Sometimes when you see a show, you aren't really sure what you are going to see. But that can be part of the thrill of live events. While seeing Voice, a female a cappella trio, perform medieval songs in French, Italian and German by candlelight in the ante chapel at New College certainly sounds intriguing, what would actually happen would be anyone's guess. After all, you don't hear a lot of female medieval a cappella trios these days.
Before the show started the audience was already in awe of the New College Chapel, illuminated at night by candles and soft lighting. The 10pm start of the show ensured the chapel would be completely dark and it added an almost spooky layer to the show as the audience wandered amongst the pews and around the chapel taking in the incredible architecture. It already felt special, and that was before being blown away by the performance.
After meeting aged 12 while in the Oxford Girls Choir, Emily Burn, Victoria Couper, and Clemmie Franks formed Voice in 2006 and now travel the world singing arrangements of medieval songs. They performed songs in German from Hildegard of Bingen from the 12th century, 14th century French songs from Johannes Valliant and Ars Nova leader Guillaume de Machaut, as well as anonymous 13th century French pieces, and 14th century Italian songs from Francesco Landini and Jacopo de Bologna. The trio had a complete mastery of the styles and together created a sweet, almost romantic timbre especially suited for the programmed titled 'A Life of Love and Joy'. With heartfelt lyrics like 'When I see her, my heart is so seized/That is burns and scorches so livingly/That it is visible in my behaviour and my face' it was hard not to be moved.
At times, like during one of the set's highlights, 'Bien m'ont Amours entrepris' the trio would move about the room, creating a surreal surround sound with as their voices moved around you to thrilling effects. And the playful 'fies' and 'ocis' mimicking bird calls in Valliant's 'Par maintes foys' made it another stand-out song, and as strangely beautiful and lively as something new from Alt-J.
It was exciting in its oldness, hearing the ancient songs heard by people centuries ago. And it was exciting in its newness, how the songs sounded so fresh and contemporary despite their origins. For example, for the much-deserved encore, they brought out Stevie Wishart to play the hurdy-gurdy, which presumably most (including this reviewer) had never seen played before. And that was the moment when everything came together. The drone of the hurdy-gurdy sounded like a John Cale/Velvet Underground-era song, and the relevance of the medieval music, with the voices blending to a perfect culmination of past and present, was more exciting and experimental sounding than just about anything you could hear on the radio today.
Voice's performance was an absolute triumph of history and music in a 14th century setting that put it amongst the truly exceptional experiences so unique to Oxford.