Continuing on my "early-music" exploration, I stumbled across a copy of the Hilliard Ensemble singing 18 of Guillaume de Machaut's motets. Almost literally, I mean; I was at a record store and tripped over a loose tile in the floor while looking for the "Used Blues" section and looked up and saw this disc. It is Kismet, I thought.
And boy am I glad I did! I've only had a little bit of time with it so far, but I like it a lot. Machaut was/is an early polyphonist; unlike chant (including the work of Hildegard von Bingen, who I'm reliably informed wrote music to be sung in unison), polyphony lets individual singers cut loose with their own lines, which makes the whole thing much more complex and in some ways more modern-sounding. To the extent that passionately religious a cappella motets sung in medieval French and Latin can sound "modern," I suppose.
Motets are kind of an interesting song form. From the liner notes, it appears that the motet is a little bit like reading a poem or a passage in a book - and at the same time reading commentary and exegesis of the poem or passage - sometimes two or three at once. The effect would be presumably greater if I spoke medieval French or Latin, but reading along with the liner notes (which helpfully translate the stuff that's being sung) is a big help. One, entitled "Fine amour, qui me vint naverer" ("True love, who came to pierce me") kicks off with the triplum (the highest of the three voices, I think) singing "Death, how I hate you..." and mines a rich vein of pain, sorrow, anger, and despair that proves to be tremendously moving and intricately beautiful. You haven't heard grief transmuted into song until you've heard it in 14th-century French, I'm telling you.
Anyhow, I'm seriously digging this disc, and if I can track down a copy of his Messe de Notre Dame, I'm going to be all over that action.