This clip may or may not be the most accurate performance-practice wise (all female chorus), but it gives you a good sense of these early chants. It also has a lot of shots of the square-note notation itself – in a few pictures, you’ll see red squiggly lines over the music, like accents. These are “neumes,” the earliest notated form. This version of “Justus ut palma,” [“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”] is sung as a Gradual. The same text appears in many different settings for different moments in the liturgical day. Furthermore, different versions of “Justus” exist in different scriptoria, suggesting that there was no fully codified musical text that represented the supreme interpretation of the tune.
Chant has become, in recent years, synonymous with serenity, relaxation, and spiritual quietude. The multi-million selling “Chant” record from 1994 cemented the New Age connection to this ancient repertory (and showed its market potential). But listening to this clip, there are lots of fleeting moments of jagged musical surprise. The melody is unpredictable and wanders into places that don’t strike the modern ear as necessarily intuitive. Calming, yes, but there’s a lot more going on here than just that. (Of course, try marketing “unpredictable melodic turns” to a mass audience..)