Let there be sales – Universal puts its faith in 'plainchant'

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The Independent Online

They will soon be sharing a record label with the fast-living singer Amy Winehouse, but they are probably the last people on earth to contemplate drugs or "Daddy's Girl" tattoos.

Yet change is inevitable for the monks at Austria's Holy Cross monastery, who for more than 800 years have lived lives devoted to prayer. They have been given a recording contract after "blowing away" executives at Universal Music with singing that numbers Pope Benedict XVI among its fans. Earlier this year, the 80 brothers at the Holy Cross, a Cistercian abbey dating back to 1133, answered an advertisement placed by Universal in The Tablet and The Church Times. It sought "men of the cloth" to sing on an album of Gregorian chants.

Universal was persuaded that a Gregorian chants album would be a winner by the runaway success of the computer game Halo, which uses the singing – a plainchant sung without musical accompaniment by male choirs – as a soundtrack. The album is to be recorded next month. The monks compiled a clip of their singing and put it on YouTube as an audition. Tom Lewis, a Universal executive, said the company received hundreds of videos but the Cistercians were clear winners.

"I was blown away by the quality of their singing," Mr Lewis said. "They are quite simply the best Gregorian singers we have heard. They make a magical sound which is calming and deeply moving. They are using the very latest communication devices to get their music heard. They're very passionate and excited about this opportunity." The monks' video is professionally edited and looks as if it has been designed to advertise the Gregorian chant. It opens with tasteful shots of altar candles, then switches to images of monks clad in white habits walking serenely through ancient cloisters in double file. The final shot is a picturesque aerial photograph of the Holy Cross abbey, set deep in the Vienna woods.

The monks found out about Universal's search for Gregorian singers through a contact in London. "It is an opportunity for this music, that is why it is obviously so special for them that they are heard," said Mr Lewis. The monks, who have described their success as "divine intervention", were scheduled to record an album last year but the session clashed with the Pope's visit to the monastery. A spokesman for the abbey, Father Karl, welcomed the news. "Gregorian chant is part of spirituality and our life," he said. "Any profits will be spent on training future brothers."

Gregorian chant –named after Pope Gregory I – has hit the charts before. In the 1990s, the band Enigma released several successful CDs featuring it. However, plainchant has recently resurfaced as the soundtrack to Xbox games which have sold more than 16 million copies.

Dickon Stainer, boss of Universal Classics and Jazz, said: "Young people have an awareness of Gregorian chant, even though it's not something you come across in everyday life. It made us think that there was something in it."