In this environment, the composer Perotinus, along with the older Leoninus, cultivated polyphony and counterpoint in exciting new ways, extending music both vertically and horizontally, and at the same time pioneering new control of the temporal aspects of composition. The Ars Antiqua is by no means the birth of polyphony, but it is without a doubt a high point in its early cultivation. It is thus no surprise that Uli Aumüller’s fantasia on the theme of Perotin, “Thy Kiss of a Divine Nature,” is a film that is itself essentially “polyphonic.” Its polyphony is a variegated counterpoint of multiple “voices.” One voice is the music of Perotinus, sung with consummate style and grace by the Hilliard Ensemble, echoing the stunning beauty of their 1988 recording of Perotinus on ECM. A second voice is a choreographic one: two dancers, Simona Furlani and Tanja Oetterli, the choreographer, Johann Kresnik, and the cultural historian, Martin Burckhardt are shown in various stages of creating a dance that will interpret medieval views of the conception of Jesus, based on images in the texts that Perotinus sets. A third voice emerges in the presence of four scholars, discussing such issues as new concepts of time, performance practice, and the building of Gothic cathedrals. And a fourth voice is comprised of visual images from diverse paintings, architecture, etc. By no means consecutive variations on a theme—here’s the music, here’s the dance, here’s the scholar’s account—the film instead interweaves the “voices” in a contrapuntal fashion, moving from a bit of this to a bit of that and back to this again. Dizzying if you are looking for a tidy documentary account, but compellingly rhapsodic, if you are not.
Much is memorable here. One of the most successful scenes is countertenor David James’ solo rendition of “Beata viscera.” The performance takes place in the stark Church of St. Petri in Lübeck, whose bare walls become projection screens for fragmented images from Marian iconography. The fragmentation and repetition of images becomes itself a trope on the way parts relate to the whole, and given the polyphonic nature of the whole enterprise, it is a trope that seems strongly emblematic. Particularly engaging is the scene devoted to the imposing organum, “Viderunt.” A long work, its performance gives ample time for visual imagery to evolve, and it does so interestingly here. One of the themes of the film’s discussion is how the music of Perotinus reveals a new sense of time, resonant with the invention of the mechanical clock, an invention that allowed old, circular perceptions of time to be augmented by smaller modules of linear time. Thus, it is no surprise that during “Viderunt” we see clockwork imagery. Initially it appears iconic. That is, the imagery symbolizes the concept itself. But as things evolve, the clockwork becomes less iconic and more integral: the wheels and cogs moving at different speeds “choreograph” the motion of the notes and their interrelationships in a beautiful way.
One of the most memorable scenes is a tableau vivant, a stylized recreation of the Annunciation, breathtaking in its color, lighting, and mood. Surprisingly though, the visual inspiration here seems to be much more from the Renaissance than the Middle Ages, an anachronism that crops up in other places, as well. Also breathtaking is the long conductus, “Dum sigillum,” performed with projections of the dancers in a mystical whirl, the kind of moment where one feels—satisfyingly—that one has been awhirl oneself.
On the plus side, as well, are a number of extras in the production. A companion DVD offers a film record of a scholarly symposium on Perotinus—interesting in its substance, but also entertaining in the confrontations of personality and view—and a director’s commentary, “Perotinus Magnus: the Vision of a Film Project.” Additionally, there is also a CD soundtrack
There are some things with which to quibble. The film of the Hilliard Ensemble and the sound track are occasionally out of synch, something that surprises in a “music” film. And there is also a surprising confusion in the director’s mind about the “Immaculate Conception,” a doctrine that refers not to Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, but rather to her own conception without original sin. As the conception of Jesus is one of the sharp focuses of the film, the misappropriation or confusion of terms is regrettable. But these are quibbles. A more substantial issue is the end product itself. “Thy Kiss of a Divine Nature” is a film that seeks to be bigger than the sum of its individual parts, and as a film, it needs to be. Here is where Aumüller faces his biggest challenge. All the “voices” here bear the imprint of the theme, but cohesion seems at times to be at risk. Given the number of intertwinings, one is not surprised that the “counterpoint” is complex, but in the end, it needs to be satisfyingly harmonious, as well. Twelfth-century enthusiasts will grant this to Aumüller’s work with a generous smile; others will likely find this quality a bit harder to find . . . but will smile, too.