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CHANTS OF LIFETIMESOME BROTHERS FROM SPAIN ARE BRINGING BACK THE OLDIES

The record company is "shocked." Classical-music minds call it "freakish." Skeptics are crying "fad," and cynics are thinking "Faust."

The hubbub concerns an inexplicably best-selling CD of Gregorian chant performed by a heretofore little-known group of Benedictine monks in Spain. The CD is titled Chant, and quite simply, it consists of 19 cuts of ancient Christian religious music sung in Latin by a bunch of brothers in hoods.

And there it is, as big as life, at No. 4 on Billboard's pop charts.
"It's mind-blowing," says Father Alphonso of the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale. "It's standard church fare, the church's Latin chant for singing all the parts of mass and the psalms."
Father Alphonso's voice rises. "We learned it in the seminary, for God's sakes."

@rule:
@body:Though Chant may seem like an overnight success story, it's been a night that has lasted for centuries.

The roots of Gregorian chant stretch back to Jewish religious rites before the time of Christ; chant eventually became a major part of early Christian monastic worship. Monks would meet for services as many as eight times a day, and music was needed to keep wandering minds focused. The nonharmonic, nonrhythmic, decidedly austere sound of chant fit the need. (Gregorian chant got its name from Saint Gregory the Great, a popular pope at the end of the sixth century. Tradition says Gregory was the first to collect and transcribe Christian chant.)

For the next millennium or so, Latin-language chant was experienced almost exclusively by captive Catholic parishioners. And even that audience dwindled considerably in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council decreed that Roman Catholic Mass need not be administered in Latin. Services were almost immediately commandeered by the folkie crowd, with chants trotted out only for holidays and special occasions.

Pristine recordings of Gregorian chant have long found favor on the outer edges of secular interest, mostly among fans of minimalism. Audiophiles with fancy sound systems also have been drawn to chant's characteristically hushed atmosphere.

Still, at most record stores, the chant bins have needed very little restocking.

Until now. Chant, by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, is selling like Madonna. The album first made its mark late last year as a two-CD anthology topping the pop charts in the monks' native Spain. Angel/EMI, with divine foresight, decided to bless America with a repackaged version of the set. Since its domestic release March 15, Chant has steadily walked out of record stores to the tune of 30,000 copies a week. It went platinum a mere month after its American release, and there's no sign of sales letting up.

What hath God wrought?
"It baffles me," says Richard Hetland, music director at KBAQ-FM, the Valley's lone classical-music radio station. "But if you look at the history of classical music in relation to Billboard, it's frequently the oddball kind of thing that captures the public's fascination. A few years ago it was the Bulgarian Women's Chorus. Classical music, like anything else, is subject to trends."
The current trend toward chant got a noticeable shove a couple of years ago from pop acts like the admirably adventurous Dead Can Dance and, most notably, a more dubious studio band called Enigma, headed by Rumania-born opportunist Michael Cretu. Enigma had a 1991 synth-pop dance hit with "Sadeness," off the group's album MCMXC A.D. Cretu, self-anointed as "Curly M.C.," made a sudden fortune by forcing undulating monastic chants into hard-edged disco rhythms. The results introduced millions of decidedly godless trend-mongers to the charms of religious chant.

Penny Harmon, general manager of Tower Chris-Town, thinks Enigma's successful gimmickry has a lot to do with the recent run on monks. But she also admits other forces are at work.

"Really, the reason it's successful is because it's successful," she says of Chant. "There's a lot of press, and whenever the press gets on the bandwagon, it's automatic that sales will peak."
There's no doubt the press is genuflecting with gusto at the monks' progress. Inspired headlines in publications from the New York Times to the Washington Post to Spin have included such nuggets as "Hey Hey We're the Monks," "Chant Buy Me Love," "They're Not Heavy, They're Brothers," and the especially unfortunate "Come On Baby Light My Friar." Says an enthusiastic publicist at Angel/EMI, "Chant's success is an incredible story. And when you have an incredible story, people pick up on it."

Shrugs Harmon, "I think it's all marketing and press. Everybody wants to write an article on this thing." The American marketing of Chant began before the disc even hit stateside stores. Angel/EMI couldn't help but notice that its collection of moaning monks was selling like the devil in Spain. And when sales reports showed that most of the new converts were between the ages of 16 and 25, Angel's mission was clear: Target the short-attention-spanned youth of America.

 

Thus, the European double-CD Canto Gregoriano was transfigured into a single, domestic disc with a simpler, more pop-sounding title. The record company also pared the inside booklet down to a brief--if flowery--homage to the Silos monks. And the new CD's cover art was reworked to feature a pop design depicting monks suspended in air like so many raindrops. Any similarities to Magritte's "Golconde," with its mass of airborne businessmen, were entirely intentional.

Angel/EMI's advance work--unusually strong for a classical release--helped Chant enter the U.S. classical charts at No. 12, with anxious record stores selling out of shipments as fast as they arrived. Eldon Skaggs, manager of Shakespeare & Beethoven in Scottsdale, credits Angel/EMI's promotional blitz. "They did a very good job," says Skaggs. "They were pushing sales three weeks before it was available."

Though corporate evangelism can only take a movement so far, Armageddon time for Chant seems a long way off. Musical tastes in the classical kingdom are increasingly bowing to mystical, otherworldly sounds. Witness the recent jaw-dropping success of Polish composer Henryk Grecki. His Third Symphony, released on Elektra Nonesuch, came out of nowhere last year to sell 700,000 copies worldwide. Another European "mystic" minimalist, Estonian Arvo Part, is also selling well on the classical charts.

Grecki and Part are both distinguished for writing nondistinguished pieces that soothe more than excite. It's meditative music and it occasionally strays into New Age territory. The same goes for Gregorian chant. You can hear it--and feel it--as Gregorian chant's single, unaccompanied melody soars and dives alongside spoken words. The contemplative nature of such sounds is like a New Age tonic for the overanxious masses. (Indeed, many of the 1,000-year-old psalms chanted on Chant were originally composed as audio opiates for neurotic medieval mindsets.)

"It's easy listening," Skaggs says of Chant. "There's a peacefulness in it. With all the violence in the world these days, it's nice, easy listening."
KBAQ's Hetland adds, "There's something unreal about it. Gregorian chant is just about the simplest and purest form of music there is. It's human voices singing an unsupported melodic line. There's something very pure about that."

But there are other early music offerings that are just as pure and peaceful as the Silos disc. A recent recording by the Boston-based choral group Anonymous 4, An English Ladymass, comes off as a more focused effort, and Gregorian Chant, by Choralschola of the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, is generally regarded as superior to the Silos in performance--though you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

One of the telling ironies of Chant's success is that most of its swollen audience couldn't begin to differentiate its new purchase from most any other chant CD in the bins.

As such, those bins are rapidly filling with all sorts of hosanna-come-latelys. Erato Records is out with the blatantly titled Tranquility: 67 Minutes of Gregorian Chant, and the crafty folks at Deutsche Grammophon have turned up the Silos recording debut from 1969 and repackaged it as The Mystery of Santo Domingo de Silos.

More inspired alternatives to Chant include the Gothic Voices' stellar A Feather on the Breath of God, a 1985 recording of ancient hymns and sequences penned by the creative matriarch of the Middle Ages, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Also worthy of consideration is the Requiem Mass by the French monks at the abbey of Solesmes, where much of Christian chant's surviving texts were faithfully researched and transcribed earlier this century.

Some will still insist Chant is God's gift to stereo. They need to check out a stunning collection of vocal works by the 12th-century composer Perotin, as performed by the U.K.'s estimable Hilliard Ensemble. Perotin was one of the first to figure out that a chant melody could sound exponentially cooler if additional melodies were added above and below the original line. The results, as evident on the Hilliard's 1989 ECM recording, make for a startling experience.

But the cheering right now is for Chant. And back in Spain, the monks of Silos are apparently getting impatient with all the noise. The Spanish cloister has a long tradition of welcoming tourists, but the recent crush of monk-watchers has forced the monastery to cut back its visiting hours. God only knows what the reclusive monks truly think of all the fuss.

But Father Alphonso, of the local Franciscans, doesn't seem to mind the raging secular assault on his church's holy music. He's taking it all in good spirits.

"I haven't been insulted by it because it's not done in any disrespectful way," he says of Chant and its mass appeal. "I do hope that those who are listening to it realize that they're listening to sacred texts. I guess if I were a Bible freak or a fundamentalist type, I would get all upset because people were using God's holy word.

 

"But what the hell are they using it for?" Father Alphonso asks rhetorically. "They're using it to enjoy its beauty. I don't see anything disrespectful in that. God knows I thought it was beautiful back when I was singing it.


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