The 40 voices are divided into eight choirs, each containing five independent parts. But despite its massive size, Spem in alium is an exercise in musical restraint. The work opens with a single voice in the first choir, which is then joined one by one by the other voices in the first choir. This pattern repeats as the music moves from choir one, to choir two, to choir three, and so on. That process then repeats in the opposite direction, moving from choir eight back to choir one. The full 40 voices only sing together on three occasions: for a brief moment in the “middle” of the work (after the choir one to eight section, but before the choir eight to one section), once toward the end of the work (after the conclusion of the choir eight to choir one section), and at the very end. Between the latter two moments, the eight choirs trade musical phrases across the ensemble, a spatial technique that would have been highly effective in resonant spaces. Some scholars have argued that Tallis intended the work to be performed “in the round,” with its audience placed in the center of the 40 voices, which would have only amplified this effect.
Spem in alium – Thomas Tallis, arr. Kronos Quartet
This again? Yes, this again. Well, sort of.
Kronos Quartet’s 1990 album Black Angels features one of classical music programming’s most surprising and effective juxtapositions: the title work (George Crumb’s 1970 piece for electric string quartet) and Kronos’s own arrangement of Tallis’s Renaissance motet. Crumb’s Black Angels, written in part as a reflection on the Vietnam War, is a central work of the American avant-garde. The Tallis is shockingly different, by comparison – serene and hauntingly beautiful. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote that the juxtaposition of those two pieces on the album created “the perception that the normal boundaries of time have been dissolved.”
The effect of Tallis’s massive work is recreated by the four musicians of Kronos through the use of over-dubbing, a recording process wherein a single musician records several (or in this case many) individual parts. Their use of overdubbing seems especially relevant in our current situation; deprived of live performance and collaboration, many musicians have recently taken to overdubbing as a way of creating performances with themselves.