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Alto singer Clifton N. “Skip” West III likes to call his choral group, the Suspicious Cheese Lords, a “Renaissance boy band”although no one has yet offered to play Britney Spears to his Justin Timberlake.
“I started this band to meet chicks,” West says. “Seven years. No chicks.”
Perhaps the Lords lack for groupie action because they play hot spots such as the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland and the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. Or maybe it’s because the 12-man group specializes in early musicreally early, such as Gregorian-style chants or ninth-century liturgical hymns.
West’s brand of braggadocio, though, is cracklingly now. “We put the ‘ass’ in ‘classical,’” he says of the Lords.
Despite the swagger and the band’s Dr. Demento- worthy namea purposeful mistranslation of “Suscipe Quæso Domine,” the title of a piece by 16th-century composer Thomas Tallisthe 12 Lords a-singing pride themselves on serious musical scholarship as well as technique. They spend countless research hours at the Library of Congress, three of them are composers themselves, and their well-reviewed debut CD, Maestro di Capella: Music of Elzéar Genet, is the premiere recording of works that have been collecting dust since the 1500s.
The group’s next CD will focus on the music of Ludwig Senfl, many of whose songs require quodlibet, or the singing of competing melodies at the same time. (Try that, O-Town.) And for their upcoming Christmas gig, the Lords will include a song from colonial Mexico, written in a combination of Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language.
“It was probably sung by slaves, so it’s sort of Spanish Ebonics from the 16th century,” says Lords member George P. Cervantes. “We’ll somehow try to do it.”
West, a late-20-something forensic toxicologist whom one could easily envision enshrouded in a monk’s habit, says he formed the Lords seven years ago because he wanted to sing a particular piece of music that had five parts. So he bribed five singer friends with an offer of dinner. “Free gourmet meal,” he says. “It gets people to rehearsal on time.”
Each Cheese Lord rehearsal still begins with a multicourse feastfeaturing offerings such as roast pork and lamb, chocolate-mousse pie, and nice wineswhose menus are posted to the group’s Web site. (“The best singing wine is Concha y Toro Frontera Shiraz,” declares West.) One Wednesday night, West is cooking for the Lords in the basement kitchen of “Cheese Lord Manor,” an imposing Columbia Heights Victorian owned by West and Cervantes. Formerly a George Washington University frat house, the place still has that atmosphere of easy communality, no matter how high-toned the Lords’ singing and dining.
As West adds a generous splash of port to a simmering broth, two homemade pies cool on the counter. “No pies until after we sing,” he warns, as other Lords begin taking dishes upstairs. Gary W. Winans Jr., who lives in St. Mary’s County and spends Wednesday nights at Cheese Lord Manor after rehearsals, walks in soaking wet and heads upstairs to borrow a T-shirt. Tenor and graphic artist David McGaw presents the Lords’ outfit options for the upcoming holiday performancesshirts in variations on burgundy, a few of which are still on sale at Kohl’s. When West expresses awe at the commute of tenor Rob Stenger, a third-year Johns Hopkins med student who drives in each week from Baltimore, Stenger quietly explains, “This is my little piece of sanity.”
But holidays keep the Cheese Lords mighty busy. The group is the de facto “house band” at the Franciscan Monastery, where it will be performing the Christmas celebration “In Terra Pax” with the Belmont Brasspart of the Lords’ seventh full season performing in the area. “We present [the music] either in its liturgical context, as in the Franciscan Monastery, or in concert form,” says West. “And we explain what this music meant to the people who heard it in its time. And what it still does mean to a lot of people.”
After the meal, the sheet music comes out for their upcoming Christmas concert at the monastery, and everyone warms up with repeated scales that sound like some unrealized Dr. Seuss song. Then the Lords launch into “Good King Wenceslas,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and that chestnut “Carol of the Bells,” which Cervantes says is an old Ukrainian composition that originally had nothing to do with Christmas or bells. Naturally, the group will be singing it in the originalone of the musical challenges of being a Lord, along with having your voice do the polyphonic work of instruments.
Such flexibility also extends to group members’ inevitable conflicting commitments. For one rehearsal at Arlington’s Cathedral of St. Thomas More on a rainy Wednesday evening in November, the group was shy several lower-register voicesone member was in training for Air Force master sergeant (as a Singing Sergeant), another was recuperating from
hiking the Appalachian Trail, and yet another was acting in a play. But baritones shifted down, tenors filled in, and the immense interior of the cathedral soon shimmered with the Lords’ unearthly, wondrous sound. Unlike the blatant vocal gymnastics prevalent in modern a cappella, the Lords sound is hypnotic and “monophonic,” emphasizing long-held notes and a meditative pace.
And it’s the music’s inherent beautyalong with the group’s communalitythat inspires the Lords to attempt these largely forgotten works. “I remember the first time I heard [early music],” says Winans. “I was amazed.” West even argues that these styles are actually good for the Lords’ careers.
“You’ll sing a lot longer [in this style],” he says. “Justin Timberlake is not going to sound like Justin Timberlake 50 years from now. His voice will change, and he’ll sound different. But in this [early-music] style, we can keep our voices sounding pretty much the same all our liveswith proper exercise and training.”
West, who comes from a family of jazz musicians, also makes a strong case for the kinship of early music to contemporary forms such as jazz and pop. “With chant, harmonies were improvisedpeople did their own embellishments,” he says. “And that’s how this music grew [into] the harmony system we know today, the classical harmony system.”
“You hear a lot of this style of music in music as various as the Beach Boys,” West adds. “You hear it in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea is incredibly gifted in his musicianship, and you hear a lot of chant melodies. I don’t know if he knows this or not.”
“Actual chant melodies or pseudo?” asks Winans.
“Pseudo,” admits West. “Chantlike.”
“Chant-lite,” says Cervantes.
But West pushes the point. “You’ll hear it in En Vogue,” he says, singing: “Never gonna get it, never gonna get it, never never…”
The Lords also insist that there’s an immediacy outside of musical fashion to their fare. Of Senfl’s funeral lament “Quid Vitam Sine Te” (“What Is Life Without You?”), McGaw says: “It was written for a particular person, was inspired by a particular person’s situation. And so you think, it’s 400 years later and you are remembering this guy whose wife died. And I just think that’s kinda cool.”
“Something about it is more immediate; it’s more authentic. It’s just you, there’s no instrument, no amplificationyou have to put the whole thing together,” McGaw continues. “It’s like the homemade-craft version of music.”
“The ultimate Unplugged,” adds Cervantes. Dave Nuttycombe
The Suspicious Cheese Lords perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, at the Franciscan Monastery, 14th & Quincy Streets NE. For more information, call (877) 278-5973.