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Monk's exquisite Chant tops charts, surprises all


Angel Records.

By J. Michael Andresen
Arts Editor

Perhaps the music world moves in cycles, as the fashion world purportedly does. If this is the case, then the latest popular group from Spain has just closed a particularly large loop. The number one album -- on the Spanish album charts for five weeks earlier this year -- featured music dating back to the middle ages. A group of Benedictine monks from an 11th-century monastery in northern Spain have released a CD of their favorite Gregorian chants. The album sold 230,000 copies in its first month. It was released in the United States earlier this month.

Chant features 19 chants for nearly an hour of total playing time. Each chant flows into the next with almost no break between pieces, giving the unaccompanied melodies a certain lugubrious feel to them. Gregorian chant is the monophonic music sung to accompany the text of the Mass in the early days of the church.

It was first collected during the papacy of Gregory I (590-604), who gave his name to the chant genre. This was back before harmony or counterpoint became vogue in western music. The church considered all dissonances "evil" and inappropriate to be sung during the Mass. At the time, the only consonance was a unison (or an octave). Even the rather tame perfect fifth was considered dissonant. As a result, Gregorian chant is merely a string of melodies sung in unison by the entire chorus.

On the surface, then, it may seem as though all the chants sound the same. Subtle changes from one to the next, however, give a genuine sense of progression. Although no harmony backs the melodies up, the melodies themselves have structure that changes. The melodies are modal and are based on different scales (called modes). The changing modes gives the chants a type of harmonic movement that keeps the listener interested. Never in the hour recording does the chanting get boring.

The quality of the recording itself is phenomenal. The amount of reverberation in the voices of the choir gives the listener the impression of sitting in a huge stone cathedral watching a procession of candle-carrying monks make their way to the front to accompany midnight Mass. The sound is ethereal, if not simply heavenly.

The chants were all previously recorded on location at the monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos, located on the high plains in north central Spain. The 11th century abbey served as a resting place for wayfarers and pilgrims going to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Spain's far northwestern region.

The popularity of the album has come as somewhat of a shock to almost everyone. Classical recordings usually don't make it to the top ten list of best-selling albums, much less the number one position. For a classical CD to remain the top best-selling album for five weeks straight is unheard of. EMI-Odeon, the company that released the album, has found an unlikely popular sensation.

The monks, however, aren't relishing their fame. The recording that has been said to relieve stress has brought them more than they bargained for. Tourists come from far and wide now to hear the monks sing their plainsong at weekly Mass, and reporters keep calling for interviews. "I am very sorry, but no one can talk about the recording," said a monk who answered the telephone call from one Associated Press journalist. "We issued a statement after Christmas asking journalists to refrain from calling us. Things were getting out of hand here at the monastery. You have to understand, we are monks, not rock stars."

Since then, the monks have cooperated a little. Although the monks are cloistered, they did leave the monastery for the first time in over 20 years in order to record a television appearance. Still, the monks are quite baffled at their sudden popularity.

Perhaps even more surprising is that EMI research shows that 60 percent of the sales are going to the 16- to 25-year-old group. It seems that Generation X has tired of progressive rock and taken up a sound that's rather regressive in nature.

Chant has broad appeal only because it is a quality recording of exquisite music. It is worth checking out for fans of 8th century liturgical music as well as for the average layman.