By Jason Victor Serinus

On February 10, the Bing Concert Hall audience will become immersed in an unprecedented re-creation of 11th century Christian ritual and belief. Through music, poetry, art, architecture, light, computer simulation, and other portals to the heart and senses, we will re-experience the power of chant, faith, and place to animate the spirit of Ste. Foy—Santa Fides in Latin / Saint Faith in English—a 12-year girl who was tortured and martyred for her faith.

A central avenue into this spiritual and sensorial reality is the music chanted in Ste. Foy (Holy Faith), the remarkably well-preserved Romanesque church at Conques in the south of France. Attendees will have a unique opportunity to (virtually) relive believers’ reality as they gathered around the remarkably intact gold, enamel, and jewel-encrusted statue of the virgin that holds part of her remains.

The evening is spearheaded by Bissera V. Pentcheva, a visionary Professor of Art History at Stanford. Both the concert and simultaneous exhibit in the Stanford Art Gallery, “AudioVision in the Middle Ages: Ste. Foy at Conques” (January 24-March 17), are a natural evolution of Pencheva’s earlier work on the mysteries of Hagia Sophia, a former Christian Church that survives from the 6th century.

Once again, Jonathan Abel, Adjunct Professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in the Music Department at Stanford, will use computer simulation to recreate the church acoustic. But among the many other unique aspects of the evening will be the first opportunity in 1000 years to hear the chants of the monks who used sound, word, incense, light, and imagery to venerate the Saint.

For this we have another member of Pentcheva’s 12-person team, Laura Steenberge, DMA, to thank. A former grad student at Stanford, Steenberge is a self-described “intermedia composer” whose work, in part, focuses on the divide between composer and performer. She’s also concerned with the ways in which concert spaces influence the nature of performance. She began studying and working with Pentcheva after she found herself intrigued by Pentcheva’s discussion of empsychosis (inspiriting), and the notion that in the context of performance and ritual, you can imbue an object with life and meaning.

Steenberge spent significant time transcribing the chants sung at Conques and transforming 11th century Aquitanian musical notation—notation that lacks bar lines and is one of the earliest surviving examples of written music—into a performance score that will be sung by Ensemble Organum, the venerable French early music ensemble co-founded in 1982 by Marcel Pérès.

“I don't know if this is too nerdy a thing to say, but we didn't know what to expect when we started to investigate this music that has not been sung in 1,000 years,” Steenberge said during a Zoom conversation with her and Pentcheva.  

“It's astonishing what is in this music. It represents the intersection of oral tradition and composition and shows what it means to actually create something new when you put pen to page. We would have wanted to share it, no matter what, because it’s hard to find stuff that's much older that we can actually re-create. But then we discovered it's incredibly good. It’s also intentionally a little bit more elaborate than anything else from the period. I still can't wrap my brain around how to fully contextualize something so incredible for its time.”

Pentcheva, whose ability to find the sensorial and spiritual heart in huge amounts of data is remarkable, calls the exploration of Conques “the richest and most complex of all my projects. It finally brings equal balance between visual and sonic. The images are static when they appear on the musical manuscript, but there is a projected movement in them that can only be restored, in a sense, in performance. If musical performance involves finding a singer and offering them repertoire they can sing, it is the video and animation that propel the musical structures in movement.”

In the concert, especially during the liturgy of Saint Foi in the first half, the performance will make use of what Pentcheva describes as “a holographic type of rotation. “How we’ll reveal it we’ll leave as a surprise, but it will arise mystically in the space with all the connotations and profundity that Laura has brought to it. We will also animate some of the diagrams to show the circular movement that people will hear in the music’s use of refrains.” Ultimately, audience members will experience the apex of artistic creation at Conques in the latter part of the 11th century when was it was one of the major players in the spread of Christianity and the reconquest of Spain by monks, missionaries, and bishop / soldiers.

“At the performance’s core is the implication that statue, architectural space, reliquary objects, and music— the text of that music, the poetry of that music—all are a Gesamkunstwerk,” Pentcheva said. “They are a complex that works together. I’m very grateful to the support of Stanford University, whose Arts Catalyst, Cultivating the Humanities, and Dean of Humanities grants funded the different aspects of this project.

“At Conques, there is such a subtle play between what is visible and what is invisible. We have the statue— one of the best known and earliest surviving three-dimensional images from the Middle Ages—we have the reliquaries, we have the poetry, and we have the relief sculpture. We can weave all these details together. That is what is so satisfying, in a sense, about this project: every aspect we touch is there, and we can see how it is entwined with everything else.”