Peter Togni

A blending of medieval, modern

  • November 9, 2013

Back in the 1300s, it’s doubtful that French composer Guillame de Machaut was imagining his newly written Messe de Nostre Dame being re-born in a future far, far away.

Almost 700 years later, Canadian composer Peter Togni has managed to do just that. By weaving his own newly composed Responsio with the centuries old Mass, Togni has created a work of haunting beauty that bridges that gap between the medieval and the modern.

“It’s essentially a piece that is experiential,” said Togni.

“It’s something that I think would work best in a concert situation; but I don’t like to even call it a concert, I like to call it a ‘happening’ in so much as it’s meant to be something where you suspend your belief in time.”

Featuring the world-class ensemble of Jeff Reilly (bass clarinet), Suzie Leblanc (soprano), Andrea Ludwig (mezzo soprano), Charles Daniels (tenor) and John Potter (tenor), Responsio takes the listener on a time-travelling journey between the two worlds, with the voice of Reilly’s bass clarinet (for whom the piece was written) acting in the role of the listener.

“A big reason that I did this was that a dear friend of mine, John Brocke (a realist painter), died a couple of years ago, but he once did a painting where he (worked) an icon into a painting and painted around it and brought the two worlds together. I thought, ‘that’s an interesting idea, you know?’ ” said Togni.

For the listener, the writing of Togni and Machaut is sometimes clearly distinguishable, and other times not. And about 25 per cent of the bass clarinet line is improvised by Reilly, according to Togni.

“What makes this piece work is… what happens in the moment. It goes from Machaut, which is composed music and fixed in time, if you will, but, improvisation is different. Improvisation is a process; it’s not a complete work of art and it never can be,” said Togni.

“The beauty is when, in the piece, you don’t know if it’s improvised or composed, and that’s kind of the apex for me.”

The original Messe is one of the most celebrated works of medieval and religious music, as it is the earliest complete, polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer.

“What I like about it is that he was just kind of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing if it would stick,” said Togni, who notes that there are often blues chords and major 7ths that appear in Machaut’s work that the modern ear would hear more readily.

“There’s something so primeval and alive about his music that I think sometimes the Machaut sounds more contemporary than my music.”

For Togni, the experience of bridging such a monumental gap in time comes down to an intrinsic action.

“It’s really about our imagination, because in our imagination there is no time,” said Togni.

“I can think of something that I did 16 years ago, and it’s ‘right now.’ I think that there’s a collective imagination that happens. It’s really about cyclic time.”

While the Responsio doesn’t currently have a set release date, listeners can visit introit_agnusdei to hear a selection of excerpts from the piece.

“I would love to try and do it in a Mass sometime, but it would have to be a very special situation,” said Togni.

“I think that what it’s doing anyway, is it’s responding to our human need for ritual. Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s a ritual. For me, it comes out of my direct, ever-changing experience as a Catholic — ever questioning, ever wondering.”

For more information on Togni’s Responsio visit

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