Chants of a Lifetime

The popular music world was abuzz in 1994 when a recording of music 15 centuries old (and recorded over the last two decades) ended up a big seller for the year. It just goes to show, a dead language can compete with the wacky lyrics of much of today's pop music.

This unlikely candidate for pop music success

came in the form of Chants by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos (Angel, 1993). Chants offers a variety of Gregorian liturgical chants, with the familiar rhythmless unison melodic line, as presented in worship by Benedictines living within a monastery in the northwest of Spain.

Dynamic in its rhythmic and modal diversity, this recording still exhibits the tensions of offering worship music in a conventional entertainment medium; it is impossible to separate sacred music from the monastic ritual that gave rise to its existence. Early music, as it is called, is a formula for devotion within the context of worship, not a faddish art form.

This point is underscored by Dom Jacques Hourlier in the recent and posthumously re-released Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant (Paraclete Press, 1995). In it he says:

The chant is characterized by great simplicity. It never resorts to artifice. Dramatic effects are rarely employed, and never for their own sake. There is nothing contrived about Gregorian chants despite its elaborate technique.

And this basically is true of Chants: The individual chants, without the benefit of liner notes and without segue, are offered as a timeless and seamless garment. Seemingly the assumption is that the less you know about what is going on, the better off you are.

Angel Records followed on the success of Chants with an equally compelling but surprising project, Vision: The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen (1994). This recording offers a series of liturgical melodies written by the 12th-century mystic Hildegard, with New Age augmentation of a syncopated beat and a synthesized melody to accompany the beautiful and mystical strains of Hildegard's work. These additions by producer Richard Souther are as often a distraction as a significant contribution.

Still, God's mystery shines through. The beauty Hildegard describes of the Holy Virgin is nearly palpable, while remaining transcendent. (The opening cut, "O Virga Ac Diadema," is beautifully offered, sounding more like a Laurie Anderson release than a 800-year-old liturgical tune.)

WHY THIS SUDDEN interest in chant? I suspect that the New Age enthusiasm for "primitive religion" has something to do with it. For years I have reacted negatively to New Age spirituality because the movement tended to sack other peoples' spiritual traditions without rigorous attempts to understand the context out of which those rituals arose.

But this movement toward European mystics (which are currently in vogue in music, though the writings, as evidenced by the Bear and Co. catalog, have been fairly popular for some time) has come about as the mostly Euro-American practitioners have seen the log in their own eyes and decided to mine their own traditions for wisdom. And so the primitive within the Christian tradition becomes popular. What better era to examine than the early Middle Ages?

True to New Age form, the chants are seen to contain within themselves the mysterious, the exotic, or the "magical" as the text on the disc jacket says. Hourlier says, "...[a chant] evokes a nostalgia for the unknown and exerts the mysterious attraction of a lost paradise." This paradise is the treasure pursued by New Age seekers.

And they'll find it to some degree. But I believe the exotic factor-and what many people will miss-is in fact the simplicity of the brothers' lifestyle. These Benedictine monks become the antithesis of the same music industry that Pearl Jam is rebelling against. As anger at the fast-buck orientation of the music conglomerates seethes, these robed representatives of all that the industry "isn't" become more conspicuous...and, quizzically, more popular.

I am not here predicting the cataclysmic fall of the major recording companies at the hands of a Benedictine Crusade. (For one thing, these "infidels" really have some bucks.) Far from it, but consumer discontent is growing. And it is economic and political as well as musical.

Or is the popularity of chant recordings just the ultimate victory of New Age marketers to package the cosmic mystery for its entertainment value? I mean, can you imagine the recording sessions? These monks are in worship chanting the liturgy, and the producer cuts for a clanker of a note? I don't think so.

For New Age consumers, these recordings may offer a "feel" of worship without the "demands" of the faith experience-discipline, sacrifice, and care for community. You can obtain "virtual religiosity." And with the Chant recording, you can fax in an order for your own "monk-habit brown, hooded pullover, long-sleeve, 100 percent cotton T-shirt" for only $19.95.

There, now that I've got that analytical whine out of my system, I can admit that these are two high-quality recordings that do inspire awe in God's inexpressible mystery. Even with the myriad of mutual tensions, the listener is treated to a significant experience. Isn't God mysterious? Go figure.

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