'Music in High Places' mixes ancient sites, modern artists

Reverence and rock music may not seem the most obvious partners, but a new program, currently airing on DIRECTV and debuting on MTV in January, aims to change that.

"Music in High Places" takes some of today's star musicians, transports them to some of the world's most sacred geographical locations, and tapes the interaction between the site and singer.

The first three programs are diverse - Alanis Morissette in the Navajo Nation, R&B singer Brian McKnight in a remote church in Sao Luis, Brazil, and Wynonna Judd in a thousand-year-old Roman Catholic church in Bologna, Italy.

Unlike recent stadium-style, on-location events staged by performers such as Yanni and John Tesh among ancient ruins with a full audience, each of these hour-long shows is a lean enterprise indeed.

The performances are completely acoustic, body-miked in natural lighting with no imported audience. "It's very sensitive," says "Music in High Places" creator and executive producer Parvene Michaels.

"They have to sing acoustically without backup, without remixing; we're talking about getting extremely raw and uncomfortable. All the trappings of being a star are stripped away, and all that exists is music in high places and their own artistic experience."

The goal of the series, which chooses its locations from the UNESCO's 630 designated "world heritage" sites, is to raise awareness of the needs of these sites and to provide an intimate artistic experience in these elevated settings.

Aware that the sight of Ms. Morissette running her hands over fragile ancient cave drawings while proclaiming her respect for the ancient traditions may seem jarring at best, the show's producers are quick to point out that they take their cues from those entrusted to preserve the monuments.

"In that particular case, we had a local guide and he didn't prohibit her from doing that," Ms. Michaels says. "The whole point is not for us to comment on any kind of spirituality or experience in these sites," she says. "We are not trying to teach about these sites, but if you want to learn more after seeing your favorite artist there, then you will go and find things out for yourself."

Indeed, "Music in High Places" officials say every show is vetted extensively by the local community surrounding each site, no matter how holy or remote.

"We pair off with a local company for every shoot," says executive producer Marc Oswald. The site is researched indepth before his crew arrives.

"We may have 18 to 20 [people] traveling in our crew and another 15 to 20 we hire locally, and they do any number of jobs. One important impact is that we don't show up as this outside American company."

Mr. Oswald says the team is extremely cautious in the choices it makes. "If you show respect, most communities are proud to show off what they've got," he says. Future shows may include Stonehenge, in Britain; Katmandu, Nepal; Timbuktu, Mali; Angkor Wat, Cambodia; Easter Island, Chile; Abu Simbel and Giza, Egypt; and India's Taj Mahal.

Each artist may perform in as many as 12 different locations at each site, which allows for a number of different perspectives in the final show. The goal is to capture both the spirit of the place and the soul of the artist.

"We thought that if you could take someone as popular as Alanis and have great musical experiences as well as a cultural experience, you'd have a home run."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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