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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO (Early-music Group): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: The language of love in a new recording from the early music group Stile Antico. Renaissance works taken from the erotic imagery in the "Song of Songs" from the Old Testament.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Stile Antico means old style. The group is 12 young singers from Britain. They met through college choirs at Oxford and Cambridge.

I talked with three members of the ensemble, twins Kate and Helen Ashby, both sopranos, and Oliver Hunt, who sings bass, about the passion in these songs.

Mr. OLIVER HUNT (Bass, Stile Antico): The "Song of Songs" book of the Bible is somewhat controversial in that the language is very, very sensual. It's seen as being between a lover, King Solomon, and his beloved, but it's been interpreted by Christians as being representative of the love for his church by Jesus Christ.

So it's wonderful to sing this music because you get a real diversity of interpretation from the composers.

BLOCK: And the words are quite something. Your lips drip nectar. Honey and milk are under your tongue.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

Ms. KATE ASHBY (Soprano, Stile Antico): Oh, this is Kate here. What's quite strange about this music to many people is that it was written to be sung in church. It was sacred music. But at the same time, this erotic imagery clearly inspired composers to take music to slightly different places than many of their other sacred ones.

BLOCK: Yeah, it's really that connection between the earthly and the spiritual in these songs, right?

Ms. K. ASHBY: Yeah, I mean, that's something that really helps to inspire us with this music.

BLOCK: Where do you see that most coming out? Is there one song in particular, one composer in particular who you think really captures that?

Mr. HUNT: I think different composers capture different aspects because you've got these two sides of interpretation. Palestrina wrote a whole load of "Song of Songs" motets, which he dedicated to the pope. So he was very much focusing on that religious aspect, whereas other composers, such as Sebastian de Vivanco, he's very much the other extreme, and his "Veni, Dilecte Mi" is wonderfully suggestive.

(Soundbite of song, "Veni, Dilecte Mi")

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: And Oliver, as we're listening, why don't you walk us through what you're hearing in there?

Mr. HUNT: Well, in these words, veni dilecte mi: come, my beloved. We will go out into the fields and we will get up to all manner of unmentionable things. It's music that rejoices in love itself.

BLOCK: This is one of several composers who have taken this same verse. If the pomegranate is in bloom, there I will give you my breath. They really seem to, like, setting that to music.

Mr. HUNT: Yes, and this piece is particularly fun to sing because it's written in a polychoral style whereby one choir sings to the other, the other answers it, and then you have this wonderful coming together of the two choirs as the lovers conjoin.

(Soundbite of song, "Veni, Dilecte Mi")

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: The sections from the "Song of Songs" are interspersed on the CD with really lovely, small, plainchant. And Helen, why don't you talk about what's going on with the plainchant.

Ms. HELEN ASHBY (Soprano, Stile Antico): We thought it would be nice to - obviously, this music is very rich - just to sort of break it up, and about when he has to give the ears a bit of a rest and a bit of a palate cleanser to have some snippets of just plainchant, just sing the words plainchant.

BLOCK: And describe what plainchant is.

Ms. H. ASHBY: So plainchant is traditionally from around the 13th, 14th century, just one single line of chanting, as you'd hear in a monastery or, you know, even nowadays, they still use it in churches as well.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Your group is very unusual because you don't have a conductor. There's no one leading you. How did you decide to do it that way?

Ms. H. ASHBY: Well - sorry, this is Helen. It wasn't a particularly conscious decision. It's partly just a result of how the group started out, but we soon realized that it was a fantastic way of exploring this music.

BLOCK: And when you're singing, you're standing how? It's a semi-circle?

Ms. H. ASHBY: Yeah, we tend to stand in a semi-circle. So we need to have sight lines across because obviously, without a conductor, we rely very much on visual contact with the other people in our parts as well.

Ms. K. ASHBY: This is Kate here. As well as standing in a semi-circle and be able to see each other, it's also important that we can hear other lines because of the way this music works. So we don't stand next to people singing the same line as us. We stand next to other voice parts. So I stand with an alto on my left and a tenor on my right, but that's part of the joy of this music is how all the lines interact.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: I imagine the way you must communicate as you're singing, since you don't have a conductor, it must be, you said, visual, but I imagine it's physical as well. Are you watching each other's movements to figure out where you are and to stay together?

Mr. HUNT: I mean, we watch each other's movements for any kind of leads for starts and ends of pieces. But in general, there's just a lot of eye contact and a lot of listening. So we're all relying upon an internal pulse rather than watching one particular person for the beat, and that's what a lot of our rehearsal is about, and ensemble is the hardest thing to get perfect when you're singing without a conductor, but it does mean that we all know and understand this music in much greater depth than we would if we didn't because we have a lot more rehearsal.

BLOCK: Oliver Hunt and Helen and Kate Ashby, thank you very much.

Mr. HUNT: Thank you.

Ms. K. ASHBY: Thank you.

Ms. H. ASHBY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Wow, that was in complete unison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUNT: Oh, well, we've been practicing.

BLOCK: I think you've got that ensemble thing down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: The CD from Stile Antico is "Song of Songs." You can hear the ensemble in concert at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

STILE ANTICO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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