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In Chant, Listening and Singing Become One
NEW YORK TIMES

November 22, 2009

Chant, the practice of intoning sounds or words rhythmically and repetitively, has been a staple of spiritual systems for millenniums. Owing to the popularity of recordings like the 1993 album “Chant” by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, and Enigma’s 1990 crossover hit, “Sadeness (Part I),” which juxtaposed chant with a dance beat, Westerners have become familiar with Gregorian chant, the early Christian liturgical genre.

But chant exists in many forms — including mantras, hymns, prayers, Shigin (a form of Japanese chanted poetry) and plainsong — and can be found in religions as diverse as Judaism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism.

Perhaps in response to the growing velocity and techno-centricity of daily life, more people have sought out chant. The sounds of “om” and “kyrie” are filling Zen meditation centers, Buddhist retreats, plainsong-infused candlelit church services, and yoga studios around the Bay Area and beyond.

Meanwhile, chant has been on the rise as an artistic pursuit. Vocal ensembles like Anonymous 4, Sequentia and Cappella Romana have garnered critical acclaim for their concerts and recordings. The field is clearly evolving. But is chant as engrossing to hear as it is to sing?

In theory, listening to a chant should be roughly the same as singing it. In practice, however, most of us aren’t relaxed, psychologically present or in tune enough with ourselves to be mindful of this effect, which is, after all, quite subtle. As a result, listening to chant, especially without the aid of a religious framework to guide your engagement, can be frustrating.

This was certainly the case last weekend during the Sabbaticus Rex performance at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The three-member ensemble, which is based in the Bay Area, lays deep, throat-sung mantras over dense instrumental layers created by a bazantar (a five-string upright bass fitted with 33 extra sympathetic and drone strings), Japanese bamboo flutes and gongs.

The group’s anti-melodic, seemingly directionless soundscape drove my guest to the point of distraction. She called the music “primitive” and “annoying.”

I didn’t entirely share her feelings. Perhaps it’s all the yoga I’ve been doing lately, but by concentrating on my breath and listening for subtle textural and rhythmic changes, like the quiet roar of a gong or the interjection of a rippling flute motif, I was intermittently able to climb inside the ensemble’s musical meditation.

The vocalist Cornelius Boots’s occasional bouts of chesty, resonant chanting helped immensely by bringing much needed focus to the meandering instrumental lines. Still, my mind wandered often, and it was ultimately quite a relief to leave the church.

The next morning, I visited the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church across town, where I participated in the Medieval Sarum Chant workshop led by Susan Hellauer and Marsha Genensky of the New York all-female a cappella quartet Anonymous 4. In contrast to the previous evening’s experience, I didn’t want to leave.

This all-day class — open to anyone, even those who can’t read music, at an affordable rate — was surprising in some ways. From an aesthetic standpoint, our attempt to sing “Ave Maris Stella,” an English liturgical chant composed in honor of the Virgin Mary, left much to be desired, even though producing a pitch-perfect performance was not the aim of the day.

We weren’t particularly in tune or in step with one another. And learning the chant by rote (as the monks would have done in medieval times), rather than by reading music, added an entirely new level of complexity.

But as we were singing together, time vanished. I had no idea what “Solve vincla reis, profer lumen caecis” meant, but the act of chanting these words en masse had the same effect on my mood as eating good, dark chocolate. (By the way, it means “Dissolve these earthly chains, give light to the blind.”)

By relating these contrasting experiences, I don’t wish to imply that chant isn’t worthy of performance. Listening to Anonymous 4 sing “Ave Maris Stella” on its “Four Centuries of Chant” CD (released this year on Harmonia Mundi) or in concert demonstrates just how sublime chant can sound to the listener’s ear when the performers follow the contours of the language, flow through the lines and generally possess what Ms. Hellauer calls a “unity of intent.”

Listening to the great Lebanese vocalist Sister Marie Keyrouz intone Middle Eastern Christian chant or Tina Turner sing a Buddhist chant has a comparable effect.

As the Oakland Nada yoga (yoga of sound) expert Ann Dyer put it in a recent phone interview: “Fundamentally, chanting and listening are not that different in terms of how we respond as organisms. Even when you’re listening to chant, the whole body is responding, experiencing the vibration, and the vocal cords will vibrate in sympathy if relaxed. It’s a very kinesthetic response.”

But inasmuch as any activity in life tends to be more meaningful than experiencing it from the sidelines, chant derives much of its power from active participation.

“There is a difference between listening to someone chant and actually making those same sounds in your own body,” Ana Hernández writes in her 2005 book, “The Sacred Art of Chant.” “There’s a difference in the way the vibrations affect you, depending on whether they come from outside or within you.”

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