Monday, July 26, 2010

What is the link to Lady Gaga?

'That inner spirit has been embodied very vibrantly in Benedictine monastic life and liturgy. This helps to explain the paradox of a music which when sung really expresses the spirit of silence; which with almost wordless vocalization really attempts to express the very word of God; which with the action of singing really is meant to be a vehicle of contemplation' - Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B.
The glories of Gregorian Chant, or "the mysticism of the octave" as Abbot Rooney describes it, have drawn me back again and again to the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux near Avignon in France. The monastic community at Le Barroux are orthodox Catholics who celebrate the Holy Offices eight times a day in plainsong which respects the scholarship of Solesmes. This glorious liturgy is one of the reasons why I have stayed at the Abbey as a guest of the monks quite a few times over the years despite my discomfort with other aspects of Catholicism.

As a result of my visits the community has featured here several times and I have also revelled in the chant of the sister community of nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation located on the slope below Sainte-Madeleine. But I never thought I would write a post linking the Benedictines at Le Barroux to Lady Gaga, but that is exactly where this typically overgrown path is leading.

Several CDs of Gregorian Chant have been made by the monks at Sainte-Madeleine for sale in their monastic shop. However these were essentially in-house projects that never really captured the full glory of the sound. But all that has changed, as I learnt when staying at the monastery in December of last year. During my recent visit it was clear that the quality of the monk's voices, which was always very good, was now quite exceptional. My friends in the monastic community told me that not only had they been receiving voice training from a professional coach, but they had just completed recording a new CD for a mainstream label in between celebrating the Holy Offices.

As soon as the CD was released a couple of months back I ordered a copy. When it arrived from France I only needed to listen to a few tracks to realise there was something quite exceptional captured on the disc. So exceptional in fact that I needed to share it with readers, at which point the new release joined a queue of posts to be written when I returned from my recent trip to France. And it sat in there until I clicked on a story at the BBC News website this morning. The headline was typical PR spiel, and I nearly passed it by. But then I read further:
Major record deal for reclusive Benedictine nuns

The nuns hope the album will help people 'find peace' An order of Benedictine nuns has signed a major record deal with the company behind Lady Gaga, it has been revealed.

The Nuns of the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation, from France, won a global search of more than 70 convents across Europe, the US and Africa. The reclusive order, based near Avignon, were deemed to have the finest Gregorian Chant singers.They have signed a deal with Decca Records, part of Universal Music, which counts Lady Gaga and U2 among its acts.
Yes, the nuns signed by Lady Gaga's label, aka Decca, are the very same ones I visit at Le Barroux. The photo below shows L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in the foreground with L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation visible as a cluster of buildings in the middle distance and Mont Ventoux towering in the background. Clearly something musically quite remarkable is happening at Le Barroux, so here is the story of the new Jade (who brought us Armenia Sacra and Hymns of Mount Athos) CD from the monks.


I have written before about the architecture of L'Abbay Sainte-Madeleine. The aerial view above shows the conservatively styled neo-Romanesque Abbey which was built between 1980 and 1989. Stone was used in its construction, as seen in the photo below of the interior, and this together with the arched ceiling has created a quite exceptional acoustic, wonderfully warm but without the confusing aural overhang often associated with large churches.

Renowned tonmeister Igor Kirkwood, who now records at Solesmes and is, I am told by the monks, quite a perfectionist with a healthy appetite for retakes, engineered the sessions and captured the monks singing Gregorian Mass and Vespers settings together with a selection of antiphons in the glorious sacred space of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine. The result is both a musical revelation and a definitive example of natural sound which is blissfully free of today's all too common technology tampering. I have so often sat mesmerised at Le Barroux as the chant soared into the roof of the Abbey at Le Barroux apparently completely independent of its human source. When I played the CD the chant soared into the room apparently completely independent of the speakers. Need I say more?

Well, yes actually. Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine is, for me, one of the year's outstanding releases because of its superlative singing and sound. But, if that was not enough, there are also four tracks of organ music recorded in the Abbey. One of these, Te Saludan by the Provencal composer Xavier de Fourvière (1853-1912), couples the organ of the Abbey (played by Jean Coutarel) with the three-holed folk pipe called a galoubet (played by Jean-Sébastien Bressy). That track is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have heard for some time and is worth the purchase price of the CD alone. If Universal Music want a really original crossover project for the Christmas market a disc of music for organ and galoubet coupled with some Provencal carols could just be the ticket.

If you think I am enthusiastic about Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine you are dead right. Yes, the nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation also have truly ravishing voices. But I am just a little nervous as to what the folk at Lady Gaga's record label are going to do with the sound for a crossover market weaned on dry studio acoustics. There may be hope as Igor Kirkwood does engineer some Decca recordings. But if you want the real thing don't wait for the nuns; the new Jade CD from the monks really puts you in the sacred space seen below and lets you experience those columns of plainsong soaring upwards.



* Buyer be aware - The monastic community at Le Barroux was until 1988 linked with the ultra-right wing Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, who featured in my post Love, life and crimes against humanity. Of course we all have skeletons in our cupboard and there is much else to admire at Le Barroux. But it doesn't do any harm to put Universal Music's 'find peace' spin into a wider context, particularly bearing in mind allegations about Lady Gaga's fascist sub-texts. For more details of the political links to Le Barroux see this article.

** Buyer be amused - Local folklore recounts how a secret tunnel built by the monks links the monastery of Sainte-Madeleine with the convent of Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation.

*** See L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation - exclusive photos here.

**** Webcast/podcast of chant from Le Barroux and more on L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation here.

***** Header quote is from the excellent The Benedictine Gift to Music by Katharine Le Mée.

****** Chant Gregorien from Sainte-Madeleine is available from Amazon UK as a CD or MP3 download, but given the superlative sound quality buying it in a mid-fi format would be a sacrilege. I bought my CD direct from the Abbey via the French Amazon website, they are reseller amp-barroux. Documentation on the Jade release is excellent but is in French.

******* It would be nice if Universal Music's promotion of the nuns at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation led listeners to the music of Hildegard of Bingen and in particular the recordings made by Sequentia with Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton. Particularly recommended are Symphoniae and Ordo Virtutum.

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