Songs for the Road No. 10: On the Different Manifestations of “World Music”

by Ekua on April 23, 2011 in Italy,songs for the road

In high school, I was a choir freak. I started in the big choir that was open to all freshman, and worked my way up to the top choir, a chamber group of about 25 singers. I have to eschew humility and tell you that we were a damn good choir.

And with being a good choir came the privilege of going places, mostly around California, but also abroad from time to time. For the 100th anniversary of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s death, we were invited to go to Italy and sing his Requiem with a group of other choirs from California. With these other choirs, we performed excerpts of the Requiem at the Papal Mass in St. Peter’s Square and later performed the entire hour and half piece inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

But it wasn’t the big Vatican performances that stood out at the end of the trip. What I remember most was singing in little churches in Venice, Florence, and Sorrento with just our choir. We’d get there and I’d wonder, “Who’s gonna bother to come hear a random high school from California sing here?” Each time, the audience would start out with just family of the choir. By the end, the pews would be filled with people who heard music as they walked by and wanted to come inside and enjoy it.

After the performances, people came up to us to thank us and it never mattered that we were teenagers from a California suburb they’d never heard of. Those are some of my most fond memories of Italy because it spoke to the country’s all-encompassing appreciation for the arts and it also gave my teenage self a first hand experience with music’s unifying power.

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Aside from the universal language aspect of music, in choir, there is the way in which it connects you with the people you’re singing with. A big part of achieving that togetherness is rehearsing day after day with some nights thrown in when needed. I’m a huge fan of the campy TV show Glee, but as one of my music friends likes to point out, it fails to show how much work goes into a group singing a song really well. There can often be difficult harmonies to learn, various languages to sing in, and pieces to sing in tune without accompaniment.

One of my favorite songs that we struggled through was a piece by the contemporary classical composer, Eric Whitacre. In my last year of high school, we sang his composition, Water Night, a choral piece set to a translated poem by Octavio Paz. (Read the story behind the song and listen to it here. It’s amazing.) It is sung a cappella and breaks into multiple parts, up to 14 part harmony. With 25 of us, that meant that at times, there would just be 1 or 2 people singing each note. I think we must have spent hours trying to overcome the tendency to sing the wrong note. On top of the complexity of the parts, this piece required our distinct and often loud voices to tone down and merge and create an ethereal, water-like sound. The dissonant harmony of the piece was like a microcosm of the choir itself, it put together a bunch of notes that may or may not go together in a tight space, and using their individuality cooperatively, the outcome was incredible. This may be gibberish to you if you’re not into the details of music, but it all just means that Water Night is a very challenging but rewarding piece for a choir to sing.

Over the course of learning that piece, our frustration morphed into appreciation into love which peaked at a performance of the song that helped us win first place in a statewide choral competition. Winning at the end of the night was pretty sweet, but so was the moment right after the performance when we left the stage and knew that after our shared challenge of learning our songs, we’d sung them together as best as we possibly could. Like travel, it’s as much about how you got there as it is about getting there. The process makes the intangible beautiful exhale that a performance is so much more gratifying.

Thinking about the time and togetherness it took to reach choir-induced musical highs made me apprehensive when I came across the idea of a “virtual choir”. But as I watched the video below and got to the part where they played an excerpt of Eric Whitacre’s first virtual choir, it gave me the chills. It is unifying and powerful in a completely different way; it’s not a physical connection, but it is connection nonetheless and it very much reaches the heart with its magnitude and possibilities. Virtual Choir 2.0 joined over 2000 voices from 58 countries, and I dare you say that the result doesn’t incite at least a tiny bit of hopefulness in you.

(In case you can’t see the video here, here’s a link to it on the TED Talks website: http://www.ted.com/talks/view/lang/eng//id/1110)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi April 24, 2011 at 6:33 am

Ekua, this was so beautiful. Thank you for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

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Ekua April 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm

No problem ๐Ÿ˜‰

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