The missing voices of Western chant

The universal music of holiness is chant. Nearly every religious system utilises chant in some form, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Daoist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.

For most of these, chant is inseparable from religious practice. Yet for Christianity in the West, chant has been largely rejected or forgotten for a number of historical and cultural reasons.

Why chant?

Chant comes from the Latin cantare meaning “to sing”, and entered the English language via its French derivative, suggesting it may be another relic of the Norman conquest whereby Anglo-Saxon words came to coexist alongside the French vocabulary of the new ruling class.

What the various forms of religious chant have in common is their superfluity. That is, they exhibit excess in duration, or repetition, or tone.

Excess in duration refers to two things: firstly, chants tend to be long in their entirety. Secondly, chants tend to stretch each word, or specific words, far beyond their spoken length. The result is that a simple prayer can, either by repetition or by stretching of each word, last for minutes rather than seconds.

Why repeat the same words over and over? As a Russian Orthodox friend once observed, her church will never say something once when it can be said three times. Likewise a popular Sufi chant “Allahu” repeats that single word several hundred times.

The rationale for repetition is simple: we repeat things because they are important, because we seek familiarity with them, because we do not wish to forget them, and ultimately because once is not enough.

We also stretch and extend and expand something when we wish to emphasise its importance. When we want to reinforce a point with a child: we repeat ourselves slowly and clearly. When it comes to religious chant, we ourselves are the child, and we want to reinforce the religious message of the chant.

Repetition and expansion of a word alters our experience and comprehension of it. We begin to see the word in a new light, to hear and understand it differently. We experience the word from multiple angles and so our experience of it is enriched.

At the same time this expansion of the word can make it seem less solid, less substantial. Have you ever repeated a word so many times you forget how to say it, or you suddenly realise how strange the word is, that you usually take it for granted or gloss over it quickly? In Australia as children we play this game with the word “caterpillar”. Say it over and over and you discover what a strange word it is. You may find yourself thinking of caterpillars with renewed appreciation.

In a religious context this testing of our usual relationship with language is much more significant. Reams of theoretical and practical spiritual guidance have been written on the subject of language and the divine, as exponents of the various religions have grappled with the holiness of specific words on the one hand (such as names for God that should never be written or spoken) and on the other hand the complete failure of language to capture or describe the divine. As the Daodejing states: “I know not its name, so style it ‘the way’.”

Or in a Thomistic mode:

“We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names imposed by us signify Him in that manner only.”

The one and the many

The most basic chants consist of only one or two tones, but even the most complex chants typically return to a single dominant tone. Within this dominant tone, changes in tone often occur within a single word and a single syllable – not only extending the duration of the word, but also breaking it up and obscuring its meaning.

Known as melismata, these groups of notes sung to a single syllable of text contrast with the dominant tone. Together they represent the tension between unity and multiplicity, the one and the many, a consistent and central theme of these religious traditions.

God, the divine, is a transcendent unity obscured in ordinary human life by the multiplicity of the created world. As the famous Sufi musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang in his version of “Allahu”:

“Everything begins with you,

Everything ends with you…

Each branch sings of your creation

Each leaf is your being manifest”

The monotony of chant is important because it reinforces this sense of underlying unity behind our varied experience. It signifies a single thread running through all of reality. The deviations in tone are kept in check by the monotone, in the same way that the religious traditions teach us to keep God or the underlying nature of reality in mind despite the variations and multiplicities of daily experience.

Time and eternity

Some forms of chant are rhythmical, while others utilise “free rhythm”, a rhythm dictated by the text itself.

For chants that contain a regular rhythm, the length of the chant in its entirety is key. From the slow pace of a Chinese Buddhist chant to the hypnotic pace of a Sufi Qawwali, if there is a rhythm, then it must go on long enough to establish itself and become firmly rooted in the listener.

The rhythm reflects the regularity of nature, the rule of time. It becomes the baseline of the worshipper’s chant, just as the regular passage of time underlies the order of creation: hours, minutes, days, seasons, and years, or the regular beat of our own heart.

Modern secular music also features a regular rhythm, but in these instances the duration of the music is typically too short for the rhythm to become ingrained in the listener. Popular music generally runs from three to five minutes. Most rhythmical religious chants would just be getting started by the time a secular song has finished. The Qawwali has a tempo closest to contemporary secular music, yet they typically run from 15 to 30 minutes. In a long, fast paced, rhythmic chant the rhythm itself fades into the background. It gives us a sense of transcending time.

Shorter chants like this Chinese Buddhist chant are of a much slower tempo. Yet the slow pace has the effect of seeming to stretch time. Each beat of the drum or gong or cymbal seems just a little slower than we would expect. They also seem deliberate, and their ponderous tone reinforces the sense of time slowing down during the chant.

Whether speeding time up or slowing it right down, these rhythmic chants alter our usual relationship with time. They offer glimpse of freedom from our normal temporal constraints.

But what about chants without a regular rhythm?

Chants such as Gregorian and Byzantine chant, from the Western and Eastern Churches respectively, are characterised by “free rhythm”. These chants evolved from pre-existing texts, and as such the text forms the basis of the melody.

In the absence of a regular rhythm, the sense of time is left behind. The chants themselves may be short or long, but their flowing, unconstrained pace carries a sense of timelessness or eternity. They arise out of silence, hang in the air and fall away. In the absence of a regular rhythm, these chants eclipse our normal sense of time entirely.

Gregorian chant provides a stark contrast to modern secular music. In a 1974 article in the New York Times, Jonathon Cott noted that:

“most people—inured to and satiated by Western harmony—find it disconcerting to listen comfortably to long stretches of monophonic singing. In its deepest expression, plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self. And in order to resurface into this meditative world, the most effective musical decompression chamber would certainly be a quiet retreat to a Benedictine monastery or, next best, a contemplative listening to plainsong recordings.”

The challenge of religious chant in its various forms is to let ourselves be conformed to it, with its time-dilating use of rhythm, duration, tempo and repetition, its play between monotony and melody, and its simultaneous enriching and dissolution of sacred text and language.

The loss of Western chant

The provenance of chant in the Western world is unmistakably Catholic. Yet with few notable exceptions, the regular practice of chant in the Catholic church has fallen away. Historically, chant gave way to the harmonies of polyphony, and the continuing development of Western music saw symphonic and even operatic versions of sacred music, as well as the adoption of hymns in a liturgical context.

By 1903 Gregorian chant had been displaced to such an extent that then Pope Pius X issued a motu proprio calling for a return to chant and early polyphony.

Subsequent popes reiterated the call for Gregorian chant to take “pride of place” in the liturgy, both before and after the Second Vatican Council. But their calls have not been widely heeded, with metrical hymns and increasingly contemporary styles of music remaining popular.

The irony is that while new recordings of Gregorian chant from Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy, and Dominican nuns in Michigan have made news with their popularity and sales, the same music rightly belongs in the weekly liturgy of every normal Catholic parish throughout the world.

The Anglican church created its own English-language adaptations of the chant, and Lutherans likewise point to the continuity of chant in their own tradition. Nonetheless, in the history of Protestant-Catholic relations Gregorian chant has been largely rejected by Protestant reformers. There’s a reason why chant in the West is associated with cloistered monks and nuns and not with evangelical mega-churches.

A culture without chant

Chant is as universal a religious form as bowing in veneration. It has its own logic, purpose, and significance. Yet sacred music in the West is far more likely to take the form of 18-19th century metrical hymns, “folk” inspired music from the 1960s and 70s, or more contemporary rock and pop inspired songs.

The absence of chant in Western culture means that our culture is deprived of the influences contained and expressed in this musical form. As we continually decry the fast pace of modern life, our endless distractions, our fears and anxieties, perhaps a regular experience of timeless chant is exactly what we need?