Sunday, February 23, 2014

When you hear hoofbeats think beyond Gregorian chant


Last year Universal Music ceo Max Hole famously declared that the abolition of formal dress is a sine qua non for classical music's survival. This year the biggest classical sales by far to date have been achieved by an album from Univeral Music's Decca label made by musicians who have literally vowed to wear formal dress for the rest of their lives. News that the latest album from the Benedictines of Mary has, like the nuns previous two albums, topped the classical charts will come as no surprise to those who remember the slew of Gregorian best sellers that started in 1994 with the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Yet, despite this, classical music's movers and shakers continue to view the sales success of monastic Sisters and Brothers with condescension. Which is very short-sighted.

Educator, artist and Sufi adept Shems Friedlander is the author of a popular book titled When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra: Talks on Sufism. The moral of the book's title is that cultural conditioning means that when we hear hoofbeats we immediately conclude horses are approaching, even though zebras make the same sound. Similarly, when we hear of the sales success of Gregorian chant, we immediately conclude that this is just another example of the dreaded dumbing down. But Shems Friedlander's objective is to make the reader see things in a different way, and, classical music can learn a lot from his teaching.

The perennial sales success of Gregorian chant may be just another example of dumbing down - horses hooves. Or it may be telling us that people are buying large numbers of albums by the Benedictines of Mary because this music fills a vital need in their lives - zebras' hooves. If the latter is true, and personally I believe it is, classical music is missing a major opportunity. And relax, that opportunity does not mean endless albums of chant: because the plainsong and hymns of the Benedictines of Mary are part of a perennial wisdom tradition that has also inspired notable contemporary composers including Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Cage, Valentin Silvestrov, Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Jonathan Harvey, Bernat Vivancos, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Tavener.

Gregorian chant sells in huge numbers, and so would many outstanding contemporary expressions of perennial wisdom if given the chance. Seen above is the Nonesuch recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony; after its 1992 release this album became the most successful recording of a new classical composition in the history of the record industry, reaching number 3 on the British pop charts and selling over a million copies worldwide. Which is considerably more than Gustavo Dudamel's 'me too' Zarathustra will ever sell for Universal Music's Deutsche Grammophon label.

Like Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Benedictines of Mary are tapping into the mind, body and spirit market which in the US is now worth $11 billion dollars, compared with a paltry for $200 million for classical albums. Transcendentally inclined contemporary music, if marketed persuasively, could also grab a share of that multi-billion market. And talking of transcendental sales figures, don't forget that Rumi is America's best selling poet despite being not only a mystic but also a Muslim. So memo to classical music marketeers: when you hear hoofbeats think beyond Gregorian chant. And an additional memo to Decca: do check for excess baggage.

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