After the secular miserabilism of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the next CD in my collection is some Byzantine church music. As you can probably guess, it's religious. Beyond that, it's all Greek to me…
Sorry. Have you regained your chair yet? If so, I'll carry on. You may have gathered that I'm quite an enthusiastic atheist, but that I'm also a cradle Catholic. My parents always played religious choral music at home and in the car, and I was in the school choir for many years. I couldn't sing, but it got me out of lessons at the expense of learning to lip-synch. I'd have been a great pop star, come to think of it.
Anyway, the effect of all this is that I acquired a great love of choral music. The church was the only employer with the resources to fund composers and provide the highly-trained choirs and musicians needed, so of course the majority of this stuff is religious (and who knows, some of them may have even believed in the Big Man). What do I like about choral music? The complexity, the determination to push the human voice to the absolute limits, the discipline, the willingness to cut off boys' testicles in pursuit of aesthetic satisfaction (no, wait, that's not very nice), the genius not only of the composer but of the singers, who have to have such incredible control and awareness of their own abilities and of what the rest of the choir are doing.
My favourite groups are the Chamber Choir of Europe, The Sixteen and Stile Antico, but I'm happy to listen to any choir (except local amateur church ones). I particularly love this Byzantine music because it's such an astonishing mix of influences, it relies on musical ideas which didn't exist (or didn't survive) in Catholic/Anglican churches, and because it's in a language I don't understand. This is really important. I've got enough Latin to follow Western texts, so if I catch the words I get annoyed with all the silly spiritualism, whereas I can completely ignore meaning in this case. I've got a GCSE B grade in Ancient Greek, which doesn't quite cut it. So I'm free to listen to this soaring beauty without a care in the world.