MUSIC / What on earth?: Has music lost its soul? Nick Kimberley talked to the organisers of a festival designed to remind us about the spiritual side

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WE TREAT music as if it were a religious ceremony, putting on our Sunday go-to-meeting best for concerts through which we sit in silent awe. Our lives of the saints are potted biographies of the composers, and disputes about angels on pinheads have been replaced by disputes about this or that conductor's choice of tempo. The music survives, but does its meaning? Can we reinvest our musical experience with something of music's originating spirit?

William Robson thinks so, but we may have to turn to unexpected quarters. As deputy head of Radio 3's music department, he has observed the risks of routine: 'Having broadcast concerts where the orchestra learns something quickly - they're good musicians, they give a performance - I sit there thinking, 'What was that worth spiritually?' And the answer is probably 'Not very much': it's a way of making a living. I wonder if our business of making music available for everybody hasn't blunted the spiritual aspect. I don't think conductors, players or singers would disagree - the fact that they have to do it every day means the spiritual aspect is less reachable than if it were an occasional and special thing to do.'

Robson is interested in putting other music-making possibilities before us. In 1987 he mounted a season of Music of the Royal Courts, bringing to the South Bank and Radio 3 over 100 musicians from around the world whose music was played under the protection of royal patronage. Now he has put together Spirit of the Earth, an assemblage of musics selected 'to represent the element in performance which could be called spiritual', as Robson puts it in the festival programme.

Spirit of the Earth, which visits Birmingham and London as well as being broadcast on Radio 3, travels the globe to bring together musics nurtured by a variety of belief-systems - Buddhism, Islam, Cuban Santeria, Indian Bhakti, Sufism. Christianity is represented, not in its established Western forms, but in the Georgian Orthodoxy of the Rustavi Choir and the Syriac Christianity of the Lebanese Maronite order to which Sister Marie Keyrouz belongs. Both the Rustavi Choir and Sister Marie have penetrated Western musical consciousness by means of the CD - Sister Marie's Chant Byzantine was the best-selling record worldwide last year for the Harmonia Mundi label. Whatever the 'spirit' is - and definitions are hard to come by - it has the power to move people outside the community and beliefs which foster it. That is Robson's point.

He has preferred to exclude 'straightforward liturgical performance' - as he suggests: 'I feared that people would get an image of liturgical performance that would stop them enjoying what is a feast of music, all of which is prized in the community from which it comes, and when music is performed in the community, I feel it has more life. Stravinsky reckoned the Rustavi Choir was worth more than most of the new music he heard - he heard something extraordinary, and the singers feel it and communicate it. All these groups treat their instruments with respect, they treat the performance with respect. Even though it may be a fairly rumbustious thing that happens, there's a little prayer beforehand, a condition in the mind of the performer. In general, these people can't perform unless they're in the right frame of mind - and that comes over.'

Robson has drawn on others' expertise to augment his own. Stephen Jones, whose 'day job' is playing violin with the English Baroque Soloists, provided a lead to the Buddhist monks of the Wutai Shan mountains in China. Jones points out: 'We've only recently become aware that there is folk music in China. We've been under the impression that there was only revolutionary music, or Hollywoodised Chinese music - the music of the urban professionals. But I've been impressed by the resilience of traditional cultures in China over the last few years. They survived dreadful onslaughts during the last 50 or 60 years - the war against Japan, the civil war and the Cultural Revolution. Now the authorities try to distinguish orthodox religion, which is OK, from feudal superstition, which is not. The ritual in the big temples is basically supported, or at least accepted.'

The monks' music has a nearly unbroken performing tradition stretching back more than 1,000 years, to the Tang dynasty. In that time, says Jones, 'the music has been accumulating elements and modifying slightly. The tradition has always been alive, it's not a 'reconstruction' of anything, it's not a museum culture. The monks say you have to perform what's written in the score, you're not allowed to change anything, but there's vast latitude for interpretation. They ornament within the framework dictated by the score - the framework is unchanging, but every performance is a re-creation.'

Temple music survives against the odds, but time is not on the side of traditional music in any part of the world: 'They are recruiting monks in the temples now, but there are problems of transmission to the younger generation which is alienated from that feudal culture. It wants to listen to American music or, even more, music from Hong Kong.' This is where Spirit of the Earth can repay the cultures on which it draws by providing cachet as well as cash - and the musicians are as honoured to play in the West as we should be to hear them.

Lucy Duran of the School of Oriental and African Studies and the National Sound Archive has helped Robson with contacts in Africa and Cuba. She sees the festival as a two-way process: 'We're talking about marginalised religions, religions which have been suppressed in many cases, home-grown religions which have come out of very specific, and hard, economic and social circumstances. This is an opportunity for these religions to share the richness of the music, and an opportunity for us to realise that these are important cultural movements that have been frowned upon by institutionalised religions; to realise that religion doesn't have to be cut off from other aspects of your life - it can be fun.'

Afro-Cuban Santeria, represented in Spirit of the Earth by Los Munequitos de Matanzas, is a case in point: 'The Yoruba religion of the slaves merged to a superficial extent with Catholicism - they would have an altar with a Catholic saint so that to the slave-owners it looked like they were practising Catholicism.

'But they would equate their orishas - deities - with a Catholic saint who had similar characteristics. Santeria is an integral part of Cuban life, it permeates social life, it's in the pop music. Christianity makes use of visual images, Santeria has musical images - when you sing and dance for the orishas, it's possible that the orishas might descend and 'mount' one of the people there.'

In our secular society, religion is often the instrument of repression; in other societies, it is often the focus for resistance, even rebellion. Similarly, our music often relies on technology to underline its power, whether in the banks of speakers and video screens of stadium rock, or in the massed instruments of the Mahlerian symphony orchestra. But, says Lucy Duran, there are other possibilities.

'There's a genre of songs in different parts of Africa, 'whispering songs', where the performer in effect says: 'If you want to listen to me, you have to come right up to me and put all your attention into it: I have something to say' - that's power]'

(Photographs omitted)

Spirit of the Earth is in Birmingham from today to 18 July (box office 021-236 2392), with live broadcasts on Radio 3, and at the South Bank from 18 to 25 July (box office 071-928 8800)