Concept albums have been at the cutting edge of rock music for decades. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released by the Beatles in 1967, was the definitive concept album which set the ground rules of a common musical theme with linked liner art, and tracks that sequed into each other. Many other major bands of that era adopted the concept format, notably the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed (which started as a rock treatment of Dvorak's New World Symphony), S.F. Sorrow from the Pretty Things, and the Who's rock opera Tommy.
In fact concept albums had been around for some time before the Beatles. Frank Sinatra pioneered themed albums, and his 1955 In the Wee Small Hours used linked material for each track with the theme picked up by the liner graphics. Just before Sgt. Pepper the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was conceived as a linked biographical portrait of Brian Wilson, and was a said to be a major influence on the Beatles.
The massive artistic and commercial success of Sgt. Pepper meant that the concept album has remained an important creative format for rock artists, and has become an established way of reaching new audiences and boosting sales. Exponents of the format include the Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall), through David Bowie, Jethro Tull and the Alan Parson's Project, to The Streets, Drive By Truckers, and recently Elvis Costello, and once again Brian Wilson with Smile in 2004.
Recently the classical industry has been desperately trying to find ways to fight declining concert attendances, slowing CD sales, and ageing audiences. Recently the classical industry has been desperately trying to find ways to fight declining concert attendances, slowing CD sales, and ageing audiences. The strategy of choice to reverse the decline has been to make classical music easier to access, and cheaper CDs (with prices driven down by the rise of Naxos) and internet downloads (see MaxOpus) have been the main weapons of defence. But interestingly the classical concept album has never really featured as a method of winning new audiences.
Until, perhaps, the arrival of Sound in Spirit from the Bay Area choral ensemble Chanticleer. This twelve male voice group, which positions itself as an "Orchestra of Voices", has established an enviable reputation for musicality and innovation since its foundation in 1978. Their repertoire ranges from the Grammy winning Colors of Love album, through gospel and spirituals, to both contemporary (including the premiere recording of Sir John Tavener's Lamentations and Praises) and early music (Cristobal de Morales' sublime Missa Mille regretz). Particularly noteworthy is their work in music education. The members of Chanticleer are committed to sharing their passion for singing, and over the years have opened up valuable opportunities for many young singers.
Sound in Spirit is as close to a classical concept album as we are likely to get. Producer Steve Barnett sets out a clear agenda. This is the first Chanticleer album created to be totally recorded and remixed in a studio environment. It was conceived as a conceptual whole with no pauses between tracks. And the album borrows some techniques from outside the classical world, most notably the use of ambient sounds. In an interview Chanticleer's Artistic Director Joseph Jennings (photo below) says:
"People listen to music while driving in their cars, while they are cleaning, while they are busy with lots of other activities. That’s okay – it’s a personal choice. And this CD may work that way. But I don’t think it will have the full impact it is intended to have if you simply hear it in passing. This CD will require some time for contemplation. In fact, you may have to listen more than once to begin to get into the right place for it. People should give themselves the gift of 75 minutes, and carve that time out for themselves. I feel they will be well rewarded. I chose music from many religious traditions – Christian, Buddhist, Native American – all works with spiritual but not orthodox religious connections. The presentation on the album is consistent with the idea behind it. It’s a different type of listening experience.
But let's make one thing clear, this album is not an exercise in dumbing-down. It is a work of serious musical scholarship, for instance several of the tracks use 'overtone singing' either intentionally (Sarah Hopkins' Past Life Memories) or accidentally due to the precise intonation of the ensemble (Joseph Jennings' Sound in Spirit). Overtone singing (also known as harmonic singing) is the technique originating from Mongolia which singers can use to produce more than one note at once. The human voice produces a simultaneous range of overtones, or harmonics. A skilled overtone singer can focus specifically on these discreet overtones.
Sound in Spirit is a mosaic of mosaic of sacred chant, drawing from traditions as diverse as Native American and Japanese, Byzantine and Tibetan, Gallo-Portuguese and native Australian. The composers range from Tomas Luis de Victoria and Alfonso X de Castille to the contemporary voices of Jan Gilbert, Carlos Rafael Rivera, Jackson Hill and Sarah Hopkins. Particularly interesting is Past Life Memories by Sarah Hopkins (see paragraph above on overtone singing) which draws on her work with Australian Aboriginal music, as can be heard in this sample -
Chanticleer has never claimed that Sound in Spirit will reverse the declining fortunes of the classical CD. The projection of the project as a classical concept album is mine alone. But what they have produced is a remarkably stimulating and rewarding musical experience. Superficially it is similar to the Hilliard Ensemble's ground-breaking Officium. But Sound in Spirit is far wider ranging in its explorations. The real value of the album lies in its appeal to both serious choral enthusiasts, and to new audiences. The musical credentials are impeccable, and range from 13th century Spanish polyphony to contemporary composers such as Patricia van Ness and Jackson Hill. Some of the ambient sounds and 'arranging' of plainsong will doubtless send the purists diving for the fast forward button. But my love of Bach is boundless, and it was kick-started in my teens by the arrangements of Leopold Stokowski and Jacques Loussier. If Spirit in Sound can similarly kick-start a new audience into developing a passion for choral music ranging from medieval to contemporary a job will have been very well done.
Sgt. Pepper - Amazon.com
Threshold of a Dream - Prog Archives
Joseph Jennings - Earlymusic.org
Sound in Spirit - Chanticleer
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Officium live - a triumph of music theatre