Music: Medieval fever

It's racing up the pop and classical charts. It's even in a TV advertisement. Richard D North explores how ancient plainsong and the Medieval Babes have come to hit the big time
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ancy getting a couple of tunes into the classical music charts? Entertaining a yen to shift some product this Christmas to the discerning CD market? You need to find a latin title for your CD. Cantata, Silencium, Gregoriana: these are the buzzwords for the post-modern Yuletide. The disc's content or inspiration must be firmly medieval. This is Holy Minimalism.

The most blatantly exploitative offering of the genre is amongst the best. The Medieval Babes, founded by Katherine Blake, are twelve rock- solid punkily-theatrical young women who can take on a London rock pub audience, adding PA power to their renditions of ancient liturgical and lay material. Their "Salve Nos" does not invite, it tells, their Saviour to look after them. These are harpies with angles, not angels with harps. In that sense they are true to a strand of modern authenticity. Philip Pickett, for instance, gave Decca a usefully earthy account of "Carmina Burana", the piece that first brought the Middle Ages to the middlebrow, though it stays well this side of raunchy. Pickett's work, lay and liturgical, is show-cased on Decca's Sinners and Saints: the ultimate Medieval and Renaissance music collection.

The coy amongst the Babes' audience will be glad that Ms Blake does not appear semi-naked, as she does when fronting (breasts painted) her "Miranda Sex Garden" gothic-rock singalongs. Declan Coglan, the independent A & R man who wheeled the Babes onto Virgin Records (truly, an immacculate concept, you might say), is unabashed. "Musically, the Babes, are absolutely straight. In the classical industry there's a perception that early music could find a much larger market, if it had a vehicle. My guess that the Babes is that vehicle".

The stunt seems to be working: within a couple of weeks of release "Salve Nos" went to Number 3 in the classical charts with Soprano Inspired by Lesley Garrett (no slouch in sex appeal herself) at Number 2, and the Babes strode into the pop charts too. But there is more: HMV's London Bond Street store has 39 different Gregorian chant albums on its shelves.

Declan Coglan is also responsible for Karl Jenkins, a stalwart of the 70's band, Soft Machine, and now amongst the most successful "classical" composers in the business. His "Adiemus" (the title song of a CD subtitled Songs of Sanctuary) is the gorgeous background to the Delta Airlines advertisements. This stuff is happy-clappy, upbeat, pretty chanting for therapy. It's got everything going for it except content. As well as history as inspiration, it has geography: the Celts, Africans and Asians are all in there, and there is rock-style drumming. Jenkins took this music to the Battersea Power Station for a public outing on December 4 and sales will surely be rocketing for "Adiemus II: Cantata Mundi". It has an invented language to convey the universality of its lingua franca, but which reminds one of its emptiness too.

For a better sort of instant-Medievalism, one could turn to the saxophonist John Harle and his work with Elvis Costello on the Argo label's Terror and Magnificence: drawing on the twelfth century composer, Perotin (choirmaster of Notre Dame in Paris) and on Medieval texts. The music and performances are original and workmanlike: usefully uneasy and edgy. New this year on the label is Harle's Silencium: Songs of the Spirit. The words are Harle's own, and a fine concoction of twaddle some of them are. Never mind, this is superior pop from the vaults.

The path through the cloister is well worn. It demonstrates that lucky radio play can be as powerful as stunts. In 1981, Ted Perry, the boss of a fledgeling record company, Hyperion, tuned in as usual to an early music show on Radio 3. "I suddenly heard this serene and beautiful music and waited for the announcement. It was called "A feather on the breath of god", and was music written by the 12th century Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. By chance the Cambridge medieval literature and music don, Christopher Page, whose Gothic Voices group had been formed to perform the music of Hildegard, was on the telephone about another Hyperion record soon after and Perry decided that he must recreate the broadcast on disc. "It was one of the simplest things I've ever done. It was recorded in a day". A couple of plugs on radio, and an enduring hit was born. Three hundred thousand units later, and rising, Perry says: "Hildegard pays for my mistakes. Of course it has Emma Kirkby on it, and she's a cult performer.

There's a strong feminist slant: a lesbian bookship in Texas sells a thousand a year. Hildegard remains a star with her chants for the feast of St Ursula, Eleven Thousand Virgins (repeating a medieval exageration of the number who were martyred with Ursula sooner than marry). This is set to be big for the American women of the Anonymous Four and their label, Harmonia Mundi. They are the "Fab Four of Medieval music", according to the New York Times. Demurely clothed, they scored well with their stark but sweet account of Medieval Hungarian Music, A Star in the East in 1996 and the virgins will surely triumph too.

In 1994, it was an elderly Spanish record of some mostly elderly Spanish monks of the Benedictine community of Santo Domingo de Silos, chanting the Gregorian plainsong, which brought EMI a huge seller. "The performance was really pretty ordinary", says James Jolly, editor of Gramophone magazine. "When you compare them with a modern polyphonic group like the Tallis Scholars, they're pretty rough". The Tallis Scholars were the first to take the genre to the very top, winning the magazine's record of the year in 1987, with two 15th century masses. "But", says Jolly, "Perfection is not the whole point when you're listening to monks for whom this is their whole work, the core of their spirituality".

In 1994, EMI also had Ikos, which combined Henryk Grecki, Arvo Part and John Tavener, three of the heaviest hitters in the genre. But Steve Sanderson of ECM New Series (distributed by New Note in the UK) was in charge of the UK marketing of the best combination of critical and commercial success. This was Officium, in which the Norwegian Jan Garbarek blows saxophone (Harle-style) across medieval plainsong - some of it Perotin's - sung by the Hilliard Ensemble. There's never been a follow-up to this triumph, though its creators do give concerts, as they did on December 5 at the Barbican. Sanderson promoted the record first with a live concert in King's College Chapel in June 1994. That autumn Radio 4's Kaleidoscope featured it. Sanderson recalls: "Hundreds of people called up that very day. The classical press took to it, and Q [the cult rock magazine] devoted a whole page to it. We expected to do well, frankly, and initially shipped about 10,000 copies". In the UK the record sold over 80,000 and half a million round the world.

Officium is lovely: smokey, modern, jazz improvisation paying homage to incense-fumigated, ancient, discipline. The sax, most agree, becomes another voice. I always see it as a drift of cigarette smoke, sacrilegous and delicious, in the choirstalls. There are dissenters. Ted Perry says "It gives me the creeps: that lovely austere, serene early polyphony, and awful smeery saxophone all over it". According to Dr Page, Officium "is extremely well done, but I don't like hearing that music used as choral accompaniment to Garbarek imitating a dolphin."

What then of the most famous British composer in the Chant-cross-over genre? John Tavener's "Song for Athene", from his Innocence, on Sony, was used at the funeral of Princess Diana, and moved millions. Dr Page strikes the right note of respect and caution: "The response to his music at Westminster was remarkable. He's a very interesting, distinctive voice. I've got plenty of time for him. But if I had heard that piece on disc, say, I wouldn't have been impressed. But as part of a liturgical event it was remarkable."

Much of Tavener's instrumental music sounds more self-consciously tremulous than genuinely tense: but his choral "Lamb", show-cased along with many greats (and Grecki's charming "Totus Tuus") on Erato's Agnus Dei ( the 1977 Gramophone best selling record), may convince you otherwise. For Orthodox traditionalists, the Chamber Choir of Orthodox Sacred Music of Tallinn, Estonia, lay down that bass line drone which is reminiscent of incoming bombers on old movie soundtracks. Very mo ving, on Albany Records (01524 735873).

Another Estonian, 62-year old Arvo Part, is show-cased to advantage alongside Tavener on Virgin's The Last Sleep of the Virgin. His "Summa" and "Fratres" show why he is vastly respected around the world (and more a critical than a commercial star here). His "Beatus" on Virgin shows him to be probably the most rewarding, perhaps because he is not the most crossover, classical composer to be working the cloister beat.

Part satisfies. He's a bit like hard work. Music whose main purpose is religious has the problem of any classical music, but in spades. We look to it for solace, even for tranquility, but such things are best struggled for.

Tony Shaw, HMV's classical music manager, says, "By far and away the best selling title at the moment is: The most relaxing classical album in the world ever". It includes music byAlbinoni, Bach's and Foret. Monks were singing to keep out of hell-fires and to get to heaven, but their up-lift music can become or inspire lift-music for a generation that doesn't want peace, but Prozac. The worst of this stuff is directed at schmoozing us rather than our maker

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