Supersize Polyphony 360 by Christopher Morley

Armonico Consort leaves its Warwick base this summer for an eight-date UK tour taking Supersize Polyphony 360 to a variety of venues in the Midlands, East Anglia, and the south of England.
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Supersize Polyphony 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 choirs from the touring venues to make up the extra voices required for the Striggio.
How have the organisation and logistics worked out, I ask Christopher Monks, Armonico's artistic director?
 "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. Having heard the choirs in the auditions, I'm confident that we'll achieve this!"
The concerts are being given in a variety of venues, from cathedrals, through theatres,  to arts centres.  Christopher explains how they get round these changing performing considerations.
"Acoustically, the venues vary considerably from concert halls with perfect acoustics (such as the Poole Lighthouse) to large cathedrals with cavernous echos 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."
There is a whole series of associated events for children and local communities forming part of the Supersize Polyphony 360 project. Among these, Armonico Consort's singing education programme, AC Academy will give school workshops, and three short new pieces by Toby Young, AC composer-in-association, will immerse schoolchildren in the texture of the Striggio, as Christopher enthuses.
"I've been working hard over the past ten years to discover new ways in which to integrate the many children’s choirs we have created into our mainstream choral programme, and Toby has been at the heart of these over the past 5 years, most recently with the major work BEOWULF, which we performed with almost 1000 children alongside the choir.
"I'm dead against just performing things in front of children for a whole workshop as that is unimaginative, uninspiring and lazy. Yes we will show them simple and complex choral textures and demonstrate how they fit together and work, but I have also commissioned Toby to write ‘part 41’.  It's very clever and tuneful and completely independent from the work. It will work as a song on its own, and together with the other 40 parts in the round where the children will be sitting. The project is called Spemalot!! I can’t wait to see their reactions when they first hear the 40-part motet, and then again when they perform inside it!"
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!"

*Armonico Consort brings Supersize Polyphony 360 to Malvern Theatres (July 5, 01684 892277), and Coventry Cathedral (July 6 01926 334418). 
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Photos by Simon Jay Price

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