Mount Athos is a self-governing monastic state under the sovereignty of Greece that was founded in the mid-900s. A peninsula jutting out into the Aegean Sea, Mount Athos is home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries, populated by over 1,000 monks. After 6 years of trying, French documentary film-maker Eddy Vicken secured permission to film inside “The Monk’s Republic”, to produce a film examining the long history of Mount Athos as well as the day-to-day lives of the monks. The musical score comes from Thierry Malet, a composer whose previous projects are predominantly for TV movies and short films. Although the majority of the score reflects the contemplative existence of the monks, what really stands out (and remains firmly in the memory) is a rousing battle-cry styled theme featuring a combination of a choir of monks and the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Mont Athos: La République des Moines (2009) is an example of a score where there’s a stand-out theme set in amongst function music that probably works very well in the film. Malet’s inspiration for the theme is an old psalm sung by the monks (I believe it is the Polyéleos: Psalm 135 Tone V). As with many of the hymns and psalms sung as part of the monks’ daily observances, the psalm is very much a meditative piece. For his theme however, Malet asked the monks to double the psalm’s tempo. This proved problematic both for the monks and the orchestra (that was recorded separately). As the monks where more used to singing with a free tempo and singing the psalm at a difference pace, the final recording ended up having no fixed tempo. When it came to recording the orchestra (with added snare drum to give the martial feel the composer wanted), Malet found it a challenge to get the orchestra to mirror this free tempo. However, the hard work paid off: the end results of their efforts is heard in “Chœur Percussions Guerre” and “Generique Fin – Open + Chœur Percussions” and it’s a very memorable piece of music. There is something about the psalm’s melody that makes it immediately memorable and Malet ably compliments this with a driving, rhythmic counterpoint (strings and percussion). “Chœur Percussions Guerre Master” and “Gong Monacal / Chœur Percussions Guerre” both feature what sounds like the orchestra-only accompaniment for the choir’s vocals.
There is quite a bit of repetition in this album (as hinted at by the various versions of the memorable the “Chœur Percussions Guerre” theme). Several ideas are presented in a variety of subtle variations (different versions for different scenes in the film) and most of these are ideas feature music that tends to be reflective and ambient. From the limited amount of footage I have seen of the documentary itself, a large portion of the film is very low-key – the monks’ lives are, after all, dominated by reflection and contemplation. Tracks such as “Open Generique Debut Master” and “Open Version Light 3” highlight well how Malet uses delicate string passages and string tremolos as well as synth ambiences to mirror the monks’ lives. These quieter tracks also feature the inclusion of several ethnic instrument, adding interest of the tracks. The psaltery (a stringed instrument of the harp or zither family) is one of these ethnic instruments (e.g., “Psaltérion 2”). Dramatic music is rather hard to come by in Mont Athos: La République des Moines and when there’s a rousing and emotional crescendo in the strings at the beginning of “Decouverte des Monasteres / Invasion Guerrières Carte Master”, it is especially welcomed. But, as with the choir of the monks, the drama is relatively short-lived and is gone as quickly as it came.
Malet’s score for Mont Athos: La République des Moines is one of these projects that will work really well in the film: the reflective and solemn strings heard in tracks such as “Open Generique Debut Master” and “Invasion Guerrières Carte 2” do have an emotional charge to them that is hard to ignore. But the inclusion of numerous variations does get a bit wearing after a time. For me, this score is all about the tracks that include the choir. The choir of monks of the Simonos Petras monastery has gained a reputation of producing albums of high quality that features various hymns and psalms and if you do like how the choir sounds on this album then you are likely to enjoy discovering these albums. On balance, this is not a particularly satisfying album. By the end I am wishing that the choir featured more prominently and I find myself going back and cherry-picking tracks 2 and 23. However, I would certainly recommend that you sample Malet’s score even if it is just to hear these choral tracks. You may find that, like me, you go hunting for the music of the Simonos Petras monastery monks. Mont Athos: La République des Moines is available as a digital download and on CD.
Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on blue arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.
- Open Generique Debut Master (1:37)
- Chœur Percussions Guerre (1:11)
- Suspens Fx 1 (1:33)
- Open Version Light (0:52)
- Decouverte des Monasteres / Invasion Guerrières Carte Master (3:07)
- Invasion Guerrières Carte 2 (1:29)
- Suspens Fx 2 (1:01)
- Psaltérion 1 (0:20)
- Psaltérion 2 (1:15)
- Invasion Guerrères Carte 3 (0:47)
- Chœur Percussions Guerre Master (1:16)
- Peaceful Life (2:10)
- Gong Monacal / Chœur Percussions Guerre (1:14)
- Open Version Light 2 (0:58)
- Open Generique 2 (2:01)
- Invasion Guerrières Carte 4 (0:52)
- Peaceful Life 2 (1:03)
- Peaceful Life 3 (1:09)
- Open Version Light 3 (1:11)
- Suspens Fx 3 (1:08)
- Psaltérion 3 (1:24)
- Adaptation Kyrie / Invasion Guerrières Carte 5 (2:22)
- Generique Fin – Open + Chœur Percussions (2:44)
Running Time: 32:55
Plaza Mayor Company Ltd (2009)