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Toronto Star

Dec 22, 2002


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Music inspired by 12th-century German mystic
Slow rhythmic flow has power to relax listeners

When American soprano Norma Gentile was going to stay for several months at a community in the California desert, she decided to take some music with her. She went to browse among the Gregorian chants in the University of Michigan music library.

"All of the chant books were bound in black, brown and gray except for one, which was salmon pink," she recalls. "I pulled it out and it was a whole book full of chants in Latin by a woman I'd never heard of, Hildegard von Bingen. I looked at the Latin and saw feminine endings on some of the references to God. I was very excited."

Gentile made copies of many of the songs and packed them with her Latin dictionary. On the trip, she began making her own translations of the chants that have become a focal point of her life ever since.

Now she travels around North America performing concerts of the chants of the 12th-century German nun and mystic, including an annual Toronto concert at Bloor St. United Church. She invites everyone who attends the concerts to hum particular notes as a way of participating in the chanting.

"My translations of Hildegard's work aren't exact &emdash; I call them poetic," explains Gentile. "As I sing them, I feel energy move through me and into the room. That energy can feel compassionate and gentle, warm and rich.

"Since most chant is based either on no meter, or on a rhythmic flow slower than the average resting heart rate, we tend to relax while listening to it."

Gentile and her concerts are part of an ancient and enduring tradition of chant, whose roots go back at least 20,000 years to shamanic chanting.

"Indigenous people all over the world have their own systems of chanting," says Kathy Ryndak, co-founder of the Transformational Arts College where she teaches about chant. "It's completely universal."

Chanting traditions include Inuit throat singing as well as ancient cultures such as Mayan, Egyptian and Hindu. There is Islamic and Sufi chant, as well as Tibetan and Siberian chanting. The Kabbala in Jewish tradition includes it, as does Christian history of monks' and nuns' Gregorian chant.

Australian aboriginals chant to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo. Chinese Taoist chant has a different sound for each organ of the body. African tribal cultures and Native American shamans have their own chanting styles and rituals. Goddess culture and Wicca also make use of chant.

"Each kind sounds very different from the others," observes Ryndak. "In India, each state even pronounces the same mantras differently."

Ana Bodnar, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher in Toronto, has used Sanskrit chants from the yoga tradition for years and has even made a CD of them, called Embracing Peace.

"I use chanting in my meditation classes and courses," she says. "And in my clinical practice some clients use my CD of chants and meditations as a way to experience more calm and peace."

She also uses chanting from a variety of traditions in a therapeutic way in a course she gives for people with eating disorders through an organization called Sheena's Place.

"Chanting absorbs the mind in a single activity," she says. "You can't worry at the same time. Chants are usually about positive things like peace or compassion, and this is what your mind focuses on. It diminishes stress, so it leads to better health by calming and harmonizing the body."

The vibrations of chanting can also resonate in the body in a healthful way, Bodnar suggests.

Toronto psychotherapist Joel Strauss chants wordless sounds with strong vibrations that he says he believes are healing in some way. His chanting is very intense. The character of it changes dramatically over the time he is chanting. There is an aboriginal flavour at some moments, and at other times it sounds more like a racing car engine revving up.

He first began chanting 10 years ago, spontaneously during meditation.

"I found I had an immediate ability to express sounds and rhythms," he says. "I felt like an appliance. When I plugged into my source, the chanting came like electricity. I felt plugged into different sounds and different speeds.

"This was my animal nature harnessed for the good, the beast and the brain coming together in harmony. It is spirit and matter merging. There's no other theme for me. That's it: merging these two horribly incompatible energies together, which creates a great tension. My music is a strong statement of that."

Strauss finds the chanting draining, if compelling.

"It's athletic," he says. "I'm flexing and unflexing every muscle in my body. I literally get a fever from the physical exertion. My music is very aggressive. It punches holes in your illusions."

Strauss and his wife, Dale, say they have found it beneficial to listen to the chanting, and it helps them feel more grounded in their bodies. Recently, they have been arranging for him to chant to other people.

He has chanted for a nondenominational congregation in Green River, Ont., and says he was heartened by what people told him afterward.

"There was a very positive response," he says. "They expressed relief and a sense of peace. I have also had several smaller meetings at my home. I'm just now starting to take my music out to people."

Ancient shamans and healers used chanting as medicine and as a way to alter states of consciousness, according to Ryndak.

"Chanting oneself is like an internal sonic massage," she says. "The vibrations can massage your internal organs. It's also wonderful to listen to chanting.

"Chanting and toning elicit the relaxation response. They lower the heart rate, lower the blood pressure and deepen breathing. We go into a more relaxed brainwave state. There are lots of wonderful physiological responses to these sounds. Chanting can make us feel happy and energized and relaxed.

"I believe that sound will be one of the important healing modalities of the 21st century."

Gentile says she also finds chant relaxing and healing.

"The vibration of the sound you create with your voice moves through your whole body," she says.

Gentile meditates for 90 minutes a day, and does kundalini yoga three times a week. Before discovering Hildegard von Bingen's chants, she made her living through contracts with various opera companies and giving concerts of early Spanish music.

Now she weaves the mystic's music through her own spiritual practices as well as her profession.

"Hildegard's music bathes people in their own potential greatness," she says. "Like any music or art form, it can draw out of people the qualities of who they really are."

Gentile has recorded three CDs of the chants, and has sold about 10,000 copies.

She recalls that in the desert community where she first explored the chants, she sang on her own while she worked with her translations and the nun's music.

"Within two weeks, several members of the community were asking when and where I'd be singing each day so they could alter their work schedules to be there," she says. "And one person asked that I be banned from singing altogether. I knew then I really had something."

Hildegard von Bingen wrote her chants to be sung by her fellow Benedictine nuns during the eight worship services they participated in each day. Gentile says anyone can try it, either listening or chanting, whether or not they feel connected to any organized religion.

"Chanting is giving voice to God," she suggests. "By retuning ourselves this way, we can return to spiritual alignment."

Bodnar says she wrote her belief about chanting in the blurb on her CD: "Chanting is for greater peace and tranquillity, to release stress, to support living in the moment, and to be open to joy."

Gentile's Web site is http://www.healingchants.com. Bodnar's is http://www.anabodnar.com. Strauss can be reached at straussjoel@yahoo.ca

Norma Gentile (M.M.) is both a recording artist and trained intuitive healer. She is one of the foremost performers of the chants of the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen. Her recordings of Hildegard's chant include 'Unfurling Love's Creation" (Lyrichord Discs), "Meditation Chants" (Ave Maria Press), and the newly released live concert recording "Healing Chants". Also a teacher and author, Norma travels widely in the US and Canada creating workshops on sound healing, meeting people for private healing sessions and performing healing concerts of chant. For more information, including music and articles, www.healingchants.com.



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