The guttural chanting of the Gyoto tradition likely long predates this Tibetan order. The profound tones and strange harmonic overtones have an atavistic power that comes from the shepherds of the Mongolian steppes. It possesses, we are told, the lowest note a human voice can produce. Here it is harnessed as a meditative tool in which the virtues incarnated in Buddhist deities can be accessed and internalized. Rather than a music of development and movement to an end-point, the western listener needs to think of the strange invocations in the modern music of the likes of John Tavener. The point of this music is to be within it, and so reach beyond thought.
But for all its hypnotic stillness, this performance, or meditation, is a piece of theatre. The monks in robes of maroon and saffron sit in a row before the arches of the church’s rood screen, illuminated by the bright light of the chancel behind. The audience sit in a half-lit nave for the music and light to weave what magic they can.
We were presented with a series of chants, some accompanied by the clashing of cymbals or an emphasis of horns. Most lasted several minutes, before moving with little interval to the next. While it was important that the contemplative atmosphere was not interrupted by explanations, a simple programme note indicating the subject or intent of each could have added to our appreciation of what was being shared. After all, this is sound to a purpose.
But we live in a divided and divisive time, as the Rector Paul Seaton-Burn reminded us in a gentle introduction; so it is a fine thing that this ancient building and its congregation could recognize what is shared in common, and welcome this sacred music in this place made sacred by the generations in Chagford.