Discourses in Music: Volume 6 Number 1 (Summer 2006)

Sanctuary, The heart has its reasons. Warner Classics, 2005.

Jeff Reilly, bass clarinet
Peter Togni, organ
Christoph Both, cello
Sanctuary String Orchestra conducted by Alain Trudel

"Sanctuary" is a trio of bass clarinet, organ, and cello based at Saint Mary's Basilica in Halifax, and since their beginnings in 1998 they have performed extensively with a number of ensembles and in festivals across the country. The official promotional flyer for the album proclaims it a "plainsong for the 21st century," though from the instrumentation of the trio it would appear that the contents of the album could truly be neither "plain" nor "song." One might ask what, then, the designation "plainsong" means in this context, and the album's jacket design suggests some possible conclusions.

The cover is a photographic pastiche of people with distraught expressions and arms raised heavenward. The sky above them is filled with downy clouds and streams of ethereal light, and cathedral spires figure prominently on the horizon. All this turmoil mixed with celestial promise is overlain by a final photographic layer: the innocent white gaze of an anonymous toddler who appears to be fading into the adult background of suffering and spirituality.

Inside the lining is a dedication that quotes the 17th-century physicist-turned-theologian Blaise Pascal: "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." But experience tells us that even the most inspired artists do have reasons of which they know something, and surely the entire hour of sound on the album is not wholly beyond human comprehension. Perhaps we ought to suppose that, like most of the vast repertory of Western plainsong, the music on this album is the anonymous fruit of a direct kind of divine inspiration—that the same dove who whispered in the ear of Pope Gregory I (the nominal father of Gregorian plainsong) was perched upon the shoulders of the Sanctuary musicians. Other quotes from the promotional flyer call the album ". . . rich contemplative music that fuses the melodic simplicity of Gregorian chant with the sounds of free jazz and the rich colours of contemporary classical music, creating a plainsong for the 21st century" and add that "a Sanctuary concert is a unique contemplative experience, more of a personal sonic journey than any form of conventional concert."

Now we might prepare ourselves for the sounds of New Age or something in the vein of the "holy minimalism" of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. In truth there are pervasive elements of both, but Sanctuary adds another, more distinctive, voice to the album that garners it a place slightly beyond the confines—or at least on the fringes—of either aesthetic. But broad appeals to a general aesthetic of spirituality notwithstanding, The Heart has its Reasons tells a more specific story of redemption—musical redemption—for it is a compilation of varied musical quality that really puts its best foot forward only in its second half (tracks 5-9). Whatever the shortcomings of the initial tracks, they are surely forgotten and their sonic sins atoned by the end of the album, whence our listening gaze is turned outward from the empty spiritual haven to face a musical reality of suffering and uncertainty.

Of the first five pieces, three are based on plainsong melodies, including the title track "The heart has its reasons." These, among all of the works on the album, are perhaps the most musically insubstantial. But the "heart's reason" for this is mysterious indeed for there is certainly nothing limiting about plainsong as source material, as composers from Josquin to Berlioz have demonstrated again and again. Track one, "The heart has its reasons," is based on the familiar plainsong hymn Veni creator spiritus. Well-known (and well-trodden) source material, it carries high expectations for those who wish to clothe it in their own creations. Sanctuary's version is scored for all three players (organ, cello, and bass clarinet) plus occasional electronic sounds suggesting birds or whales. The introductory material is a slightly rhythmicized rendition of Veni creator played by the clarinet that is neither creative nor destructive—simply the hymn tune as it is. Just before this melody reaches the point of absolute musical stagnation, it gives way to a series of scalar embellishments and melodic flourishes that, though welcome additions, are on the whole unsurprising and still wanting forward momentum. The cellist subsequently enters with the plainsong melody, again unadulterated, molto adagio, flavoured with ample vibrato, and this is followed by a tutti section with both soloists plus an underlying tenuto line in the organ and occasional interjections by whale/bird sounds. The whole piece then terminates abruptly following yet another—perhaps inspired, but nonetheless uneventful—statement of the Veni creator melody in the bass clarinet.

Tracks two through four and the final track, number ten, on the recording likewise fall somewhere short of convincing. It is worth noting again that three of these (3,4,10) are based on pre-existing plainsong melodies with a harmonic language that is largely tonal and uncomplicated. None of this is in itself a condemnation, but they all seem to conclude with artificially abrupt and disappointing endings, perhaps due to the fact that their over-all harmonic and textural shapes have a tendency to wander aimlessly, generating difficulties in arriving at a suitable ending. It is as if these pieces aspire to evoke a sense of timelessness or eternity, but lack the time or patience to do it. Or perhaps in the works based on plainsong melodies, Sanctuary felt somehow limited by an inner dread of defiling the divine through disfiguring the ancient melodies. If so, one might argue that, on the contrary, the greater musical blasphemy has arisen from this modern 'preservationist' caution.

But if the first few tracks are a something of a "sanctuary" for ossified melodies, the term "sanctuary" does not seem to describe tracks five through nine in the same way. In fact, the last half of the album seems to challenge the notion that art is a sanctuary at all. Dissonance and unsettled anxiety are pervasive elements, which are not the ideals of a haven or retreat from the world such as the word "sanctuary" generally evokes. Number five, "Illuminations" has an intriguing melody in the strings that is still fluid like plainsong, but with some unexpected and happily unprepared harmonic modulations that add a flavourful tang to the whole. Evidence of the composer's (Togni's) familiarity with classical styles becomes especially apparent in this work, particularly in its compelling rhythmic textures where occasional moments of accelerated rhythmic pounding in the accompanying voices echo eighteenth-century Mozartian rhythmic transitions. But these are reinterpreted and reinvigorated with a refreshing modernity reminiscent of the works of Toronto composer Christos Hatzis.

The next four pieces on the album, "Lament," "Vigils and Stone," "Passio," and "Antiphon (reprise)" also display a level of musical sophistication that leaves the impression that these works do indeed "have their reasons." From the sweeping Romantic melodies and colourful cello harmonics of the unsettling "Lament" to the grumbling, screeching anxiety of a soul hailing from the experimental timbres of "Passio," the second half of the recording engages listeners in a truly thoughtful and artistic manner. The pieces are not overly academic nor do they sacrifice any of the of the group's spiritual aesthetic. They are simply more convincing compositions that sparkle in the hands of able and sensitive performers. In light of this miraculous transformation in the second half of The Heart has its Reasons, I suppose we might forgive Sanctuary for concluding with yet another relatively unadorned plainsong quotation. The clarinet intones "Adoro te"—unfortunately better known as the melody of "Kumbaya." On the whole, The Heart has its Reasons is worth a careful listen—or even a purchase—by anyone interested in powerful improvisatory performances, musical spirituality, or new interpretations of plainsong.

-Jamie Younkin