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INTERVIEW: How A Vow of Silence Earned Monks a #1 Album

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The Monks of Norcia, (c) Christopher McLallen

(Photo, Christopher McLallen)

Mozart once said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Truer words could not be said about the Monks of Norcia. This group of Benedictine brothers is under a vow of silence but just released an album that debuted at #1 on the Billboard classical charts. The monks at the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy have a median age of 36 and hail from all corners of the globe from Indonesia to Irving, Texas. Their new CD, Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia, captures the heavenly sounds of their daily devotions. I spoke with Father Cassian Folsom, one of the brothers, about what he calls their “beautiful life” in Umbria.


Q: Tell me a little bit about the sounds of your day and how music fits in your life throughout the hours of the Divine Office.

A: This might be interesting to your listeners, too: The music comes out of an environment of silence. So we keep silence in the monastery for the greater part of the day, but that is punctuated by nine different times throughout the day of moments of choral prayer. So the prayers are always sung. In the early mornings, when the voices aren’t warmed up, it’s just Recto tono, so a very simple singing, but as the day goes on, the chants become more complex. So we live this music, we do it every day, 365 days a year, and so it becomes sort of natural to us.

Q: Of course, not everyone who takes up the cloth is a trained musician. What I’m curious about is what it was like teaching and learning music in a community of people with such a diverse background.

A: Well, people do come from all kinds of backgrounds, and we’re lucky that some have entered the monastery with a good musical background. If people don’t have a musical background, we have as part of the formation, as part of the training, a Gregorian chant class for a year. If a new monk doesn’t know how to sing, then we also provide voice lessons if that’s necessary. Sometimes people just have never sung before, and when they open their mouths to sing, strange sounds come out because they’re not accustomed to it.

Q: Can you tell me more about the Gregorian chant classes?

A: Yes. It’s the choirmaster who teaches those classes, and it begins with reading the square notation and the names of the neumes. Basically it’s to become familiar with the repertoire, both of the Divine Office and for the Mass. The repertoire for Office is intended for a large group of people, and therefore it tends to be much simpler, whereas the repertoire for Mass most of it, or much of it, is intended for a smaller group—a Schola cantorum—and tends to be much more complex. So it depends on the level of proficiency of the new members coming in, as to what elements they can sing.

Q: Do you go over different aspects of modal theory and all that?

A: Well, in fact, what’s just coming to my mind is that there are eight modes, and they each have very particular patterns of intervals, which are very different from the major and minor sounds that we’re familiar with. So that takes a little bit of getting accustomed to, but once you get the hang of it, then reading the chant—even a piece that you don’t know—becomes much easier. That’s one of the challenges: to pick up a piece of chant that you haven’t ever sung before, and based on your theory, your training, to be able to sing it.

Q: I’m sure you’re familiar with Guido of Arezzo?

A: Oh, yes. Actually, Arezzo is only three hours west of us.

Q: Have you ever used similar techniques to teaching other than relying solely on notation, especially when you’re going through so much music all day, all the time?

A: You mean solfeggio, or that sort of thing?

Q: Yeah, or, y’know, teaching music with your hands – cheironomy.

A: Our approach, since we’re not professional musicians, is mostly by immersion: You listen to it.

Q: Well, that’s essentially the technique of Guido d’Arezzo: You listen to it, and if you really need to teach it, you use your hands as well. Speaking of other musicians who don’t know the neumes, you were saying that some of the musicians don’t have any training as singers. Can you tell me what the voice lessons are like and who gives them?

A: We can only do so much in the monastery itself because none of us are really qualified to give those lessons. But we’re in contact with professional musicians in the area, some of whom are organists for our Sunday service, others who do special concerts in the basilica. So we ask one of those people to give the voice lessons. So that means either the teacher comes to the monastery or the monk goes to the teacher. We’ve been doing that off-and-on for a good number of years.

MonksNorciaRJM6565 Christopher McLallen

(Photo, Christopher McLallen)

Q: I would love for you to talk more about the devotional aspects of making music: connecting with something greater than yourself, and using music as a tool for that.

A: Well, since the music serves as a vehicle for prayer, I think that’s what gives it its particular intensity. In fact, listening to our recent CD, one of the technicians said that you can tell from listening that the men believe what they’re singing. So I think that the fact that the music comes out of a heart of faith, that gives it a certain intense quality. It’s an expression of love, also: The monk dedicates his life to God, and his search for God, and there’s a certain longing for the presence of God that I think manifests itself in the music.

Q: Do you think that there’s anything in the physical process of producing music and feeling the sound vibrations of other people that feeds that longing or helps you tap into God in any way?

A: Certainly, the act of singing means you have to be engaged and that involves your whole body in terms of posture and so on. And it’s certainly the case that hearing beautiful sounds, even from your brothers, is very inspiring. Even some of the ancient monastic fathers talk about the effect of a beautiful melody on the faith of the listener. So we reinforce one another that way. At the same time, bad music or ugly sounds have the opposite effect. In fact, one of the monastic fathers, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, has a little treatise—or at least a section—on bad music that the monks produce, that if they sing badly, saying that that leads into a region of the unlikeness—not likeness to God, but unlikeness. So he’s a bit severe about that, but that shows the importance of music in the life of the monk.

Q: Well, there have certainly been all sorts of reactions over the centuries to so-called “bad music” that have had very decisive effects on whether music would even be a part of the service. I’m curious: What other kinds of music do you enjoy personally, whether or not you have time to indulge in other kinds of music? Or even just before entering the brotherhood, what music influenced you the most?

A: Well, you’re right that it’s mostly a question of time for me, personally. I don’t have time to sit and listen to music, unfortunately.

Q: But I’m sure you listen to things in your mind’s ear.

A: Well, let me back up a little bit. I studied voice at the University of Indiana’s music school just for one year, as a college student. So my early years were full of musical things. Once I entered the monastery, I was usually the choirmaster, so I was always engaged in producing music for the various services. But as my life became more and more demanding, there was less and less time for musical things. And because we live in a silent environment, one of the qualities of our monastic life is that we seek to reduce sensory input, not increase it. So personally, my musical involvement at this point in my life is limited to the liturgy, and on the rare occasions that I have to listen to other things, I tend to gravitate towards Renaissance and Baroque styles.

Q: It’s interesting that in seeking a life of silence, having a number-one album on the Billboard classical charts has put you in a public spotlight. You also have a great web presence. It’s so unique that you’re tapping into centuries-long traditions but anyone all over the world can read what you’re doing on your blog. What’s it like being a brother in the twenty-first century, especially in recent weeks?

A: Well, I’m hoping that all the publicity won’t completely overwhelm us, because we’re not quite prepared to deal with it.

Q: Yeah, I saw on your website that you’re looking for a communications director!

A: Right, to not only communicate with the outside world, but to filter things, too! I would put the whole thing in the context of hospitality, which is one of the classical Benedictine virtues. That is, we have a beautiful life and a beautiful way of prayer; we want to be able to share that with other people. That’s done easily when people come physically to the monastery, but if they can’t come physically, then we want to share it in other ways. And really, that’s the fundamental reason for making the CD in the first place: to share this beautiful music with our friends.

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