The Renaissance Street Singers
Frequently Asked Questions

Answered by John Hetland
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  • Where do you perform?
  • How did you get the idea to sing in the street?
  • What is your musical training?
  • Will the Renaissance Singers ... ?
  • How did you find people to start your group?
  • How did you decide on the name "The Renaissance Street Singers"?
  • Who wrote that last thing you sang?
  • Where do you find your music?
  • What software do you use to print music?
  • Why don't you wear costumes?
  • Do you take contributions?
  • Do you take part in the Renaissance Faire at Sterling Forest?
  • Do you do madrigals?
  • Why don't you do secular music?
  • Are you available for weddings and parties?
  • Could you do a concert at our church or organization?
  • Why don't you make recordings?
  • Renaissance music. Is that Gregorian Chant?
  • Has anyone written a poem about you?
  • John Hetland May 7, 2006, photo by Antonieta Cal y Mayor Turnbull

    Where do you perform?
    Any place that's reasonably quiet and has people passing by, preferably with a wall behind us to reflect the sound. Some of our favorite spots are Christopher Street near Bleecker in the West Village, Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, Central Park tunnels and walkways, and the stone steps in Fort Tryon Park. For details on the recent past and near future, click on the links above.

    How did you get the idea to sing in the street?
    When I came to New York in 1965 I wanted to join a chorus of some sort. Someone told me about The Renaissance Chorus. It had been started about 1950 at the High School of Music and Art by the composer Harold Brown, a pioneer of early music in America who, among other accomplishments, introduced Noah Greenberg to Renaissance music. When I joined the Renaissance Chorus ('65 or '66) it was led by Joel Meltz, who revered Harold Brown almost as a god. People generally either were devoted to Joel or couldn't stand him. He had a notion that singers should look at the conductor all the time, not just sometimes, and should sing absolutely perfectly in tune. He ascribed near magical qualities to in-tune intervals, particularly solid fifths and bright major thirds. He believed Renaissance music, properly deployed, could end wars and change the world. When I first joined we met in the basement of the Washington Square Methodist Church on West Fourth Street, later at Joel's slum dwelling on East Fifth Street. We didn't have many singing gigs, but from time to time we would go out in the neighborhood and sing for passers-by. I thrived on it. I was devoted to Joel. Years later, when I started my own group, singing in the street seemed the obvious way to find an audience.

    What is your musical training?
    I learned to read music when I had piano lessons as a child, though I never learned to play piano. When I was a kid my father directed a prize-winning choir of university students in Madison, Wisconsin. When the family took long summer car trips to visit relatives, Dad got the four kids singing rounds and other songs to pass the time. Soon we were singing more serious music as a treble quartet. I sang in the youth choir in our church, then in the regular church choir. In sixth grade I started learning clarinet and played in school band and orchestra until eleventh grade. In college, all freshmen were required to sing in the chorus. We studied melodic analysis and harmonic analysis. I also joined the Small Chorus and did a lot of a cappella singing. In my 46+ years in New York I've read a few books, gone to a few workshops and been a member of the Renaissance Chorus, the New York Motet Choir, Cappella Nova, the NYU Collegium, the Canby Singers, Cappella Oratoriana, Cerddorion, The Art Mob, the choir of Central Presbyterian, and Music Divine. I've learned a lot directing the Renaissance Street Singers and preparing music for them. I've taken voice lessons from Sandra Goodman and Mark Duer. I've also written a magnificat, some solo and choral songs, four motets, ten hugs and about 95 rounds. A cappella singing is my favorite music.

    Will the Renaissance Singers ... ?
    Please, it's The Renaissance Street Singers. Street is a necessary part of our name! There are lots of "Renaissance Singers" around the globe. Search the Web on that and you'll get over forty thousand hits. But there's only one Renaissance Street Singers, and if you search on that you will get many fewer hits, all (as far as I can tell) related to us. We sing in the street — well, on the sidewalk, in parks and so on — because we love to bring Renaissance sacred music to people who might not ordinarily hear it, and because we love to sing this music and we enjoy it even more if someone else is listening. If you don't have time to say our full name, just say Street Singers.

    How did you find people to start your group?
    I put an ad in the Village Voice. I actually started a street-singing group twice, first in 1972, but it fizzled in less than a year. I learned from that experience that I had to do it myself, without Joel's involvement. In the spring of 1973 I placed another ad in the Voice, and this was the start of what is now The Renaissance Street Singers.

    How did you decide on the name "The Renaissance Street Singers"?
    Whenever we went out to sing in public, people would ask us "What's the name of this group?" We didn't have a name. So we tried to think of a name. Someone suggested "Suds", so we gave it a try. But when people asked the name and we said Suds, it just raised more questions, defeating the purpose of having a name. We decided we needed a more descriptive name. I favored "The Renaissance Street Chorus", a takeoff on our inspiration group, The Renaissance Chorus. But I was outvoted by the members, who preferred "The Renaissance Street Singers". And it's a good thing, because frequently when I mentioned The Renaissance Chorus, people thought I was saying "The Renaissance Course", like a college class or something. Only trouble is, people leave out "Street" and call us the Renaissance Singers, which I hate. See above.

    Who wrote that last thing you sang?
    For a complete list of the music we are doing currently, click on "Music List" above.

    Where do you find your music?
    Most of it comes from old Complete Works of ... volumes in the Performing Arts Research Library of the NY Public Library. They make me a photocopy of a chosen piece and I transcribe it to my computer, translate the text (usually in Latin), fit the words to the music (often not satisfactorily done in the published editions, especially in 15th-century works), adjust to the best of my ability the musica ficta (the sharps and flats that were sung by the performers but often not written in the music), transpose the music if necessary to a suitable key (the written pitch of early music did not necessarily indicate the pitch at which it was sung) and print a nice readable edition. Sometimes the members bring in things they have encountered, and if we decide to do them I give them the same treatment.

    What software do you use to print music?
    It's my own; I wrote it in Microsoft Basic and later converted it, with my brother's help, to Visual Basic. I used to transcribe music by hand, but when I got my first PC in 1986 I immediately started working on a program to print music. It has grown over the years to an integrated application to not only edit and print music but also transpose it, play it and export MIDI files. It prints the music to look pretty much the way I would have done it by hand if I could be perfectly neat. Whenever some aspect of the program annoys me enough, I improve it. By now it is very well adapted to the music we do and to the way I like to present music. For example, it intersperses the translation with the music so the singers can easily know the meaning of the words. Whole-rests are bigger than half-rests. Sixteenth-notes are smaller than eighth-notes, which are smaller than quarter-notes, and so on. When a note lasts over a bar line (most of our music was written without bar lines), it interrupts the bar line for that staff but retains it outside the staff; but if a note lasts over the end of a line it shortens it to the value that fits and makes a tie to the next line. At the end of each line there is a guide (custos) to the next note. Measure numbers appear on the first and last measure of each line so you always know where to find them. All of these features are mostly automatic and will readjust if, say, I decide the piece should take six pages instead of five. The text is large and clear. My editions have been praised by singers and conductors, and other choirs have used my editions in their own performances. You can see and download some of them at Choral Public Domain Library.

    Why don't you wear costumes?
    We're here for the music. We don't want to spend money on costumes. My only appearance requirement is that the singers stand in a nice symmetrical semicircle (see our Pictures page). A bunch of people in street clothes is exactly the image I want – regular people who love Renaissance music. Get used to it.

    Do you take contributions?
    No, we're here for the music. Contributions mean accounting and IRS filing and paperwork. We love to sing polyphonic sacred music from the golden age of polyphony. It doesn't cost us anything, and love of the music drives us. I want people to know that the concerts are really free; there is no backchannel message to contribute. We sing for our enjoyment and yours.

    Do you take part in the Renaissance Faire at Sterling Forest?
    No, it's kind of out of the way, and we're not enthusiastic about performing in costumes, which we don't have anyway.

    Do you do madrigals?
    We do only sacred music. Most madrigals are secular, about love and pain and dancing and frolicking in the meadows. I enjoy singing madrigals, not rehearsing and performing them. But there are some sacred madrigals, very expressive music on sacred themes, and we have been known to do some of these.

    Why don't you do secular music?
    We used to do a mixture of sacred and secular music, until I realized that the pieces that I continued to like were all sacred, and I decided we would do only sacred music. Although I don't agree with all the sentiments expressed in sacred music, I think the composers took this music seriously, and put their best efforts into it. And I wish to concentrate my meager talents where they'll be the most effective.

    Are you available for weddings and parties?
    Not as a group, but if you want a quartet or a small group we may be able to arrange something.

    Could you do a concert at our church or organization?
    We'd love to, especially during the cold season, if it's on a Sunday afternoon we're planning to meet, the concert is free, and you provide the audience. Other times are more difficult but not necessarily impossible. See the contact info on our Home Page.

    Why don't you make recordings?
    I record all our performances, and you can get a copy if you contact me, or you can download tracks from this website. But making professional recordings is a different world from singing for pleasure. There can be no mistakes. It's a lot of work, and expensive. Then you have to promote the recordings. Then there's taxes and IRS filings and paperwork. We just want to sing.

    Renaissance music. Is that Gregorian Chant?
    No, but much Renaissance music is based on earlier chant melodies. Gregorian chant, also called Roman chant or plainsong, is simple unaccompanied and unharmonized melodies with very little rhythmic variation, as sung by monks. The chants date from the earliest centuries of sacred music, even going back to pre-Christian chanting of the Hebrew scriptures. Chant is about the most primitive music you can hear today. During the Renaissance (maybe the 15th and 16th centuries), polyphonic music (the name means "many sounds") became highly developed and was the dominant form of religious music in Europe. In polyphonic music, each voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, etc.) sings an interesting melodic line, with rhythmic complexity, and the voices intertwine to make a complex weaving of sound. But chant was still in use at the same time, as it is today, and many Renaissance polyphonic compositions include chant as part of their structure.

    Has anyone written a poem about you?
    That question hasn't been asked yet, but I have the answer:

    Magic

    Tinkering, hoping, trusting,
    You assemble your machine:
          Burnished steel, mosaic tiles,
          Rusty hinges, plastic,
          Bolts and tape and rubber bands,
          Panes of stained glass,
          Paste and wax…
    Parts accrue, parts disappear;
    Patiently you labor.

    Unafraid, accepting,
    Daring public ridicule,
    You take the thing out on the street and run it.
          Ahhh!
          Glowing, charged, magnetic,
          It draws astonished strangers
          To its field.

    They don’t perceive
    The mismatched parts,
    The tentative cohesiveness
    Of spit and baling wire.
          They don’t know that they’re witnessing
          A miracle.
    A dream come true, a wonder,
    Impossible, ephemeral,
    A bloom of sound, a thornless rose…
          Your glorious machine.

                                  —Barbara Rosen