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Chill-out chant

31 October 2014

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JUST as our tastes in music define us, we use our musical tastes as a way of defining what we would like to be. Whether a novelty record, purchased because it shows what a fun-loving person you are, or the CD of pan pipes bought on holiday from street musicians, so many of our music choices are made as a means of articulating an identity.

And just as the novelty record and the CD of pan pipes end up unplayed, so, I imagine, there are many copies of Canto Gregoriano, the double album of Gregorian chant recorded by the monks of Silos Abbey, which serve to remind one of personae swiftly adopted and as swiftly forgotten.

As Richard Coles described, in Chant (Radio 4, Tuesday), the recording sold more than five million copies in the 1990s, and was marketed as a way to de-stress in our hectic, stressful lives. Who could refuse such a pitch, since one of the most ubiquitous and desirable of modern self-identities is that of the soulful individual, oppressed by the demands of the modern world?

Of course, neither the record company nor most consumers had the slightest interest in what the monks might be chanting about. So it was illuminating to hear Sisters Bernadette and Bede, from St Cecilia's Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, enthuse about their music not as a vehicle for relaxation, but as a source of intellectual and religious stimulation. This is sophisticated, dramatic, rhetorical music, much of whose meaning comes through participation.

We are learning a great deal at the moment about the value of musical participation, as Radio 2's Faith in the World Week season focuses on the healing power of music. The season opened with an edition of Good Morning Sunday, presented by Clare Balding from Arrowe Park Hospital, Merseyside, where music is included in a number of surgical and therapeutic environments.

If you are having an operation that does not knock you out completely, then you can bring in your own music to calm you down. If you are out cold, then it is likely that your surgeon will be the one choosing the tunes - although, in these circumstances, I wonder whether the rest of the surgical team are consulted. After all, one man's offertory antiphon sung by the monks of Silos could sound to the next like nails on a blackboard.

In preparation for this series, Radio 2 and local radio have carried out a survey of the ten best tracks to listen to when you are down or unwell; and the list appears to bear out the claim, made in Coles's programme, that nobody thinks about words when they listen to songs. Why else, when going under the scalpel, would you choose Showaddywaddy's "Three Steps to Heaven", or songs with such intimations of mortality as "My Way"?

The question of music and cultural identity came up in another form on Friday's 5 Live Drive (Radio 5), and the story that the Swiss are putting in a bid to award UNESCO World Heritage status to yodelling. How a musical idiom can be equated to the Taj Mahal is a question not addressed here; but if it means that yodelling is restricted to Switzerland, then I think that the bid should be warmly encouraged.

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