Chants Encounters

It's hard to escape the good vibrations at the Louisville offices of Sounds True, a distributor of spoken-word tapes that has recently branched out into music. The company health-insurance plan covers acupuncture, massage therapy, even mountain bikes. A pack of dogs roams the premises. Incense burns. Feelings count.

"We won't bring a title on unless we feel good about it," says Joel Davis, who heads the company's fledgling music division. And to help everybody feel good, Sounds True's headquarters features a windowless meditation room. Inside is a table lined with portraits of Christ, a sculpture of Buddha and pictures of the spiritual brethren who happen to have recorded albums for the Sounds True label. Among those budding stars is a gaggle of nuns--including one who once starred in an Elvis Presley movie--who intone Gregorian chants.

The company's catalogue is filled with titles like Divine Bliss and Sounds of Peace.

"I don't want it to be considered new-age, but a lot of sales come from the new-age market," Davis says. "I try to stay away from being pegged new-age. To most people in mainstream America, it is limiting."

To musicians outside the mainstream, it can be alluring.
The company does get its share of mismatches and kooks, which it tries to let down gently. There's a woman from California who plays blues guitar and "sings of the feminine," says Davis, but her blues aren't exotic enough for the company. "There was a Christian folk-blues singer from the Netherlands or Germany named Fats or Christ," he says. "He sent in a tape and asked, 'What do I need to do to get a gig out there?' It was not exactly what I'm looking for."

There was also a jazz album recorded by students at a Zen monastery in New York and "a two-CD collection of Asian-Indian prayers," Davis says. "It was incredible, quite a stretch. You have a new-age synthesizer with Tibetan bells, made by some guy in Canada." (He, too, got turned down.)

The most intriguing musical offering that was accepted is the collection of Gregorian chants sung by the nuns, who live in Connecticut. One of the sisters, Dolores Hart, starred with Elvis Presley in 1958's King Creole, a rocking flick about a New Orleans nightclub singer who gets sucked into the criminal underworld. That film featured such songs as "Hard Headed Woman" and "Trouble." But Hart's latest effort is 180 degrees from rock and roll. The nuns' album, which sold out its first run of 4,000 copies in three months, is more likely to, well, put you to sleep.

The nuns are now booked for a Christmas appearance on NBC's Today show. And they're not the only artists on Sounds True who are making it into the bigtime.

The spoken-word division boasts best-selling author Clarissa Pinkola Estes. And the company's music division stars Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog, a former monk who now lives in Ward.

Khechog served as a technical advisor for, and had a small role in, the movie Seven Years in Tibet. Now he's composing music for an off-Broadway play set to debut next month.

The Sounds True label began distributing other artists' albums in 1991, and in 1995, it licensed the first of five albums from Gaelic soprano Noirin Ni Riain. Then Khechog joined the stable.

In May 1996 the company released its first album on its own label, a recording of the Fes Festival of Sacred World Music in Morocco. "I couldn't believe no one else had the recording contract," Sounds True owner Tami Simon says. "We kind of wiggled in at the last minute."

Despite the background of some of its musicians, the executives at Sounds True say the company has remained mostly apolitical. Khechog's family fled Tibet in 1959 to escape Chinese persecution, but he insists his music is political only in a subtle way. However, the liner notes on his albums contain a New York telephone number in case "you would like to learn how you can aid the situation of the Tibetan people."

"Nawang is playing the music of his country," Simon says. "Just his act of playing that music is political."

But Davis says the company is "not jumping on the political bandwagon." And indeed, the prevailing corporate ethos seems to lean more toward the spiritual or the mystical--or the just plain unusual.

Evan Nartosky, a conference coordinator at Sounds True, explains that in the next few weeks, the company is "going to be doing mindfulness training. They're going to offer to do it during work hours. Somebody will be teaching us to do it."

Now it's almost eleven o'clock, time for group meditation for Sounds True employees. "They ring a bell at eleven o'clock," says Nartosky, "and anyone who wants to go can go up there." But rather than head for the meditation room, perhaps workers would rather listen to soothing music from the company's catalogue: chants from India, Senegalese choral works or Irish mystical songs.

Simon started the company in 1985 with $5,000. A Swarthmore College dropout, she has long been interested in religion, philosophy and spirituality. After studying Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka, she moved to Boulder to attend the Naropa Institute. At the same time, she hosted a show on Boulder's community radio station, where she had the chance to interview leading spiritual speakers. From there, she says, "I knew I wanted to disseminate spiritual wisdom."

The company got into music by accident. "You get sick of hearing people talk," Simon says. "The catalogue starts getting too heady. It's only appealing to their left brain. The catalogue would be more interesting if it appealed to other people."

"We're finding our way in the sacred-music marketplace," adds co-owner Devon Christensen. "The music industry is more competitive and volatile than the book industry. We're just a little pollywog. Some of these big companies release hundreds of titles a year."

The Louisville company also has artists who aren't exactly geared toward self-promotion. "Nuns don't care if they sell records," Davis says.


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