Thousands of Hours of Live Gregorian Chants Available in 1 App
Since the spring of 2019, the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame de Jouques in French Provence have been recording about six hours of music daily for the smartphone’s Neumz application.
The digital era is turning out to be an unexpected ally of the promotion of the Catholic tradition, as attested in particular by the various initiatives flourishing on the internet to make the world rediscover the centuries-old art of Gregorian chant. After the success of the YouTube channel OPChant, Gregorian chant is now the subject of the largest recording project ever undertaken.
For this ambitious project running from 2019 to 2022, the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Jouques (in the French region of Provence) opened their doors to the American label Odradek Records, whose team has suspended eight low-profile microphones around the abbey’s church to collect their daily chants during Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.
Neumz — whose name refers to the medieval musical notation neume, exclusively used for Gregorian chant nowadays — was conceived by Odradek’s founder, John Anderson, whose aunt belongs to the community of Jouques and spent several years at their foundation in Benin, the Monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Ecoute. The project was originally meant to be recorded in Benin, but the lack of internet access and climatic conditions forced the team to stay in Jouques.
The musical pieces, which will extend over 7,000 hours in total, are uploaded on the app’s database on an ongoing basis and enriched with square note scores, the original Latin text and its translation in the user’s language.
The smartphone app is available for free, to be used in a limited “radio mode,” while premium features — such as downloading and researching pieces — are restricted to subscribers. Two-thirds of the subscription fees are allocated to the 45 nuns of Jouques as well as the functioning of their monastery in Benin.
“John Anderson wanted to share with the world this monastic contemplation experience through music at the abbey of his aunt and to help the community, so he got in touch with me, as he knew that I own the world’s second-largest collection of Gregorian chant albums,” Alberto Díaz-Blanco, head of Neumz and executive committee member of the Spanish section of the Associazione Internazionale Studi di Canto Gregoriano, told the Register. Díaz-Blanco revealed that, initially, the project seemed almost impossible to him, in terms of resources and time, although is fit well with the spirit of Odradek.
“But the idea was good and beautiful, and Providence quickly invited itself into the project and guided us along the way.”
Díaz-Blanco and Anderson could indeed count on the solid expertise of the international team they established to bring their project to a successful conclusion, notably that of producers Dominique Crochu, medievalist and co-founder of Musique Médiévale network, and Dominique Gatté, founder of MMMO, the largest database of medieval manuscripts and of the “Musicologie Médiévale” network, the world’s largest Gregorianist network.
Every day since the beginning of the recording campaign, the team has been listening to hours of chants by the nuns of Jouques, in order to produce the corresponding scores, with the help of PDF documents that the nuns sent them along the way.
“We’ve produced thousands of scores so far, and we’ll keep doing it, mostly on a voluntary basis,” Díaz-Blanco continued. “We gave body and soul to this mission to transmit to people around the world a living music from the abbey, a Benedictine liturgy ‘caught in the act.’”
“That is not without inevitable imperfections, as we can occasionally hear from afar a child crying, or a priest who does not really sing in tune, but it is a living prayer, and we want to transmit it as it is.”
The launching of the app, initially meant to be at the end of the recordings in spring 2022, was moved forward to Easter 2020, in an attempt to bring comfort to a world beset by the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with the Register, John Anderson explained that when the global health emergency and the subsequent lockdowns and bans on public Mass, started in March 2020, he decided to launch a free web preview of the app for Easter — created in only five days using the pieces already recorded.
“We were all cooped up in our homes, there was a need to feed souls, and Providence gave us the means to do so,” Anderson said. “What we did in such a brief time frame is something of a miracle.”
Neumz’s official website was launched on Pentecost 2020, while the smartphone app was available from the first day of Advent on Nov. 29. At this time, it has 6,000 subscribers, many of whom are American.
Latin as a Meeting Point
A recent survey of the app’s subscribers convinced Anderson of its true potential in the long run. “The people who paid for the app were asked how sorry they would be if the app were to be canceled, and they massively answered that they would be ‘very sorry,’ which means from a marketing point of view that it has a big growth potential,” he said, noting the poll also revealed that most people in the U.S. use it regularly to pray and meditate.
But the app is not limited to individual use, as attested by the testimonies received by the team. Alberto Díaz-Blanco mentioned in particular a letter from an American teacher who told them she was using it to teach Gregorian chant to the youngest children of her Catholic school in Washington D.C.
“We’ve also received a strong demand from our users for the publication of the liturgy of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite,” he said, “as the Benedictine liturgy of Jouques follows the ordinary form of the Roman Rite.” This is significant, given that the upsurge in popularity Gregorian chant is currently enjoying is partly explained by the fact that liturgy in Latin is attracting more and more people worldwide, especially in France and in the U.S., as well as in Italy.
“Latin unites us eventually, as the Latin Mass follows the same liturgy anywhere in the world; it is the same Mass for all.”
Díaz-Blanco concluded, “People are clearly asking for a return to the beauty of a chant that is not elitist — since the nuns of Jouques are not musicians — but that has to be nurtured to make us fully participate in the liturgy.”