Chant Wars

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You know you're onto something unusual when you pick up a CD and see the words "globalization" and "plainchant" in the same sentence on the cover. Chant Wars delivers what is advertised: an examination of "the Carolingian 'globalization' of medieval plainchant." That may be a mysterious phrase for the general listener, but once you're through perusing and hearing this album, you'll get it. And here's why you should care. Toward the end of the first millennium, Carolingian kings and their representatives tried to standardize the chant as it was sung across the vast domain known as the Holy Roman Empire -- a development of immense importance in European history, and one that led to the creation of Western musical notation. The enterprise was not successful, however; local chant traditions persisted, and new ones evolved. And that's where the "chant wars" get interesting.

Thanks to copier ads and the like, we tend to think of chant as embodying a timeless serenity, but in fact it was a style with its contested aspects like any other. The story told by Sequentia and Diagolos here (male singers from each group join forces as a monastic chorus) is infinitely more interesting than the material on chant usually given to college music history students: a mishmash of modal theory that even back in the medieval age represented at best an imperfect attempt to shoehorn Greek musical ideas into what was actually being done at the time. One outcome of the "chant wars" explored here was, paradoxically, a new spirit of creativity and innovation that occasionally caused monks to begin singing in what we would call parallel harmony, and then to experiment with a new polyphony of independent vocal lines. The simple way in which Sequentia and Diagolos realize this musical juncture is a wondrous thing to experience, and, as usual for any project in which Sequentia director Benjamin Bagby is involved, extreme erudition is married to sensuous beauty in a way that communicates a lot about the music even if you don't read a word of the liner notes. If you want to get beyond a mystical attitude toward chant and understand something of why individual chants are shaped the ways they are, first go and attend an Eastern Orthodox church service and observe how so much of what Westerners think of as spoken liturgy is sung in that context (chant works the same way). And second, give a listen to Chant Wars.

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