With Christmas just around the corner, everyone seems to be in the midst of the holiday spirit. Folks are finishing their present buying, finishing their decorations, and rocking out to Christmas tunes. As I was in the store getting distracted from unpacking a new rock shipment, I came upon this video in my Facebook feed.
For those readers who are hesitant to click links, it’s a video of a woman singing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” in a beautiful church in Spain. The way her voice sounds in the church is amazing and, if you’re brain processes this video close to the same way mine did, hearing it will give you chills. There is a sacred feel in this song for me.
It’s not the lyrics (or just the lyrics). I can think of quite a few hymns that my parent’s church would sing that didn’t give me that feel of sacredness. They didn’t necessarily create that electric feel in the room, that stillness that I associate with the sacred.
“O Come Emmanuel” is actually an older song. The oldest version of the tune was found in old church manuscripts from the 15th Century, while the original Latin lyrics were found in manuscripts from the 12th century. As a singular choral piece, I find that the song has a certain magical quality that can be lost in our sing-songy version that carolling folk sing this time of year.
This brings me to something that I’ve been mentally toying with for a while. What makes a song sound sacred?
The song itself was made with the Divine in mind. It was crafted by the Catholic church for the clergy to connect the congregation to a feeling of the Divine. I think that when it’s sung in its original Ecclesiastical Latin it adds to the magic. Latin being the language of the Catholic Church for centuries gives it certain gravitas, a kind of astral groove. It has also seeped into our culture as something magical (any scary secret ritual in movies always seems to have a little Latin in it).
In the videos of both the woman in the Spanish church and the choral monks(?) in Switzerland, part of the sacred feel is certainly the space. Those old churches was built to carry voices, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the sacred nature of a place of worship.
There is also the lyrics itself, which are certainly another piece to it. It calls out to the singer’s understanding of God and to hope in the context of Christianity. Even when it’s sang in Latin, though, I feel that sacred nature.
This leads me to believe that a strong part of the sacred nature is in the actual music composition. Perhaps there is a science behind this? Being only an amateur musician, I don’t have quite the understanding of the complexities of music to put my finger on the structural framework that lends a song sacred nature.
So, in the spirit of exploration, I want to share some sacred music with you. See what you think. I want to hear about how these songs not only made you feel, but how it made the room around you feel. A sacred song creates sacred space outside of your mental associations and memories attached to the music. If you listened to the past two songs with headphones, try them again on speakers. Only noticing how they make you feel keeps you in the frame of your memories and any associations your brain makes with the music. I want you to feel the energy in the room. Has it shifted? If it’s changed, how has it changed?
The next song I want to share is by Hildegard Von Bingham, a fascinating Christian mystic and herbalist from the early 1100’s. Though she had no formal musical training, she composed 69 liturgical songs. I often play her music as a way of calming and clearing our store before we open. While I think it’s beautiful, it might not make the best background music for the store.
Christians are clearly not the only people to have figured out sacred music. Exploring the different flavors of sacred music and what it does the space it plays in is a fascinating hobby. This song is sung by Pomo Medicine Man Lorin Smith, a man I was lucky enough to have met at a weekend workshop years ago. At the workshop, he shared a power song. It would have fit well in this blog along with “Oh Come Emmanuel” as it was a song about calling for a healer to come. While I had found a recording of the song once on YouTube, I have yet to rediscover it. So, instead, I share a recording of another song of his. Please ignore the cheesy jaguar sound the creator of this video decided to throw in. Do you notice how the feeling of the space around you is similar, yet different than the other songs?
I was introduced to this next song in a World Religion class in college. The teacher was a Gregorian Chant enthusiast who had just returned from living at a monastery, studying the music. He made a CD or two of sacred music for me to explore and this was one of the songs on that CD. You’ll notice that, while this song certainly is all about connecting to the sacred, it is entirely different than the church songs. This song uses a call back repetitive chant style that slowly builds as the song progresses. This is a song of ecstacy, one that is designed to reach Divinity through losing yourself in the building beat.
As I try and explore what musically ties them together, there is one thing that pops out to me. They all have strong vocals. They are meant to be sung. Breath and voice are so important in old magical practices and culture, maybe that is part of it. Chi and prana, both words used to describe energy, are linguistically connected to breath and air. Even the Bible begins “In the beginning was the Word…” Is the power in the music or in the voice?
I guess it’s all something to think about. What do you think? Are there any songs that you use to help set sacred space? Are there Christmas songs that make you feel closer to the Divine?
Always exploring the magic and the connections
The Green Mountain Mage