Monks corner 'soul' music market

By 
  • August 26, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - They shoot hoops, surf the Internet and sing Gregorian chants. And they count Pope Benedict XVI as one of their fans.

You could say this group of Austrian monks isn’t your average musical sensation. Their CD Chant: Music for the Soul has rocked the charts in Canada and around the world. During the first month of its Canadian debut in July, the CD ranked second behind Josh Grobin in the Nielsen Canadian SoundScan joint classical cross-over chart. And at one point, it even surpassed pop music powerhouses like Madonna and Amy Winehouse on Britain’s top 10 list.

A Universal Music executive said he was “blown away by the quality of their singing.”

“They are quite simply the best Gregorian singers we have heard. They make a magical sound which is calming and deeply moving. They are using the very latest communication devices to get their music heard,” Tom Lewis told the BBC.

It was a YouTube clip, posted by one of the 80 Cistercian monks of Vienna’s Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey, which put them in the spotlight.

They submitted their entry on the final day of a contest seeking “men of the cloth” to sing on an album of Gregorian chants, eventually beating out hundreds of entries to win a recording contract with Universal Music.

So what’s the secret to their success?

{amazon id='B0019D3DAQ' align='right'}Some have pointed to Xbox’s popular Halo video game which features Gregorian chant-like music while others have said it was a group of Spanish monks in the mid-1990s who paved the way for Gregorian music in the mainstream. Their CD sold more than five million copies worldwide.

Gregorian chant dates back to the sixth century and is named after Pope Gregory I. It is a form of liturgical chanting of biblical text.

Gregorian music fans such as Frederick Harrison said it’s the “timeless” quality of the music which is attractive to a contemporary audience.

“It’s completely out of any time space. I think it’s also a foretaste of music in heaven,” said the 53-year-old sales clerk at Crux Books at the University of Toronto.

Fr. Karl Wallner, spokesperson for the monks, said their music fills a spiritual void — what he calls an “emptiness in their heart” — that is being felt by many people today.

“I think Gregorian chant is a very good way of opening the hearts of people to be touched by God,” he said in a telephone interview from Hamburg, Germany.

Meanwhile, Christos Hatzis, University of Toronto music professor and two-time Juno Award winner, wrote in an October 1998 essay in Harmony, a journal of the Rochester-based Symphony Orchestra Institute, that contemporary society listens to classical music as an antidote to an information-overloaded world.

“We want the music we listen to to relieve stress, not add to it by further exposure to information,” he wrote.

The New Age listening market is looking for music which creates an “environment within which relaxation could occur,” Hatzis told The Catholic Register.

The monks live in the world’s second-oldest Cistercian monastery, which began in 1133. It is located 16 km west of Vienna.

The CD’s group of 17 singers range from 19 to 42 years of age.

Their routine includes waking up at 5:15 a.m. for morning prayers. For Wallner, this means getting up at 4:30 a.m. to check e-mail.

“Many people wrote to me that I shall pray for them,” he said.

For Wallner, one of the strangest and most asked questions he has fielded from reporters has been whether the monks have computers and Internet access in their monastery.

In fact, they do. Each monk has both in his room, although Internet access has certain firewalls.

Singing an ancient form of music and using new technology to spread the word isn’t so far removed from the monks’ way of life.

“St. Benedict gave us his rule 1,500 years ago,” Wallner said. “He wrote that every monk has to know how to write and have the means to write.”

He added, “Nowadays, the computer and writing e-mail is just what the rule of St. Benedict is.

“We aren’t neanderthals,” he said with a laugh.

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