined by local chamber and youth to make up the extra voices required for the Striggio.

How have the organisation and logistics worked out?

"I'm very lucky to have a brilliant team helping run the logistics in the Armonico office and the festival and promoter partners have really worked hard to engage really top local choirs," he says.

"The biggest challenge on the day will be positioning and balance to ensure we get the perfect blend for the 60-part section of the Mass.”

The concerts are being given in a variety of venues, from cathedrals, through theatres, to arts centres and Christopher explains how they get deal with changing performing considerations.

"Acoustically, the venues vary considerably from concert halls with perfect acoustics, such as Lighthouse, to large cathedrals with cavernous echoes such as Coventry.

"We have conquered this before when we did a performance at Canterbury Cathedral in front of 1000 people, but it is very scary for the singers, and terrifying for the conductor. The singers can't rely on their ears – if they do, they will end up a beat or more out very quickly – and must keep constant touch with the conductor in the middle.

"The conductor must be absolutely clear at all times, especially on the individual entries and upbeats. It's vital that we surround the listener, however challenging the circumstances, as that is the only way to truly appreciate the immense magnitude and remarkable nature of these works.

"After all, it's how they were performed originally. It seems pointless to me when groups just bunch all the singers up at the front, as you just end up with what sounds like a messy 12-part polyphonic work."

And Christopher ends with a smiling admission: “I didn’t know about Spem in Alium until I started university and was blown away by its remarkable complexity and daring. The Renaissance composers really did know how to have fun, and it is going to be such a privilege spending 30 days of my life with these brilliant singers and wonderful works. I am going to feel like a child in a sweet shop, and I intend to eat lots!" 

:: About the music

Polyphony means literally ‘many sounds’ – each musical part is a melody so there are multiple melodic lines all sung together (as opposed to one melody and an accompaniment).

Thomas Tallis was an English composer, living c1505-1585.

Spem in Alium (I have never put my hope in any other) was written c1570 and is widely considered to be the greatest work of the English Renaissance.

It is written in 40 parts – five groups of eight voices, each voice with its own individual part.

In this performance, the five groups will be spread around the audience, with the audience in the centre.

It begins with a single voice, others joining in before moving on to the next group. All 40 voices sing together in the middle and at the end. The effect is an aural spectacle with the sound being thrown around the space.

It is thought that Tallis may have composed Spem in Alium in answer to a challenge by a noble Duke to out-do Alessandro Striggio’s giant motets. He apparently asked: “whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe”.   

Alessandro Striggio’s 60-part Mass Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno was written around 1565.

It is mostly in 40 parts, arranged in five groups of eight voices, but the final Agnus Dei has an additional 20 parts (arranged in five groups of 12 voices) each with its own individual part.

It is the largest known polyphonic work of the era.

The music was lost for some 400 years, resurfacing only recently in Paris and first performed in modern times in 2007.

Supersize Polyphony 360˚ arrives at Lighthouse, Poole Saturday 2 February for one night only.

Published 12 December 2018