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AN ENCHANTING TRADIITON: WHY SHOULD SUCH OTHERWORLDLY MUSIC TURN POPULAR? ESCAPISM MAY BE PART OF THE ANSWER.

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Who'd have thought that, at the end of 1994, a record of Gregorian chant would have sold 5 million copies worldwide - 2.7 million in the United States alone? That's right, Gregorian chant: that single, unharmonized line of free-floating melody, lacking either a regular beat or the harmonic homing instincts of most Western music of the past four centuries.

The rustic devotion of the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, singing their daily Masses and choir offices much as monastics have done for centuries on end, is captured on the Angel label's wildly popular discs "Chant" and "Chant Noel." These are sounds redolent of remote and dimly lighted chapels, their ceilings blacked by generations of candle smoke.Why, in this secular, harried, cynical world of ours, should such otherworldly music suddenly be so popular?

Undoubtedly, escapism is a part of the phenomenon.

"Every time you turn on the radio or TV, there's been another person murdered," observes Charles Bruffy, conductor of the Kansas City Chorale. "There's more news from Bosnia, and more hunger and violence and abuse and discrimination. I really think that there is a peacefulness in that music that is a refuge from today's society and media."

It's also religious music largely innocent of associations with most current manifestations of established religion in the United States and Western Europe. (For centuries the musical mainstay of the Roman Catholic Church, chant has become something of a fringe phenomenon in recent decades.)

It seems ethereal and otherworldly, offering peace and quiet elation without guilt. It evokes religious ecstasy without asking anyone to sign a pledge card - or even to pay attention to the words.

That's precisely what concerns the Rev. Ambrose Karels, a Roman Catholic priest who conducts Misericord, a group that meets weekly to sing Gregorian chant.

"I walked into a store one morning to do some shopping, and they were playing Gregorian chant over the p.a.," Karels says. "I almost felt violated.

"I have lived with chant in the liturgical setting since I was very young, and I don't know what to make of this - especially since there's really no emphasis on the texts. The whole tradition and teaching that promoted chant at various times in the church's life was that it took inspiration directly from the words.

"But maybe the power of chant can come through if you just listen to a recording, even if you don't know the texts. It is expressive of grace, and it engenders a kind of atmosphere that people do, I think, eventually grasp."

William McGlaughlin, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, agrees that chant - and the music of such modern mystics as Paert and Tavener - can be spiritually uplifting even outside specific religious connections.

"I've always been fascinated with chant," McGlaughlin says. "I've listened to records of it, and I heard a lot of it in church in childhood. It's nice to see people take to this timeless music, which is healing, in a way, and spiritual, and which has some of the same functions as certain forms of meditative chanting connected with yoga and Eastern religious. It's so simple and yet so strong - rather compelling and mesmerizing."

There's even a new little book - "Chant," by Katharine Le Mee (Tower Books, $15) - that works itself into clouds of new age ecstasy over the singing of those monks high on the Spanish plain:

"We may even find that, as a result of our entering more and more deeply into the center of the sound, our body straightens and we are more comfortable sitting right where we are. The sound holds us in a calm, safe place, one that we are loath to leave.

"It is as if there is no difference between the listener and the song; both are partaking of the same unity. When this happens, time seems to stop. No longer aware of past or future, we experience only the fullness of the present moment."

Golly!

Spiritual issues aside, the current popularity of chant and mystic modern music seems indicative of one of those periodic cultural gearshifts, when after a period of complexity and intensity an art form seeks out calm and simplicity. Thus the appeal of the unadorned melodic line of Gregorian chant and of the slow, hypnotic music - often quite simple harmonically - of Gorecki, Paert and Tavener.

"You see it in rock 'n' roll coming after bebop," McGlaughlin observes. "And one does notice that one of the big things in pop music now is hip-hop, which is as pure in a way as you can get - all rhythm and words. I don't know whether it's so much a reflection of our time, that builds so much complexity in, or whether it's simply like a river that has waves and disturbances you can't see or really understand."

The connection between the sudden rage for Angel's "Chant" disc and the vicissitudes of pop music hasn't been lost on the record industry's marketing mavens.

"The customer we targeted was 25-plus, pretty much 50-50 male and female," says Aimee Gautreau, director of publicity and media relations for Angel Records. "It's a group we call `dabblers,' because they don't buy a single type of music. They may buy many genres of music - Mariah Carey, a classical record, a jazz record, maybe new age.

"These people are interested in broadening their horizons, and they also are information junkies - they want information about a lot of different things. That defines them more than anything: eclectic taste and a real search for knowledge."

Given that "Chant" has been selling at about double the rate for releases by even well-known classical artists such as Itzhak Perlman, Gautreau and company must be onto something. There's also a subset of the new mysticism phenomenon, combining old music with newer artifacts.

Angel is hoping for another big seller with "Vision," featuring music by the 12-century mystic St. Hildegard gussied up with hypnotic new age throbbings and shimmers. ECM is offering "Officium," a disc of polyphonic music from the 13th through 16th centuries with saxophonist Jan Garbarek weaving counterpoints through the singing of the Hilliard Ensemble.

In some case, even quite conventional CD releases are being marketed as something like new age therapy - the aural equivalent of crystals under your bed. A BMG Catalyst issue devoted to modern choral works, sung by the New York City chorus Musica Sacra, is titled "Of Eternal Light." On the front of the CD booklet is a hooded figure whose face is obscured by glistening points of light, and a note on the back begins: "In an homage to the traditions of Gregorian chant"

The Delos label has gotten on the bandwagon with a choral anthology titled "Mysteries Beyond" and a two-disc organ collection titled "In a Quiet Cathedral." A release devoted to modern French organ music is called "Things Visible and Invisible."

"I think there is a trend right now for music that creates an ambiance," says Angel's Gautreau. "That's what `Chant' does, what `Vision' does, what Tavener does, what Paert does. It actually crosses over into an expression I hate - new age - with Yanni, with Kenny G, their style of music. It's what the customer wants to hear."

James Mobberley, professor of composition at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and composer-in-residence with the Kansas City Symphony, finds himself returning to the thesis-and-antithesis model to explain the phenomenon.

"It seems to be about every 10 years that somebody comes out with something really simple, and really refreshing in its simplicity - by which I don't mean simple-minded. I think of the minimalists of 20 years ago, and then Joseph Schwantner's band and orchestral music of 10 years ago.

"Now, after the unbelievably dense structures of a lot of '50s, '60s and '70s contemporary music, and the high-intensity thrashing of the rock music of the last 15 years, these kinds of open, crystalline tonal textures are very refreshing."