Interview with Fr. Michael Bozell (Solesmes)
Gregorian Chant and Solesmes are inseperably connected. In fact, if it hadn't been for the monastery and the untiring work that generations of priors and monks have devoted to the restauration of the chant from a state of "degeneration", it would maybe not evoke the magic it still does today – even within those who don't call themselves men (or women) of faith. The road of the monks, who have braved all kinds of natual and political disturbances in a history of almost a thousand years, has led the music back to its roots, but all the while they have seized every tool of modern life to let the world know about their endeavours. Among them is an excellent website and – more importantly – a huge collection of recordings, which are all still available and which continues to grow. A new series was started pretty recently, which saw the monks take full control of the packaging, which is now as luxurious and beautiful as anything available in a record store. As an introduction to this treasure chest of the centuries, we talked to Frere Michael Bozell about Gregorian Chant, the CD project and life at Solesmes.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello, Tobias. I am well, though somewhat tired after a long Lent in which the monks eat very little, observe even greater silence, pray hard, and work. I am presently in my sun-flooded cell at Solesmes.
When did the project of recording these chants take shape?
What today is called the Solesmes/Nocturne Collection was actually begun in 1978. We do things over long periods of time in monasteries. Some work (like the restoration of Gregorian Chant) goes on for more than 100 years. We have time.
Gregorian Chant has a tradition of remaining secluded and something personal to a monastery. What motivation was it that made you decide to make these recordings available to a wider audience?
Yes. We are contemplative monks. We decide to leave the world, to enclose ourselves in a place of seclusion and silence. This we do in order to open our minds and hearts to God. And when you open your mind to the divine, it opens –truly- to all humankind. We love the world and all people. This is why we have wanted to share the beauty and utter uniqueness of the Chant with others. Now with our Internet site , www.solesmes.com we can reach many, many people without being too distracted from our life of adoration.
Recording a series of several CDs is a difficult and time-intensive project. How did you go about the organisational part of the affair?
As I said, we have taken years and years to do this. About one recording every year or two. The technicians came to Solesmes, and during one week we recorded each disk in our church which has extraordinary acoustics, making the ancient melodies vibrate deeply and fully. These recording sessions do rustle our routine but we quickly return to our monastic mode when they are over.
When looking at these beautifully packaged albums, I have the strong feeling that it was especially important to you to offer a complete package of aural and visual beauty – correct?
Yes. God is Beauty. Prayer is beauty. The Chant is beauty. It was important for us that the albums themselves be beautiful. Not just to the eye, but even to the touch. The texts (Latin, French and English) were worked on repeatedly so as to give, even in the language, a sense of wonder. But obviously, the most captivating thing about the albums is the Chant.
The CDs are mainly organised according to Christian Liturgy. How would you describe the musical differences between, for example, the “Paques” and the “Noel”-chants to a layman?
Not so easy. The Chant cannot fully be understood without an understanding of the mysteries they evoke. I am not saying you cannot be overpowered by the beauty of the Chant if you are not a believer (many, many people come to listen to our chants and love them, without being Christians, or even believers of any sort). But I am saying that to understand the fullness of the message, and the subtle differences between mysteries, you have to know something about them. And it is much, much fuller when you live these mysteries through faith. But that is another matter. Paques (Easter) is filled with a serenity that blossoms after the torments of the Passion. It is life springing from death. Noel (Christmas) has a child-like tenderness, a sparkle which springs from the wonder of the Incarnation: God is born into the world, and this Child is its Saviour. They are both joyful, but with different tonalities.
Every monastery has its own way of interpreting these chants. What would you say is the special characteristic of the “Solesmes”-sound?
It’s hard to say. I once noted a review, written from New York as I recall, comparing the interpretation of Silos (in Spain) to Solesmes. The writer said that Silos´ rendition was “earthy” whereas ours was “celestial”. It is true that we have always been regarded as accomplished artists, and the word “elegance” often accompanies comment on our chant. A journalist from the UK visiting our church for Easter about 10 years ago was disappointed and judged our sound as “saccharine”. Not very complimentary. What makes the assessment more difficult is that our style, though fundamentally the same, has evolved over the decades. Our first recording were done in 1930 (one of the records of this collection is called “Solesmes 1930), and the sound of the choir is much more rugged and forceful. Now the styles is very fluid and refined. But it is the same “Solesmes” interpretation.
The booklet to the “Florilege”-CD mentions that Gregorian Chant had lost its identity in the 19th century. What has Solesmes done to try to win it back?
It would take me pages and pages to answer that fully. The Chant was unrecognisable in the 19th century. It sounded awful and heavy. Through much labour, and comparative work and imagination, the monks here have “restored” the Chant to what it must have sounded like. The melodies have been restored by very scientific methods which even I do not quite understand. In the 1980´s the Japanese were allowed to restore the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescoes. When they were done, an explosion of fresh colours appeared. The restoration of the Chant is a little like that.
What do Gregorian chants mean to you personally?
It is prayer. It is talking to God. It is listening to God, because almost every word of the Chant comes from the Bible: it is inspired, and lifts us out of ourselves. The texts come from so long ago. They come from above us and beyond us. They take us out of ourselves and into Life and Love. The music is also, undoubtedly, inspired. Where does it come from? It has never really been surpassed as a purely melodic and rhythmic commentary of Scripture. It is other-worldly. It is on the edge of silence, a sonorous continuation of silence. It is born in silence and leads us back to it.
While modern music seems to put a special emphasis on “progress” and the word “new”, Gregorian Chant has a tradition of centuries. Do you take comfort in the fact that you are in fact singing the same pieces as hundreds of voices in a long chain of monks at Solesmes before you?
Thousands and thousands of men and women have sung these chants. In most European countries and even elsewhere. Men and women of every conceivable background and character. We have all found solace and uplifting strength in this prayer. That it is as old as the land gives us such strength and assurance. But it is also always new. I don´t know why. Maybe because it is pure. Purity is close to newness. Purity never grows old. Gregorian Chant is both ancient and pure.
What is your position on contemporary electronics projects, which have combined Gregorian Chant with other music – is it, to you, okay to combine these melodies, which were originally conceived to remain only vocal, with instruments?
I don´t really care, I guess. Modern technology can take any image, any sound, no matter how sacred, how religious, and use it for other ends. This does not change the essential worth of the sacred art forms themselves. Christians are accustomed to having the most sacred things misused. We cannot change this by complaining. We should simply continue to concentrate on our use of these forms.
We already briefly talked about the movie “The Big Silence”, being shown in Germany at the moment and your own DVD – how do you see the relationship between silence and music in monasterial life?
Music is, in a monastery, an audio representation of our inner silence. If it is more than that or other than that, it is superfluous and harmful. It should only signify what is happening in the silence of our souls, which is considerable. Please don´t ask me what souls are.
What, would you say, can Gregorian Chant mean to people outside of a monastery?
It can awaken curiosity. Many people have come to the spiritual and even Christian dimension of life through the Chant. The Chant is a formidable language that speaks to people of all cultures and clearly overflows beyond Christianity. It evokes that dimension of reality which is spirit. It hints at the dimensions or reality which totally surpasses reality as we see and touch it. There is so much more, Tobias, than what our senses perceive. The Chant suggests this other world that co-exists with the one most people are content to live in. Maybe they are not content, but they often stop there. The Chant beckons them into the awesome universe of the spirit.
Are there any more CDs planned?
We have, right now, around 30 CDs on the market ; besides the Nocturne/Solesmes Collection, there is the Universal/Solesmes Collection – found also on our website. When you and your readers have bought all of them come back to me with that question…But, yes, we will continue to record.
Can you tell us just a little bit about the daily life at Solesmes? What is the hardest part and what is most satisfying?
One of the hardest parts is getting up VERY early in the morning, and it is quite late as I finish this interview. The sun set long ago, the brothers are asleep, and I must sleep too. Tomorrow we begin our singing again at 5. So, I cannot expound any longer. (Again, there is a Frequently Asked Questions on our website that throws light on our daily life.) What is satisfying is to know in your gut that you do something that mysteriously has an effect on the world. Monks believe that their lives help the world. Years ago, my father said that my prayers had not averted this or that disaster or tragedy. I answered: “Yes, but we firmly believe that things would be worse without our sacrifice and prayer.” People who have faith – whatever their faith may be – understand. (And my father, a man of deep, deep faith, said, “Yes!”)