Ancient Sardinian songs fill St. John’s

Last Friday evening, St. John’s Episcopal Church on Park Street was home to a rather unique concert that brought sounds from across the Atlantic to the frosty Williamstown night: Tenores de Aterúe performed an assortment of traditional songs from the canon of cantu a tenore, a style of polyphonic singing that hails from Sardinia, Corsica and Italy. The group is made up of four local singers, Studio Art Assistant Douglas Paisley, Avery Book, Carl Linich and Gideon Crevoshay, who all met through a summer singing camp in Vermont.

Stylistically, cantu a tenore is a form of overtone singing, otherwise known as throat singing, in which the singer alters the shape of the resonant cavities of his mouth and vocal folds, allowing him to manipulate the resonance of the sounds he produces. As a form of folk music, it is steeped in tradition, with the repertoire of a tenore songs stretching back many centuries.

The first song, a seventh-century Agnus Dei, instantly astonished the audience with the immediately striking, beautiful strength of this unique style. The four singers superimposed their own layers of sound, crafting together a deep, powerful harmony and filling the packed hall of St. John’s with their tremendous voices. The intense, unusual fluctuations in tone were reminiscent of the Islamic prayers sung by a muezzin; indeed, this slow, solemn tune lent a somber heft to the religious dimension of the song.

With their second piece, the group delved into the other side of this musical tradition with a secular song, a Mutto. This type is perhaps the most widespread and usually addresses themes of love or loss. Its adaptability continues to make the Mutto a popular form of contemporary expression. Musically, the difference between this piece and the others was evident: The song was faster and more upbeat, with the delicate melodies playfully bouncing off each other. The next piece, “Rundino Passizera,” was also lively and light-hearted, and it showcased the singer asking a bird if it has seen his beloved. Paisley’s higher, more delicate voice toyed around the trio and their deep, overlapping sounds.

The ensemble then expanded upon its repertoire by shifting to more sorrowful secular songs, the first of which was a traditional Corsican piece named “Un Vi Vantate.” An example of the paghjella, it is constructed by a pattern of three couplets with 16 syllables each. This basic structure is meant to provide the backbone upon which an impressive display of improvisation and creativity are built. Next up was “Lettre a Mamma,” the melancholy cry of a prisoner of war during World War I in which the mournful melodies trail into the distance as he tells of his imprisonment in a Prussian camp.

As the concert continued, Tenores de Aterúe shifted between these different types of songs that make up the rich repertoire of a tenore songs, moving with ease between religious, liturgical and secular. The format of the songs varied, with a few duets interspersed between the more traditional four-man layout. In particular, their rendition of the unofficial national anthems of Corsica and Sardinia were particularly stirring as they locked and arms and belted out these rich, timeworn tunes.

Throughout the concert, the group paired the songs with a fair amount of explanation, both of cantu a tenore as a style and their specific journey in this amazingly unique musical genre from half a world away. For example, they explained that their rather unusual poses, which had the singers cupping their ears and leaning away from the audience as they sang, was a hallmark of the style itself; tenores groups have adopted this demeanor to show that their singing is not a flashy, demonstrative performance, but rather a form of introspective expression in which the song speaks for itself. In addition, they informed us that they were leaving the next day to perform before the Corsican and Sardinian associations of Montréal and were currently building up funds to undertake a broad trip of Sardinia and Corsica, the birthplace of this genre. Hopefully they will be able to attain this goal and return to the Berkshires with an enriched knowledge of this beautifully unique style.