The Monks of Norcia: For Halloween, or Yoga?

by delarue

The distant, mysterious bells of the basilica where the Monks of Norcia reside open their debut album – a surprise hit, streaming at Spotify, which topped the classical album charts last year. Its thirty-three brief tracks, awash in the space’s rich natural reverb, raise questions of how we’re conditioned to perceive music. Is this an uber-gothic Halloween mix…a collection of expertly sung music with a function as practical as farmhands’ field hollers and African talking drums…or spare, sometimes understatedly attractive melodies suited to moments of reflection or relaxation? While many of us may relate to centuries-old themes like these via their association with horror film, the music here is otherworldly, but not particularly heavy. It’s serious and purposeful, and while these men may not be captured at the peak of a crazy party, their voices are not sad.

The tracks follow the monks’ daily liturgical activities, from sunup to past sundown. The melodies are surprisingly catchy, the rhythms carefree but confident: if you sing this on a daily basis, you get good at it. There are graceful exchanges of call-and-response, stately and often unexpectedly expressive solo passages juxtaposed with interludes sung in unison. There’s none of the intricate polyphony of the Renaissance; these antiphons and responsories go back much further. And yet, the lush harmonies of Monteverdi and Tallis come across as far more quaint than this music.

One likely reason for this album’s success as a seller is that it’s hard to listen to at Spotify. You don’t expect monks to have a Soundcloud or Bandcamp page, and these guys don’t. Since the individual tracks are so short, there’s an annoying ad popping up every couple of minutes, something that doesn’t happen if you listen to lengthy, sidelong pieces by, say, the AACM. Which certainly makes this calm, sometimes stark collection of rarely recorded material worth owning. Is it a Halloween album? For those who think of a place of worship as a place of death, absolutely, although the daily routine chronicled here seems anything but grim. See, when they’re not singing, the monks brew beer.