Monday, May 09, 2005

A different experience of a very familiar choir

I sang with one of the choirs I have been researching for about two and a half years. It was my experience of singing with them that, to some extent, made me want to conduct this research. It also made me want to conduct choirs, (funny, but I never really noticed that those words correspond. I wonder if I can't use that in my write-up?!) and that, ultimately, is what led to my leaving the choir. I began conducting my own choir only shortly after I left, but I was, and still am, a little heartsore about having left a choir that I cared very deeply about. I was, therefore, a little nervous on Saturday morning about seeing the choir perform for the first time since I left. In fact, in some ways it was, to be the first time I would see them perform at all. I had, of course, watched them as I conducted, but it's such a different type of watching, that it can hardly be compared.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it was with some surprise that I found my palms sweating as I parked my car outside the atrium, in which the performance was to take place. certainly I was a little nervous about seeing my former colleagues again, but surely that wasn't enough to provoke the rather extreme physical reactions I was experiencing. Even now, as I type this up, my reliving of the experience causes a wash of adrenaline that sends little cold shivers through me, and sets my heart pounding.
The choristers' reactions to me as I arrived were entirely welcoming and pleasant, and I was somewhat reassured by that, but I couldn't shake the feeling of impending -- what? -- that rattled me so deeply. The concert, ironically, was called a "welcome day", and like the induction ceremony performed by the recently combined choir a few months back, was about welcoming new members into the choir, signing a register, and showcasing the choir to the choristers' families. These ceremonies are becoming quite popular...
The conductor, wearing a dress I had seen her conduct in many times before, opened the proceedings by introducing the choir, and 'what it stands for' to the audience. A mission statement was read, and then the director went on to give the audience some "big words" she claimed they would need to properly evaluate the performance. I found this process both somewhat amusing, and very informative, and I really wish I had a recording of it. Still, without quoting directly, and ignoring my field-notes, for the time being, what stood out for me most was the conductor's use of the terms "integrity" and "style." She defined integrity as "heart and soul", and suggested that it was the emotional content that gives the music integrity. Not emotional content in the music, but in the performance. "style", on the other hand, was expressed in terms of what other informants have sometimes called "authenticity." Style is, according to this director, what sets an English choir performing African music apart from an African choir performing African music. I will have to look up the song that she used as an example, though it was one that I know well. She said that without "integrity" the "style" would be wrong.
Another thing that I couldn't help notice was her comment that "there aren't many choirs like this in the world." Tajfel and Turner par excellence. She was refering particularly to the multi-racial, and what she called "multi-musical" character of the choir.
The performance itself was very entertaining, partly just because it is a good choir, and I really enjoyed listening to them, but partly because of what I always seem to describe as energy. It's a term I've used more than once on this blog alone, and seem to use almost constantly with my own choir. And in some ways, it's quite acurate. Performing this way does seem to require an enormous output of energy, and it's difficult to do so when not pumped on adrenaline. This choir was always particularly interesting in the way this was attained. The conductor called it "focus", and we all had techniques for achieving it. I had spent some time on the aeroplane to Argentina two years ago listening to a relaxation audio channel, and I revisited that before every performance in Argentina. I also, as always, spent a lot of time praying, as did other choristers. One chap had an elaborate ritual combining prayer and meditation with wild stretching and leaping about, and some people just preferred to sit quietly for a bit. Once or twice, the conductor had us close our eyes, while she recited an elaborate relaxation mantra, or something similar, and the warm-up was always used to help focus, not only the mind, but the voice and body. Inevitably, adrenaline would interfear with the restful atmosphere we were striving for, but somehow it always worked. Perhaps too much relaxation would have taken away from the energy, while too much expenditure of energy would have exhausted us. Ballance really was, or is, key. I don't know what the effect of several minutes sitting in the audience would have been on the choir on this particular occasion, but when they got going with the music, they were good as ever.
It was interesting to note, though, that while the choir's spirits seemed to be high all the way through the performance, they certainly increased toward the end. I suspect that the main reason for this is that the last few songs were the most familiar. I had sung them with the choir when I was there, and they had always been familiar, and something we were confidant about. There were moments, however, during the first part of the performance, where the choir were very obviously uncertain, or lacking in confidance, and once the director stopped them, and then the second time around told the tenors to "fix it" on a song the choir had been singing for years, and one more recent number was repeated from the begining. Thing is, the errors weren't that bad, and I might not really have noticed, at least in the first of the two, had she not pointed it out. In the second, I was aware that the bases were weak, and struggling, but as they seemed weak most of the way through, I didn't take it as such a big deal. The weak bases were something of a surprise to me, as that choir had always had strong bases, and I was amazed to encounter a really top-heavy sound this time. still, I guess choirs like this do change from year to year, and this year is no different. Their strengths and weaknesses when I last saw them have been displaced, and a whole new character has developed.
I was surprised to notice that there was only folk music, in various forms, on the program, especially as I had always thought of their repertoire as very diverse. Thing is, when I think about it, they always did focus on the folk and popular music side. With the exception of the Halleluia chorus, the only western classical music I can remember doing with them, I conducted, and the results were disasterous. Ok, that probably had more to do with my inexperience conducting, but none the less, it's an interesting point to note, particularly when considering how heavily the other choir's repertoires, with the exception of one, are weighted toward Western Classical repertoire.
It's amazing to see how choirs change over time. Or was it just me who changed? Perhaps it was only my perceptions that changed, and the choir is still pretty much the same. It has been interesting nonetheless to compare Saturday to the last induction ceremony I attended. How the characters of the choirs differ....


choirgirl said...
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choirgirl said...

I almost laughed out loud a moment ago, when I re-read my posting from the recently combined choir's induction ceremony, and compared it to this one. I speak about "integrity" in both instances, but in this one it is the conductors version, and in the other, it is my own version. Thing that made me laugh is, as much as I understood them as different on Saturday, today they sound almost identical. "Integrity", in the sense we both used it, is about communication, and expressing the self through music. I also interpret it as giving the music due consideration for the musical merit, asside from personal 'meanings' imposed on it, but in many ways, that is the same as what Saturday's conductor suggested. She spoke about "heart and soul", or integrity, as she labeled that elsewhere, being necessary to 'good style.' I guess 'style' is what I have been calling 'authenticity.' I really want to go and look at some of my previous interviews, and other material, to see what other words are used.

Another thing I commented on in the earlier post, that I have to comment on in relation to this one was co-ordination of movement, and length of time the choir has been singing together. the recently combined choir had had only a few rehearsals and a camp when they performed, and I was impressed with the 'blend', but commented on unpolished movement. With the other choir, the choir had been together for longer, and so their blend was good, but I noticed sound differences more, and was impressed by the unity of their movements. Absolute co-ordination, or so it seemed.

The director on Saturday commented a few times on discipline, both when she was talking before the performance, and at apparently appropriate junctures during the performance. As I have been dealing with Foucault quite a bit in the last while, I can't help but take note of this, particularly as I wrote in my pilot study that I consider "appropriate" vocalization ballanced with listening part of the socializing impact of choirs. I am tempted to replace the word "socializing" with "civilizing." Thing is, I'm more ambivalent about it than that. I think there is some validity in "socialization" processes, or techniques. I remember writing, in the early stages of this blog, how frustrated I was when watching Peter Greenaway's film, about what I perceived as a lack of social control. I get the point about "technologies of the self" and "repressive/ideological state apparatus", but I can't help my old-school conservative mind from suspecting that there is some validity in their use, aside from hegemonic manipulation. Living harmoniously with others requires some degree of self-control, and how and when we exercise that self-control is largely a matter defined by social, or ideological, inculturation. I would like to think that music-making, in its disciplining, is partly about choice (chosing the discipline, and buying into it), and partly about self-control being ballanced by a type of freedom. I found screeching on stage for four bars at NYC terribly difficult, because my perceptions of stage decorum were challenged. And yet, I consider myself relatively uninhibited in a choir setting. Certainly uninhibited enough to conduct with a certain degree of wild abandon, and uninhibited enough to be the first person to stand up at a rehearsal of a new choir. And on stage, I move, or as they call it at Drakies "vibe", freely. Yet it's all within limits. I don't like singing with score because I develop a stiff back from standing still too long, I consider singing from memory "liberating." and yet there is a very specific discipline implicit in memorising music. The whole act of choral singing is disciplined, when even apparently freeing movements are measured for their syncronicity.
Inter-cultural interactions can be difficult because social discipline varies between cultures. Perhaps the reason why choral singing fits into the process of mediating intercultural interactions is because there is a level of mutual discipline in which to explore perceived freedoms. The music-making act is all about the tension between freedom and release, between discipline and liberation. A microcosm of life