If you doubt the importance of YouTube in how music gets heard and performed these days, consider a recent case: the Cistercian Abbey Stift Heiligenkreuz, in Austria.
This is a twelfth-century church where about 80 monks sing Gregorian chant every day; the Gothic/Romanesque/baroque church is a popular attraction that draws about 170,000 tourists a year, according to its website.
So, the story goes, this past February, the church’s press spokesman, Karl Wallner, received an e-mail with the subject line “Quick, quick Karl.” It came from a friend in London telling him that the Universal record label was conducting a competition for singers of Gregorian chant but that the deadline was the next day. Father Wallner emailed Universal a link to the Abbey website’s sound clips, then uploaded a video to YouTube, which can be viewed at the link here or after the jump (147,431 views and counting). The result is that seventeen monks from the monastery were signed by Universal to record an album, released in May, called Chant: Music For Paradise. On the U.K. pop charts, it’s been as high as number 9 and is outselling Amy Winehouse.
Certainly the Heiligenkreuz monks aren’t the first to have recorded an album of chant that did well commercially—remember the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, in the 1990s? In my opinion, there are groups that perform this stuff better than on this new chant album, like Anonymous 4 or Sequentia, but the tradeoff in that these are actual monks, praying rather than performing. The recording sessions were in addition to their regular prayers, which take place every day starting at 5:15 a.m. They set up the microphones and other recording equipment so they could be facing the altar.
The closest I’ve ever come to the kind of church singing you might hear at the Stift Heiligenkreuz was at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a vespers during Holy Week a few years ago. The audience—uh, parishioners—were seated up in the Quire area, next to men and boys with pure, beautifully trained voices (with one female ringer thrown in for good measure) who created sounds that curled up past the crypt, into the dome area, and back down. It was magnificent, and it’s an experience that can’t readily be reconstituted on an audio recording. For my money, you have to be there to get the full effect. Besides, I prefer to sing chant rather than listen to it; it’s not really a performance art or spectator sport.
Marketing postscript: For the album’s release in the U.S. on July 1, the subtitle is being changed from “music for paradise” to “music for the soul.” Well, okay. The monks say they have no interest in becoming pop stars and just hope the money from any CD sales will help offset the costs of maintaining a medieval church and hosting seminarians. Meanwhile, you can be sure the bean-counters at Universal are trying to find ways—like selling a little “soul”—to maximize profit in a tough climate for CD sales. I’m sure they’re happy to have signed artists who are a lot lower-maintenance than Amy Winehouse.