The early music vocal group Blue Heron is about to complete two monumental projects. Blue Heron will have performed the complete works of Johannes Ockeghem, a widely celebrated — but rarely performed — Renaissance composer. They'll also be releasing their Volume 2 of the complete songs of Ockeghem on May 3.

The project came together before a three-day Ockeghem festival featuring music, talks and other Belgian delights over the weekend. Before the festival April 12-14, GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with the founder and artistic director of Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Let's first dive right into this music because it's so exceptional. And I got to say, it's been a revelation for me. When I got the first CD, I was thinking: OK, early music songs, this is going to be like John Dolan, a guy with a lute. These songs, they're polyphonic with multiple voices, so intricate. Can you explain to a newbie what on earth we're hearing?

Scott Metcalfe: Well, Ockeghem wrote — or left us, anyway — about two dozen songs. The 15th-century polyphonic song, as you have heard, is a very special genre. All the voices, and there's usually three voices, contribute something very particular and beautiful and melodically interesting, but not necessarily related directly to what the other voices are doing. That is, each of the voices have its own special role.

Ockeghem’s songs are elegant and complicated and emotionally complex and compositionally very complicated as well. They're usually about 30 bars long. They're pretty short, compositionally, but they all are in these strophic forms where parts repeat and you have refrains over and over again. They're some of the most amazingly beautiful music ever written.

“It’s certainly one of the most rewarding and difficult projects that we have ever undertaken.”
Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s founder on recording all of Johanne Ockeghem’s work

Rath: Just as strange and interesting is what these songs are about. Tell us about some of the subject matter. You've called these songs funny and relevant, even though they're 600 years old.

Metcalfe: Yes, some of them certainly are funny. I mean, they're comic songs. On Volume 2 there's a song, for example, which is in the voice of a gentleman who's been dumped and he keeps repeating over and over to himself. “Well, yesterday, just the other day, the other year” — as if he doesn't even know when it happened — “she went by me and sent me into such a state that I had no idea what happened to me. And then she fried me up, she fricasseed me,” he says. And, “She fired me from her ranks, and she did a dance with me and then tossed me off.” He's so confused by what's happened that he can't get his act together. It's quite comic, in its effect.

Many of them are in the more standard 15th-century form — which is to say, this courtly love genre with a lover who can't realize the object of his affections. It's usually a he, but not always, actually. Many of Ockeghem's songs are in the voice of a woman, as well.

The love object is unattainable, for whatever reason. “He or she is married, he or she is not interested in me, and whatever the reason is, I have to suffer for it.” All of this set in the most complicated and wonderful music.

Rath: How much do we know about Ockeghem?

Metcalfe: We know a fair amount about Ockeghem's life for a 15th-century composer. We don't know exactly when he was born, but it was probably around 1420. We know his first job was as a singer at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, and that he soon after that got a job at the Bourbon court in France, and then from there moved to the royal court. He lived in the city of Tours in the Loire Valley for decades. He was quite successful. He became the treasurer of the collegiate church of St. Martin and he made quite a good living, actually, for a musician in the 15th century. He became a property owner and a landlord, and he was pretty well off by the time he died.

He was quite honored and respected in his lifetime by his employer, the King of France, and by his colleagues and by musicians all over Europe. He was regarded as one of the best ever.

Rath: Tell us a bit about the festival this weekend. There will be not just performances of music, but talks and Belgian delights. Does that mean beer?

Metcalfe: Of course it means beer! We're working on some real Belgian frites as well for the event on Sunday. We've made a sort of, Ockeghem weekend or an Ockeghem experience. We'll have music, we have master classes, we have concert performances. We'll have talks by specialists. One from Scotland, Fabrice Fitch. One from right here in Boston, Sean Gallagher, who's been our project advisor for the entire project of performing all of Ockeghem's work. We'll also have Jane Alden from Wesleyan University. They'll be talking about different aspects of his music: how he composes, how it works and his place as a song composer within the compositional world of the of the 15th century.

We also have visiting ensembles for a master class. We'll have a group from the University of Lowell that’s directed by Jonathan Richter. And we'll have a local ensemble, Carduus, which will be singing a song to work on in a masterclass format if people would like to come and try singing with us. At the end of this master class event, we will provide you with music and we're going to get everyone in the room who's interested to sing a piece together. A lot of Blue Heron people will be there and the University of Massachusetts singers will be there, having learned that piece as well. So I definitely encourage people to come if they want to try it.

Rath: Scott, it's been great talking with you. Thank you and congratulations to you and Blue Heron for pulling this off.

Metcalfe: Thanks very much. It was a dream that occurred to me on the stage of a concert a number of years ago. With Ockeghem, it's not like trying to do all of Bach — which, of course, people have done, but that would take years and years and years and years. That's hundreds of pieces. With Ockeghem, it's a manageable amount, we could certainly do it. But it's certainly one of the most rewarding and difficult projects that we have ever undertaken.

The Blue Heron's Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 2 releases May 3.