Sine Nomine revives lost repertory for upcoming performances

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By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — This coming weekend, Sine Nomine, an acclaimed chamber ensemble based in Fall River, will be bringing its talented voices as it presents “Sounds of the Settlers” during two performances: May 17 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Pius V Catholic Church in Providence, R.I. (tickets are $20; $15 for seniors and students) and May 18 at 3 p.m. at Dartmouth High School in Dartmouth (admission is free).

Pronounced “See-nay Nom-in-nay,” and meaning “without a name,” Sine Nomine (www.SineNomineChoir.org) draws its members from professional singers and experienced amateurs from across the Massachusetts south coast and greater Providence. 

According to the group’s press release, artistic director Joseph Fort drew on materials held at Harvard University in Cambridge, where he is currently a grad student pursuing a Ph.D. in music theory, and reunited the texts of the Old South Church’s 1640 “Bay Psalm Book” with melodies that would have been sung by the Puritans themselves. 

The first step to learning each performance piece is to get to know the meaning of the words “and get how the composer is trying to enact the words through the music,” said Fort, who has been the artistic director for Sine Nomine for the past year. “I spend a lot of time beforehand, even before rehearsals start, really trying to get to know the music.”

Appreciating the original context of each piece, and knowing that most of the music was written for church services, helps the singers and concert-goers “know the original settings and what the intentions were,” Fort explained. “The idea of a concert is a relatively recent phenomenon, this idea that you would sit and listen to this music when previously the act of singing this music was to be devotional. I think that’s particularly true of the repertoire we’re doing for this concert coming up.”

Vickie Duclos Barrett has been a Sine Nomine member since 1997. A fund-raiser for Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and parishioner of St. Christopher’s Parish in Tiverton, R.I., Barrett said that shortly after she moved back to the area, she looked for a musical outlet that would challenge her but was also close by “and Sine Nomine fit that requirement,” she said.

“Besides the fact that the music is challenging and the quality of the musical direction is very high, one of the things that has been very fulfilling for me is that we sing music of the Church,” said Barrett. “There is an element of worship being able to really explore the type of music that we do, and the words are just so powerful. For me, it’s an extension of worship and an extension of my faith.”

The “Sounds of the Settlers” will be covering a variety of psalms, including Psalm 100, a psalm for giving grateful praise that really connects with Barrett: “The words are very powerful,” she said.

What Barrett really likes about Sine Nomine is that though it’s an amateur singing group, “the thing that connects us is the music. We come from all walks of life, all education and religious backgrounds and people are at different points in their lives. What really binds us together is the quality of the music and performance. We’re an amateur group on a very high level, which is wonderful for this area.”

Each of the concerts given by Sine Nomine could be viewed as a walking exhibition or museum-type piece “to show how these things were done previously,” said Fort.

In reaction to the rich musical Litanies of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, which the Puritans found distracting for their prayer, the Puritans “stripped everything down and made it much more plain,” said Fort. “That presents a challenge for us because if you want to give a concert, you want to give a concert of music that people want to listen to.”

That also means finding pieces that singers want to sing. The upcoming performances will mark the debut of Joel Rust’s “Meditation,” a setting of a text by 17th-century Massachusetts pastor and poet, Edward Taylor.

The text itself is very old, noted Barrett; “It’s a very mysterious text,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it. As a singer, for me, I really think about the words beyond the rehearsal; what is [the composer] trying to say? Joel Rust created a very challenging piece, and we’ve spent many hours putting this piece together. I think the more we listen and learn it, we’re really starting to appreciate the rhythm, melody, harmony and the words, and I hope that the audience takes that away with them. What Joel Rust has done is really find a way to illustrate the words in 21st-century tonality.”

Fort acknowledged the Joel Rust piece has been difficult for the singers, and “one thing that has been a challenge is persuading the choir to like the music” but also work through the piece to sing it as close to its original form as possible.

The “Old Way” was to sing your line and just “ornament” it in a way where the singer would trill along to get to his or her right note, explained Fort, “with no concern how the person next to you was ornamenting it, with a result where there’d be all sorts of clashing notes and it didn’t matter because it was all about your devotion and what you’re feeling during a devotional activity. Now, today, we’re so hung up on having everything unified and carefully put together,” he said, adding the first few tries of having the singers do “Meditation” in the “Old Way” brought some skeptical looks, but “now everyone likes it.”

The 25-member group will present many songs from varying degrees of provenance, including a beautiful piece by Thomas Tomkins, “When David Heard” and music by Thomas Ravenscroft, whose rendition of “Three blinde mice” [Old Way spelling] will have the audience hearing a new twist on an old favorite.

“We’re trying to give a sense of what music was going on for the Puritans, but we’re keeping it very broad,” said Fort.

“I think when you go to a Sine Nomine concert, there is that other element; for me, it’s that spiritual atmosphere,” said Barrett. “I know that for some of the audience members who have been coming for years, that’s what they comment on. It’s more than just listening to music, there’s something about what’s being created during the performance that really touches them.”

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts