Remember Chant? That 1994 phenomenon was a worldwide smash, proving massively popular with its rendition of Gregorian vocals performed by Benedictine monks, and spawning a series of sequels. Chant II, Chant III and Chant Noel never quite matched the popularity of the original, but they did well enough to inspire a few imitators. Meanwhile, ‘90s dance sensation Enigma followed a path to massive stardom that mashed up Gregorian vocals with samples and beats. The formula proved hugely successful, and once more demonstrated—among other things—the enduring appeal of Gregorian chant.
Maybe this isn’t so surprising. Chant is one of the oldest forms of music in the world. Certainly, it is the oldest form of Western music that has been written down. Like ancient stories—think Gilgamesh and Beowulf, Homer and Sophocles—these ancient art forms still carry the power to touch something within us modern human beings, almost as if something vitally human is encoded in the artwork itself.
Then again, maybe the songs are just pretty. On Voices, they are certainly that: dreamy and soothing and capable of transporting the listener to some softer place, which is of course exactly what they are designed to do.
Voices is a recording of Gregorian chants performed by the nuns of Notre Dame de L’Annonciation, a convent located in Avignon, France. Founded in only 1979, the cloister follows the rules of St Benedict, which among other things prohibit unnecessary speech and contact with the outside world. Happily, Benedict did not forbid the sisters from singing.
One does not need to be an authority on chant, or classical music in general, or even Roman Catholicism to appreciate the beauty of these voices. From what I can hear, the difference between Gregorian singing and other types of classical choral music is the lack of harmony. Everyone here sings in unison, the same notes at the same time, and it is the different tones in the singers’ voices which add depth and variety to the melody. The music is haunting and effervescent; sometimes gentle and caressing, other times lamenting and wistful. There are 20 examples included here, from barely a minute long to over six. “Benedictus Es” floats along an angelic clouds, while “Dies Irae” is probably the loveliest depiction you will ever hear concerning the end of the world.
The song cycle follows a general storyline, but you are unlikely to follow it unless you read the notes or (*ahem*) your Latin is better than mine. A group of Jesus’ disciples, despondent at his recent death, leaves Jerusalem for Emmaus. Along the way, they meet a stranger on the road and accompany him to the city, where they realize that this companion is none other than Jesus Christ. He vanishes the moment he is recognized, and the disciples joyously return to Jerusalem to carry on his work.
And yes, this is devotional music, and the devotion is directed at Jesus Christ. There is neither irony nor apology here, and no deference to modern-day inclusiveness. Anyone who takes personally the crushing weight of the Church’s checkered history might want to approach this release with caution. Everyone else, however, can simply enjoy the music.