Singing Trio Mixes Middle Ages, Modern

Norway's Trio Mediaeval breaks some of music's oldest rules, beautifully

Centuries-old traditional music from Norway, arranged for three female voices with percussion and Jew's harp. Under which category would you expect to find such music, nominated for a 2008 Grammy? Perhaps not Best Chamber Music Performance. The Recording Academy's ad hoc filing of the brilliant album Folk Songs, by Trio Mediaeval, is representative of the ensemble's reception worldwide since 1997. That their music is breathtakingly beautiful is more or less acknowledged by everyone who encounters it. Precisely what their music is—ranging from sacred polyphony of the Middle Ages to modern masses commissioned from the likes of Gavin Bryars to a traditional Scandinavian cattle-calling ditty titled "I Don't Think Much of Those Boys"—is a finer point that can wait.

Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum came together over a decade ago. Their first recording, Words of the Angel, was shepherded by tenor and former Hilliard Ensemble anchor John Potter.

"For that first record, which was released in 2001, we asked John Potter for advice for the repertoire," Friman says by phone from Norway. "He found quite a bit that we looked at and chose from specifically for that record. For the second record, we wanted to do a mass again. We found that the contemporary pieces that were being written for us were fitting really well into that context and sound landscape."

The mass featured on the follow-up recording, Stella Maris, was "Missa Lumen de Lumine," by the contemporary Korean composer Sungji Hong. Hong's adventurous exploration of the mass form using the high registers of Friman, Fuglseth, and Ossum is a treat; it's deferential to its tradition while subtly pushing its boundaries ever-outward. For composers attracted to the human voice, there would seem to follow a natural attraction to Trio Mediaeval as a vehicle.

"We've been very fortunate because very early on in the trio's career, we had composers asking us if they could write for us," Friman says. "Which meant that we had quite a few pieces. We worked closely with the composers. They listened to us and we talked about the vocal ranges. The contemporary music is very melodious or melodic. Some would call it very colored by the medieval music we sing, I suppose. It's not hugely experimental."

The mediaeval music that the Trio sings varies widely, from sacred to secular. In the end, however, it all pretty much has the air of cherubim and seraphim breaking through the clouds. It is familiar primarily because of its historic relationship to the Catholic church. It is fresh because of the uncommon voices singing it, and the manner in which they are arranged. For example, "Alma redemptoris mater," on their 2004 recording Soir, dit-elle, was most likely composed around the turn of the 15th century for a small choir of men and boys in England.

Friman says that their presentation of such music—in places like the Bijou—is a sensitive subject.

"It's a big issue," she says. "When we sing medieval music we take it out of its original context. There is no way we can recreate the context in which the music was written in the Middle Ages. Which means that as performers today—I mean for a start, being a woman performing polyphony. We don't even know how much women actually sang medieval polyphonic music. We know that there are nunneries that had polyphonic music, but we don't actually know to what extent women sang it. We know that men sang it in the main religious establishments.

"Also, as we understand the term ‘audience' today, that was not the case in the medieval times. There was no audience. The sacred medieval music was not performed as we understand performance today; it wasn't written for a concert situation. From a textual perspective, there is so much in the original Latin texts which is impossible to translate to a modern person today. There's rather a big gap. As a trio, we choose the pieces for the music's sake. We make musical decisions. We want people to have a musical experience. Which means that we don't always put translations in the program even if we have them. It can be restrictive, rather than giving the audience an opportunity to be creative in their own listening."