In the early 15th century, Flemish brothers, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck completed The Adoration of The Mystic Lamb (a.k.a.The Ghent Altarpiece), an eccentric 12 panel polyptych situated in Ghent’s St Bavo’s Cathedral. In 2018, to mark the 600th anniversary, Dave Douglas was commissioned by the Handelsbeurs Concert Hall to write and perform this music. He called it “Secular Psalms” with the aim to write a set of “songs of praise for all of us.”
To capture that late-Mediaeval, Western European vibe, Douglas immersed himself into the lives and works of contemporaries of Jan Van Eyck in the court of Burgundy, particularly composer Guillaume Du Fay and writer Christine de Pizan (coincidentally, History Extra podcast recently ran an episode called “Christine de Pizan: from medieval writer to feminist icon”, if you’re interested) even using her translated words as text for “If I’m In Church More Often Now” and “Ah Moon”.
Then COVID happened and with the lockdowns, a difficult and experimental logistical effort began. Developing new methods, the musicians worked together separately over two continents with both arranged and improvised passages for well over a year.
The opener, “Arrival” begins with atmospheric backward masking giving a tanpura-like drone sound and Douglas’ subtle trumpet before slowly opening towards Federik Leroux’s smoothly distorted guitar and fronds of strings and brass. On “Mercy”, the upbeat motif drips positivity as the track climaxes with Tomeka Reid’s strident cello solo. “We Believe” features the Credo from the Latin Mass and there’s a light folky feel from Leroux’s lute and Marta Warelis’ pump organ. On “Agnus Dei”, the cello-led asymmetrical melodies navigate the tricky time signatures.
“Instrumental Angels” is the standout, particularly the second half of the track where the band is tight. The balladic “If I’m In Church More Often Now” has melancholic grace. The sparse haunting texture of cello and pump organ introduce “Hermits and Pilgrims”. Electronic sounds pepper the abstract tuba-led “Righteous Judges”. “Ah Moon” sounds suitably nocturnal and Berlinde Deman’s almost twee voice is fortified by the off-kilter, angular accompaniment. However, the dirge-like “Edge of Night” is the disappointing conclusion.
Respect is due for overcoming the challenges of this ambitious project and there is much to admire. “Arrival” and “Agnus Dei” are enjoyably edgy and “If I’m In Church More Often Now” is very pretty. So this is all good but somehow this still leaves me cold. I couldn’t define what “songs of praise for all of us” sound like but I don’t think it’s this album. “Secular Psalms” is as enigmatic and elusive as its subject.