The Alchemy of the Choir

To my musically unsophisticated ear, it all sounds great — as I suspect is the case for most of my fellow attendees at Evensong services sung this past week at Winchester Cathedral. As the presiding clergy have intoned daily, in their deliciously schooled accents, ‘we are pleased to welcome the parish choir of St. Jude’s, Oakville, Ontario, Canada’. The starting flag is up and the ritual observed in such grand settings each day begins anew — as it has for nearly half a millennium.

Not that it’s a competition — well I suppose, at some level it is — this means any visiting choir has a pretty high bar to clear. The choral conductor, a Brit and cathedral school-trained from age 7 (and our son-in-law!), has heard it all; and has a crystal clear auditory memory of how the Psalms, Preces and Responses, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, every nuance of every of hundreds of variations on same should sound. Singing in the quire — a magical, contained ‘inner sanctum’ — with its intimate, almost chamber sound demands tweaking when things are taken to the next musical level: singing in the nave. By most North American standards, the transition is tantamount to moving from row boat to cruise ship. In short, the task is to be ‘as perfect as possible’ — no matter the venue.

My wife has been ‘training’ for this week for the past ten months. Weekly, often semi-weekly trips by train to practice and ‘test drive’ music that is both beautiful and confounding (at least to me!). Forty-six separate pieces of music, sung at ten services over eight days — a marathon by anyone’s reckoning; and one that requires the discipline and commitment of prepping for the equivalent athletic challenge. An accountant by profession, a chorister by choosing, the analytical skills that served her well in her working life, were brought to bear. ‘Ticking and bopping’ as the accounting term would have it, found its musical equal, turning the already staggeringly ‘fly-speck’ covered scores into masses of annotations that would serve as ‘channel markers’ when the moment arrived. Sitting in a centuries old stall, occupied by 800 years worth of choristers and monks before her, the entry note would sound from the organ loft, proudly occupied by her son, the director would signal the downbeat, and she, they would sing.

A choir is a fascinating paradox. Simplistically, superficially a collection of voices, blending, harmonizing, and magnifying a ‘melody line’ that, to the casual listener (read, me, as I fumble for the right psalm number or become mesmerized by the ritual of it all) is a sublime mystery. My wife has made a few futile attempts to deconstruct a bit of this mystery for me, to no avail. Oh, I grasp the basics (very basic): four voices, two ‘sides’ (she’s an alto — first, I think). Together with her comrades in voice, they form the glue that sticks things together. The sopranos get the glory (the actual ‘tune’). The tenors and bases are the underlines and bolding.

Do it well and it’s a unified, transformative layering of these four strands, woven together seamlessly, entering and exiting at any number of minutely choreographed — and differing — points. Merge with the flow of traffic and it’s magical; miss your on-ramp and, well, it can be ten miles of rough, country road. The nod and smile of the director — or the chilled absence thereof — tell all.

A choir, by definition, is ‘an organized group of singers . . . that takes part in church services’. We’re good with the ‘group’, ‘singers’, and ‘church; bits. The homogeneity of said group may, however, be a bit more implied than actual. Something of a veteran of UK choir tours, having received his fifteen-year, long service badge as a devoted groupie and a compulsive observer of human behavior, a more richly diverse and divergent crew one would be hard-pressed to find.

Like any crucible worth its heat, performance can, at this level, in full public view, and representing the colonies in the heartland, notch up the temperatures a bit. The quirks and foibles, those thingies in the trade we like to call personality traits, risk becoming something more than curious eccentricities. Forgiven, overlooked when the stakes are low (in the home parish on a Sunday in ‘ordinary time’), they may become figural, coming to define the rich tapestry of individuals that is bound together largely by its shared passion for the music — each with his or her own unique fingerprint of a response to the main stage.

I have long been a fan of chaos theory, in particular, the element sometimes dubbed ‘the butterfly effect’. Defined as ‘the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic, non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state’. Quite the mouthful. To deconstruct a bit, ‘deterministic’ describes the tendency to, once off the rails, stay off the rails; and the ‘nonlinear’ piece underlines the avalanche that can result from the threshold snowflake landing on a mountain top.

I continue to own that absolutely no butterflies, runaway trains, or snowballs were ever, ever detected by these (outsider’s) ears! Enter the leads, the (near) perfect pitch-ers, and, of course, the (apologies) ‘conductor’.To shamelessly mix metaphors, these are the coaches who visit the mound to settle the (again, apologies) pitcher when he loses the strike zone, restoring order, focus, and containing, arresting all those wee distractions, mid-tic. All done with a glance, a touch of a hand, a holding to a true course. Bearings are re-established. The errant thread is woven into the tapestry. And, the magic continues. What a marvelous testament to the strength of a vehicle, a whole that is very truly much, much more than the sum of its very unique parts.