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The men behind the music
Who exactly are the Suspicious Cheese Lords?
Sitting around a large oval table last Wednesday in Columbia Heights, 12 guys dig into turkey breast, gravy and fruit salad. They’re a motley crowd, differing in age, religious background and beverage preference, but the strand that binds them together is a strong one: a passion for “early music” and an ability to sing it — well.
These men comprise the Suspicious Cheese Lords, a group of 10 to 15 male singers that sports a name indicative of their goofy personalities and very loosely translated from “Suscipe quaeso Domine,” the name of a piece of music by composer Thomas Tallis. Founded in 1996 by Clifton “Skip” West III, the Cheese Lords specialize in music that is a cappella, intricate and rare. In its early days, the group, referred to in its mission statement as a “brotherhood,” began informally by sharing a meal and singing for the pure pleasure of it.
Part of the music’s appeal is that it’s “very organic,” West said, with no instruments and a rich polyphony — a musical texture featuring two or more independent voices. The Cheese Lords typically sing four-part harmonies, even the higher parts. The result is “a different sound,” said West, a Catholic and one of four remaining original Cheese Lords. “It’s a very powerful sound.”
The Cheese Lords meet once a week on the corner of Euclid and 13th streets in northwest Washington, D.C., in the former Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development. It’s now a residence for a couple of Cheese Lords, including West. Four current members are originals; others have joined throughout the years. Recruits come via friends and word of mouth.
Back at their weekly rehearsal, after polishing off West’s home-cooked meal, the atmosphere immediately changes from playful to professional. The men stand, stretch and begin a series of warm-up exercises — still gathered around the table. There they remain throughout their rehearsal, alternating between sipping beer, wine and water, and discussing only musicality. They have come to rehearse.
After finishing a piece, the Cheese Lords dissect the music, pencils out, making note of spots out of pitch and deciding where to stagger breathing.
“We all have a deep love for the music,” West said. “We come together as companions and we break bread together and then we sing. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take the music seriously.”
West founded the Cheese Lords after developing an interest for ancient choral music in college. That music, he found, filled an inner need.
“Music is a very important part of my spirituality and how I pray,” West said. “It’s the closest (way) I can perceive heaven.”
Eventually, the Cheese Lords wanted to break out of the dining room and share their talents. For more than a decade they have performed in concert halls, churches and venues around the Washington area and beyond. From 1998 to 2006, the Cheese Lords served as the “choir in residence” at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, singing for all major services, including Holy Week and special feast days. They’ve also sung at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, Church of the Epiphany and Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Chapel, all in Washington, and Church of the Holy Redeemer in Kensington, Md.
In the Arlington Diocese, they most recently lifted their voices during the 1962 Latin Mass celebrated on Pentecost Sunday at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale.
“It was really great to sing the music for actual context,” said West. “It’s one thing to hear this music in a concert hall, but to actually sing the music and hear it in the context of the actual liturgy (has) a deeper meaning to the singer and the congregational listener.
“You’re not getting applause, but you’re feeling the emotion of the audience and their attentiveness,” West said.
The Cheese Lords also have performed at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington and Christendom College in Front Royal. They recorded their third CD at St. Michael Church in Annandale.
Though a secular group with no religious prerequisite, the Cheese Lords sing music rooted in Catholic tradition, giving the performers and listeners a sense of “a deep Western Christian spiritual heritage that we have particularly in Catholic Christianity,” West said.
With more than 20 alumni from throughout the years, the group has recorded three albums: “Maestro di Capella” (2002), “Missa L’homme armé” (2004) and “Vivat Rex!” (2007).
In order to keep their repertoire fresh and unique, members of the group go “manuscript diving” at the Library of Congress approximately every six weeks, searching for music that has never been recorded before.
One regular “diver” is George Cervantes, another of the four remaining original Cheese Lords.
“There’s a lot of music just sitting there on shelves … stuff that is sitting there and has not been performed in who knows how long,” said Cervantes, a member of the Cathedral of St. Matthew and an employee at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, both in Washington. “It’s just really exciting to dust it off, bring it to the group and sing through it.”
West said that singing the music makes it alive and is a continuation of the ministry of the composer.
“Our music is not a museum piece but it’s living, liturgical music that’s just as relevant now as it was then,” he said. “And we’re seeing a hunger for that.”
Early music performances are rare to find, Cervantes said, describing them as “esoteric, beautiful and unplugged.” He likes that it’s a cappella, with the only sounds coming from the blending of human voices.
Being Catholic adds an extra layer to singing the music, he added.
“It has a context, not just historically, but also spiritually,” Cervantes said. “It’s something I have a familiarity with. It adds another level of appreciation for that kind of cultural heritage.”
In April 2008, eight of the Cheese Lords sang for Pope Benedict XVI at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center during the Holy Father’s visit to Washington. They performed an arrangement of the “Prayer of St. Francis” composed by Cervantes.
“It was just amazing to be able to sing it for him and for the guests,” Cervantes said. “Once we’d finished, (I looked) down and there is the Holy Father looking up, applauding. That is an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life.”
Dan Ebeling of Alexandria has been singing with the Cheese Lords for the last five years. Though he was raised Catholic, Ebeling no longer considers himself tied to the Faith — except through the music he performs with the Cheese Lords and as part of the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Still, he finds deep meaning in the compositions by Church composers. “Sicut Cervus Desiderat,” a setting of Psalm 42 (“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”), by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, is a piece that speaks directly to him.
“It’s just that one phrase and I love the way it’s set in its serenity,” Ebeling said. “I love how it’s kind of like a haiku. It’s one idea and you explore that idea.”
It’s a love for this early music that so well suits his counter-tenor voice that keeps Ebeling tied to the brotherhood.
“We do a repertoire that’s unusual, it’s harder to find,” he said. “True magic really does happen with this group and that’s one of those things that keeps me with them.”
In October, the Cheese Lords will tour in Michigan. Nothing yet is scheduled locally for the fall, but that won’t stop this group from doing what it does best: getting together, sharing a meal and making beautiful music. That’s the core of the Cheese Lords and who they are: A true brotherhood in song.