Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“Music for Paradise” was released in England on May 19, few people expected an overnight sensation. Tenth-century Gregorian chant may have its admirers, but it’s not exactly the latest thing to hit the club scene.

Nevertheless, the disc from the Cistercian monks of the Stift Heiligenkreuz monastery shot straight to the top of the charts, becoming not only the No. 1-selling disc in classical music, but hitting No. 9 in pop, too - even besting such megastars as Amy Winehouse.

A fluke? Maybe not.

Executives at Universal Music UK, reportedly intrigued by the popularity of the chant soundtrack to Halo, the science-fiction video-game phenomenon, spent the winter aggressively hunting for a liturgical hit.

They solicited demo tapes from monasteries around the world through ads in various Catholic magazines, and dozens of groups responded, including the Austria-based Stift Heiligenkreuz monks, who submitted a clip of themselves they had posted (where else?) on YouTube.

Universal snapped them up, put the hype machine in gear, and a few months later, a star was born - actually, 40 of them. The album sold 55,000 copies in its first two weeks, and sales are still going strong.

The label is hoping for a similar blockbuster in the United States when the disc (retitled “Chant: Music for the Soul”) is released here July 1 on the Decca label.

It looks as if the chances are good. Gregorian chant - developed in isolated monasteries more than 1,000 years ago - has been moving steadily into the pop world since 1994, when the group Enigma added a beat to religious chant and saw its album “MCMXC A.D.” become an international hit. That was followed soon by “Canto Gregoriano” from the Benedictine Monks of Santo Dominico de Silos, a surprise pop sensation that sold 5 million copies worldwide.

The recent success of Halo has brought in newer - and even younger - fans. On its own merits, too, “Chant: Music for the Soul” deserves to sell well: It’s a gorgeous disc, beautifully recorded and sung with power and ethereal grace. There’s a profound serenity to the music that is almost impossible to resist, and it makes a fine introduction to the genre.

Apparently, though, mere beauty is not enough to sell discs anymore: “Chant” also is being promoted for its health benefits, which some say are substantial.

Gregorian chant “has proven to heal,” claims Universal, and it quotes Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, as saying that “the musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact” and that chanting has been shown to “lower blood pressure, increase levels of the performance hormone DHEA as well as reducing anxiety and depression.”

There’s no doubt that sound has genuine neurological effects, and some studies suggest that music can stimulate the production of endorphins (natural opiates secreted by the hypothalamus) in the brain, help the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more effectively (apparently stimulating the immune system) and create new neural pathways in the brain.

Still, many observers remain skeptical of how much healing power music really has. While the anecdotal evidence is intriguing, the claims often are subject to exaggeration. For example, a famous 1993 study at the University of California at Irvine reported that the IQs of college students had been raised by listening to Mozart, launching a widespread belief in a magical “Mozart effect” - despite the inability of later researchers to corroborate the original findings and little evidence that the effect is real.

Some say much more research is needed. “We haven’t worked out the perceptual pathways in the brain for processing hearing as well as we have for visual and sensory perception,” David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine at Stanford University, cautioned in a recent report. “We need to learn more in general about how the brain processes auditory stimuli.”

One person who has no doubt about the health benefits of Gregorian chant is Benedictine Sister Ruth Stanley. She is the head of the complementary medicine program at the Central Minnesota Heart Center at St. Cloud Hospital, and she has had great success easing chronic pain and other ailments by having her patients listen to chant.

“The body can move into a deeper level of its own inherent, innate healing ability when you play chant,” she says. “About 85 percent of the time, the body goes into very deep healing modes. It’s quite remarkable.”

Will listening to Gregorian chant cure your ills? The jury’s still out, but before you ditch your physician, here’s a quick caveat: During a brief two-week period in February, three monks from the Stift Heiligenkreuz monastery died.

The stress of impending pop stardom, maybe.

“Chant: Music for the Soul” is available on iTunes and will be in stores Tuesday.

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