Josquin de Pres: “El Grillo”

In the Spring semester of 1975, all the dorms in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC), where I lived, shared a common cafeteria. Most of the people at my dorm, the French, House ate together at a table, where one was supposed to speak French. Sometimes language majors, teachers, or French exchange students would visit and then I’d stumble along trying to follow the conversation. Most of the time, however, we abandoned all pretence and just talked.

Around us sat the German, Russian and Spanish house tables, who seemed more diligent about speaking. The first day I went to the cafeteria, the people from the French House immediately welcomed me, and I became part of their clique.

What a wonderful group it was! The core was formed by Cynthia C*s, Mark Z*, Liz K*, and two others who lived in a different dorm in GRC, Thom Klem and Michael D*. They studied, respectively, voice, Byzantine history, French, Chinese, and Michael did Asian history and music composition.

Mark Z* seemed to be the focal point for the group. He lived down the hall and often members of this group would congregate in his room where they would drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and listen to music. Mark had pale skin and a shock of flaming red hair. He smoked Marlboro lights and often stood, one leg forward, rocking back and forth as he pontificated about the court of Justinian and the depraved empress Theodora, punctuating his remarks with a jab of lit cigarette.

Mark had decorated the wall with pictures of Byzantine mosaics and icons. He also spent his time copying and embellishing pictures of crucifixes and medieval castles. On his desk sat a wooden bowl that contained a dried grapefruit and pomegranate, the latter of which Mark had gilded with real gold leaf.

Mark refused to listen to any music later than the renaissance period, so because of him, my musical tastes expanded in an entirely new direction. One day, while in his room with the others, someone, maybe Cynthia, said “Put on El Grillo. Mark pulled out an album and put the disk on the turn table. He showed me the album cover, which said the performers were the New York Pro Musica, under the direction of Noah Greenburg. The music that came out was a lively song for about four voices. El Grillo means, of course, “the cricket,” and the voices quick, precise, and crisp imitated the song of a cricket happily singing away.

Our group was a bit like the singers in this piece. Each one trying to outdo the other with some bit of knowledge, gossip, or esoterica.

I fell in love with the piece, and even collected a few albums by the Pro Musica, which flourished in the 1960s in New York, before disbanding after Greenburg’s death. But even more important than the exposure to this type of music was the happiness I felt to be “hanging” with a group of people, for whom listening to such music was not considered odd.


Download MP3 or buy CD of Josquin Desprez’ “El Grillo”


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Josquin de Pres: “El Grillo”

  1. G.H.Bone says:

    Truly, Kurt, you outdo yourself: what a delight this post is. The last line, about your pleasure in being part of the group who shared your deep interest in music in art, certainly evokes an echo in my own experience. In my case, though, I never found myself as part of such an intriguing, indeed downright exotic, group of people. Mark, with his gilded pomegranate, could well be one of those louche aesthetes that appear in some of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

    I’ve always wanted to get to know more of Josquin’s music, so thank you for posting that beguiling clip. It a very appropriate choice to accompany your essay, but also a great reminder that musical quirkiness did not start with Haydn, but had been around for a long time before.


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