Voicing the Choir

by Anna Smith

It was twilight when we started rehearsal, but now I can’t see the colors in the stained-glass windows; there’s not enough light in the sky. We’re in the sanctuary of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton. It’s late October, moving into winter.

It’s dark and gloomy in this old building at the edge of Smith College. The church has been under renovation for longer than we’ve been rehearsing here, which is about six weeks. The makeover was much needed. The beautiful underside of the roofline reaches upward where the spirits of almost two centuries of Episcopalians have gathered, as well as members of 12-Step Programs, support groups, drum circles, and choirs—many choirs. It’s easy to imagine this building as the setting of a murder in a cozy mystery—not a tragic murder but the fun kind, where you don’t actually give a rip about the victim.

In the first hour, we go through a difficult section of Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, trying so hard to get it right. “Let Nimrod, the Mighty Hunter,/bind a leopard to the altar and consecrate a spear to the Lord.”

It’s still not there. The concert is ten days away. There is something about the way Britten keeps changing the rhythms between entrances. Should we resort to counting eighths notes, like desperate robots? Or should we count quarters and treat the beginning of the difficult phrases as pickups? Why is this so hard?

I know I’m having trouble with how dark it is in here—and with the 7/8 time signature. A measure of 4, then 3…then—splat—there are always a couple of us that come in too soon or too late or something else—deviant voices falling into the cracks, usually at, “Let Balaam appear with an ass,/and bless the Lord, his people”—just to come in perfectly for, “and his creatures for a reward eternal.” The tricky part is always, “Let Balaam appear with an ass…”

I don’t actually know who Balaam is. Somebody from the Bible with an ass. This whole piece is about people and animals from the Bible, sort of. It’s Christianity, refracted through the poet Christopher Smart’s mad, mad brain. He was in an asylum when he wrote it, no doubt experiencing the Divine, but, sadly, not in the way that people could relate to. So they locked him up. At least that’s part of his story. (Alcohol abuse and debt didn’t help.) I like to think that Benjamin Britten—and our choir—are unlocking him—or at least helping to free his wonderful mind.

But now we’ve taken a break from Britten and Smart so that our young director, Sarah Paquet, can voice the choir. I’ve never witnessed this before but imagine something like adjusting the long pipes of a church organ. We are living pipes. I want to be voiced.

Sarah begins with the sopranos. She has us form a semi-circle, then asks Julian, the young accompanist, for a note. “Everyone, sing, ‘My country, ’tis of thee…’”

We begin, first singing all together, “My country, ’tis of thee…” We sing no further, ending on “thee”—but wanting to go somewhere else: the tension of the second scale degree, the re (a drop of golden sun) that wants to resolve, to step down to do (a deer).

I’ve been fighting off anxiety for a month now—the shorter days and coming winter, the pressures of the classes I’m teaching and taking, the ongoing mayhem of a country in crisis, what some have called a cold civil war.

My escape since last winter has been studying music; it’s helped a lot, sending my attention into the place in my brain where there are no politics and little drama. But sometimes the brutality of the world encroaches.

Now at the end of October, there’s a low-lying fog over everything. Still, we are a choir; we soldier on.

One by one, the sopranos sing their line: “My country, ’tis of thee.” The variety of the voices is surprising. We usually sing as a section, but now I hear each individual note—the timid, the warm, the wobbly, the lyric, the strident, the sharp, the flat, the clear, the bright, the dark. We are each exposed for six whole notes. Sarah points to the place in line where she wants each singer to stand. Bursting with energy, it’s like she’s solving a puzzle as quickly as possible, never doubting that each piece will fall into place in the end. She shifts us into the slots where our individual sound will blend with others in the best possible way, then asks smaller clumps to sing, “My country, ’tis of thee,” and we all hear the resulting magic.

We’re still singing just those notes, still letting the tension of the re hang in the air after each singer or clump of singers ends expectantly on “’tis of thee.” We are waiting for direction, waiting for the leader to tell us what to do.

Outside the night is cold, the pavement damp. The traffic light going up Elm Street by Saint John’s is mostly green this time of night, with not many people driving past the art museum and churches and other old brick buildings.

Eventually, every soprano has a place somewhere in the line, in a clump with voices somewhat like her own.

Finally, Sarah has us continue: “[S]weet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land of…” I blank on the words, so I just da da my way through. Is it “our fathers’ pride” or “the Pilgrims’ pride”? Or did the Pilgrims die, or our fathers die?

My father did die, ten years ago, so that does make sense. Probably most of the sopranos’ fathers have died, which is another way of saying that this is not a terribly young choir, like many choirs now. Choirs tend to be all young people or mostly old people. There are reasons for this, reasons having to do with academic choirs versus community choirs, reasons having to do with raising children and building careers—and taste in voices and timbre. As in a lot of life, age is not an asset in choral music, especially if you’re female. It’s considered a compliment when people say, “You sing like a boy soprano!” But yes, most of our fathers have died, and the Pilgrims…Were they proud? I’m not sure, their reputations having been so very tarnished of late, but I’m guessing they had their days.

I used to get Pilgrims and Puritans mixed up. Now I resent the Puritans and their judgey ways. I have a finely-tuned ear for Puritanical judginess, even in the choral music scene. There are commandments: thou shalt not stick out; thou shalt not ask too many questions in rehearsal (or take up too much psychic space); thou shalt not let people see you sweat; thou shalt not suck.

Perhaps I have veered away from the story. This is because I’m not from around here. I love tangents. I’m not a choral music/New England native. New England has a gothic feel to me; I miss Californians and their relaxed bodies. They don’t correct your grammar, unless they’re transplanted from the Northeast. They use terms like “life force” without apology.

Of course, New England isn’t all about words or rules. There are people here who vehemently insist on their own “right to be weird.” I applaud them, usually, except when someone’s “right to be weird” takes the form of telling me I should be similarly weird, like Puritanism in reverse.

But now I hear, it’s “fathers died/Pilgrims’ pride.” And right in the midst of this rehearsal, this swell of voices, I find myself missing my father terribly. What would he think of us now? What would Christopher Smart and Benjamin Britten think? Of our country, our world? I hope, somehow, they are glad that we’re here tonight, trying to connect with other humans in this dark time, through music, as they would have done.

We finish, and I do know the rest: “[F]rom every mountainside, let freedom ring,” and finally we’ve resolved, gone back to do, back home.





Anna Smith’s writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review blog, TriQuarterly, Louisiana Literature, Phoebe, and other journals. She teaches on the topics of technology and culture for UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls and literature for Shasta College.

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