Friday, June 08, 2012

Music that is utterly new, yet timeless


Classical music is reassuringly resistant to mass marketing techniques such as TV advertising. But there is one notable exception - Gregorian chant, which is tailor-made for the mind, body and spirit market, and as a result responds well to promotion. Plainsong has a long history of charting, starting with Angel records 1993 recording made in the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, an album that reached number three in the Billboard pop chart and which has now sold more than four million copies worldwide. Over the years major labels have repeatedly returned to what has been termed "monk rock" to generate classical album sales; Decca's CD with the nuns of L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux just failed to reach number one in the UK Christmas 2011 classical chart, and in the last few months Sony Masterworks have given Gregorian a trans-Atlantic flavour with a new album cut at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Santa Fe.

But despite its chart success Gregorian chant is a marketing conundrum: it responds to promotion, but it is difficult to produce a chant album that is new and different - even when sung by nuns or American monks. But my recent travels uncovered some chant recordings which are very different, and which could offer an enterprising record label a remarkable marketing opportunity.

The path starts several years ago when I visited the the Dominican Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort in Brittany. I had travelled to Notre-Dame de Beaufort to hear a very special sound, because the Sisters there use the kora - an African bridge-harp - to accompany the Divine Offices. In a post about my visit I described how in 1963 the Abbey of Solesmes, which is the centre of Gregorian chant scholarship, had founded the sister Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa in Sénégal in west Africa. In the absence of the usual pipe organ and in the light of Vatican II's contemporaneous exhortation to embrace the vernacular, the kora was introduced to accompany the liturgy at Keur Moussa. This established the convention of using the kora in Catholic worship, and the photo below, in which a kora can be seen, was taken by me at Notre-Dame de Beaufort, and my original post about my visit can be read here.



While at Notre-Dame de Beaufort in 2010 I heard the kora accompanying the liturgy in a very moving celebration of Vespers, but at the time could not trace any recordings made at L'Abbaye de Keur Moussa in Sénégal. Now fast forward three years to my journey by car last week from Catalonia to Norfolk. En route through northern France I took my wife to see the Benedictine monastery of L'Abbaye Saint-Paul de Wisques where I had stayed several years ago and which featured in the post On the road with Olivier Messiaen.

Like many other enterprising monasteries, L'Abbaye Saint-Paul has an excellent shop which contains many riches - and to my delight those riches last week included a range of CDs from L'Abbaye de Keur Moussa. At Keur Moussa the sacred liturgy is celebrated using African rhythms and accompanied by kora, together with balafon and djembe from the African percussion family, as seen in the header photo. The result is summed up succinctly by an Amazon reviewer - "Unlike most attempts at mixing musical styles, it is unforced and genuine. The haunting Senegalese rhythms and real instrumental texture, added to the serene, worshipful tone of Gregorian chant, give something utterly new, yet timeless". Which throws into perspective the futile debate about 'authentic performance; because at Keur Moussa deliciously inauthentic Gregorian chant comes with the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the ultimate arbiter of Gregorian authenticity, the Abbey of Solesmes. Which just goes to prove that the only truly authentic performance is the one you are currently listening to.

The success of David Fanshawe's African Sanctus is a reminder of the power of interculturation, and there are some similarities between the Keur Moussa sound and the African Sanctus. So I offer the African monk rock marketing opportunity gratis to any mass market oriented record labels among my readers. But they will need to unravel the licensing of the technically quite acceptable recordings; my discs were released in France by Art & Musique, but Amazon has other titles from a different label - it is probably best to go to the source and the European contact address for Keur Moussa is the Abbey of Solesmes. As that Amazon reviewer said, music that is utterly new, yet timeless, and there are also noteworthy parallels between the Keur Moussa sound and the the pioneering ecumenical music of Taizé that featured here back in 2006.



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