Harmonious Monks: HBO2 Profiles Austria's 'Top Ten Monks' of Gregorian Chant

Chant.jpgOn Wednesday, Dec. 22, on HBO2, the documentary "Top Ten Monks" profiles the Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, who have been praying for 900 years. But is is their rhythmic, musical Latin prayers, called Gregorian Chant -- named for Pope Gregory I, who served in that office from 590 to 604 A.D. -- that turned them into international pop stars.

Their CD, called "Chant: Music for the Soul" (or, as it's known outside the U.S., "Chant: Music for Paradise") was in the top 10 for two months on U.K. pop charts, and has sold nearly a million copies worldwide (in the interests of full disclosure, there's a copy in the CD player of my car, where it helps me avoid blowing my top while negotiating Los Angeles traffic).

(Apparently there's now a holiday edition of the CD, with added tracks.)

What I enjoyed is learning about the individual monks, especially the one that used to work for a motorcycle magazine and didn't really go through his early life with "Be a monk" on the top of his bucket list. These guys are also pretty tech-savvy, including producing a YouTube video -- not sure if this is the one, but it's a nice video of them anyway -- that got them their record contract with Universal Music in the U.K.

"Top Ten Monks" is a Perry Films Production, produced and directed by Dana Perry; Hart Perry is director of photography; and Michael Bacon wrote the original score.

The documentary repeats on HBO2 on Saturday, Dec. 25, a k a Christmas Day, and on different dates throughout January.

Below the picture, find email Q&As with Dana Perry and with Father Karl Wallner of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey. Perry's is in italics; Father Wallner's is not; all questions in boldface type.

Producer/Director Dana Perry

What, if any, preconceptions did you have about the monks that may have been
changed or challenged by what you saw?

I was certainly aware of monastic tradition, but I applied that to a spectrum of orders, including Buddhist. I loved that one of my favorite artists, Leonard Cohen, had spent five years in a cloistered Zen monastery. My preconceptions included the idea that they would be somehow grim-faced and dour, suffering in some self-imposed way.

But that idea could not have been farther from the truth.  They were full of joy.

What did you find most compelling and most enigmatic about monastic life?

Life at the monastery was compelling in the sense of peace and dedication to community and hard work.

They live by the words Ora et Labora, prayer and work. Their joy in this life is infectious and charming. They manage to have fun and live spiritually.

As far as enigmatic, I found their commitment to celibacy (as if they have a choice) to be completely out of whack with reality. But that begs a longer discussion of church doctrine, history and recent headlines, so we won't go there. Blind faith may have its downsides.

Why do you think Gregorian chant has such a strong effect, even on nonbelievers?

It's so deep and elemental, and feels like it emanates from the soul.

The scales obviously predate our present-day conception of tonal music. Some think the chant grew out of its usefulness as a mnemonic, as texts were rare and churches dark. Somehow this prayer evolved over time, even as it was being preserved through repetition.

And let's not forget the video game "Halo." The faux Gregorian chant they use for game levels is reaching millions of young ears every day after school.

How did this experience differ from working on other films ­or did it?  

This was a very different film-making experience. I didn't have the chance to go there beforehand, so everything was set up over the phone and email.  And we only had six working days there. Contrary to many of my other films, which evolved over time, this required military (or Austrian Monk) precision.  I love a precise schedule, and they delivered. But I really wished we could have spent more time there.  I feel like we only scratched the surface - there is so much more to explore there.

What lasting impressions have you taken away?

It's great to believe wholeheartedly in something! I was struck by their peaceful demeanor, humor and kindness.  They live in a calm, healthy and contemplative way, awaiting death, upon which they will finally go to heaven, a monk's ultimate goal.

Father Karl Wallner of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey

What's been the effect, if any, on your daily life since you achieved worldwide prominence?

Nothing special: we are still monks in the same way as before. The media has given us the chance to show our life to people "outside" without destroying peace and harmony inside. Of course we are rather famous in Austria and Germany, and we have a lot of visitors. Many people write us about their problems. So we have learned that our hidden life and our prayer is precious to the whole world. We carry the sorrows of all people in our heart.

Why do you think Gregorian chant has such a strong effect, even on nonbelievers?

Because they are somehow empty in their hearts. Gregorian Chant is like a dialogue between God and man: we sing the texts of the bible, which are given by the Lord, back to him. So you can say there is God "in it" and people seem to feel this instinctively. They are certainly touched by the spirit of this music.

What do you feel while singing?

That God is close to me, that it is a very beautiful grace, that He called me to serve Him.

What is Christmas like at the monastery?
Beautiful. However Easter is the highest feast for us Christians, so our Easter celebration of the passion and resurrection of the Lord is many times more intensive and beautiful in the monastery than the feast of the birth of Jesus.

But of course Christmas is beautiful: we pray a lot, we have a peaceful coming together and the young brothers sing carols to the old brothers. Christmas is a feast of harmony, and our celebration is very similar to what European families do on Christmas Eve. I am looking forward to midnight mass in our big abbey church, when hundreds and hundreds of the faithful come to celebrate Holy Night with us.

What do you hope bringing your musical prayer to the world will do for those who listen to it?
Chant is music for everybody. Because God is a God who loves every human being, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever, we think our music and our prayers can bring peace to everybody's heart. Gregorian Chant is pure harmony, the harmony between man and God, and thus harmony between all of us.

Are you optimistic about the future of monastic life?

Yes, of course! Where love of God is strong, there is a strong future! As we have seen in Heiligenkreuz, God can use communities and places where He is loved to share His love with a loveless world.