Choirs

I want to pass on some extended quotes (some are contracted) from Sarah Mangusco’s reflections on flow, self-absence, and singing from the NYTimes, Oct. 20, 2016.

They stand on their own, and also reflect my own experience singing over seven decades of a life, and also my experience playing in string quartets. These experiences are hard to encapsulate, so I stop and listen when I come across an account that rings true.  I can’t help thinking that these experiences are also not so very different from the ones Thoreau sought — not singing, but walking amidst choirs in woods. Here is Mangusco’s account:

I sang in my college’s church choir every Sunday . . .  We were Mormons and Baptists, Protestants who knew the Anglican hymns, Catholics who could translate the Latin, closeted baritones who were planning careers in music or the church or both. A chronically under-slept Reform Jew, I usually dozed through the sermon.

As a young pianist I had been taught meticulously to disturb the silence of a well-insulated concert hall. Though I loved music, I didn’t have the temperament for performing. Even while banging out one of my favorite pieces, I shrank from the instrument.

Some of my own earliest memories are of the strange mix of crisis and accomplishment as I’d steps forward to sing or play fiddle for an audition or concert and feel that music was my medium even as it threw me into anxious nightmares. But as Sarah Mangusco goes on, she reveals a contrasting way of making music — or being and being with music — that was mine as well.

But in a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once. . . . After enough practice, you can learn to feel the vibration in your skull and tell by the sensation whether your pitch is right, your timbre true. It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity.

Here I’d add that Thoreau sought something like flow as he tramped or rowed or slumbered under stars. The writer and chorister goes on:

I feel an additional pleasure . . . greater than flow, when I sing in a choir. It’s a mode of singing that strikes a balance between feeling necessary — each voice must participate to achieve the grand unified sound — and feeling invisible, absorbed into the choir, your voice no longer yours. I can work hard, listen hard and disappear, let the ocean of sound close over me. It is comforting to disappear into all that sound . . .

Do you ever feel that Thoreau wants to disappear into his walks, be invisible, even as he listens and tromps? Can we think of him as not only solitary but as a flowing member of a celestial chorus?

I see the beauty in the sheet music and hear it in the recordings, but when I try to remember what it was like to sing my favorite pieces by Tallis, Byrd and Bach, I can’t; I was singing, not remembering.

I think Thoreau’s daily journal writing might be an effort to remember something that would naturally slip away otherwise. Our chorister goes on:

I don’t remember . . . performances, because I had no self-consciousness during them. I’m not talking about shyness or self-doubt or any of those other near-synonyms of the word; I mean that I forgot myself. I forgot that I had a self. Accountability is a standard of adulthood; we drag our lives behind us; consequences accumulate. You said this, you did that. If you’re lucky, you develop a means of regular and temporary escape from perpetual self-awareness; if you’re very lucky, your escape hatch isn’t a habit that will eventually kill you.

With a choir, you can take a breath and escape physically and metaphysically, occupying and occupied by the music. When you return to the rest of life, all that remains is an echo of overtone, a brief silence and then the applause. You’re back, and it’s as if you’ve skipped forward an hour in time, if it weren’t for the residue, that telltale joy, and the sense that some part of your life has been gladly surrendered. You know you were there, even if you weren’t completely, exactly there at all.

This all rings true for me. I think it’s a marvelous evocation of being-there/not-being-there that can mark a transcendence to cherish. We can cherish our being absent in presence. As Manguso says,

Singing with a choir is precisely the opposite of what I do in the rest of my life, which is to sign my name to things and speak to people who hold me responsible for what I say.

Then she gives thanks for moments beyond responsibility.

I am obliged to affix my name to everything I do. Later, if I want to remove it, I cannot. But no one, not even the conductor, can sign their name alone to a choir. Thank heaven, thank heavenly song.

This reminds me that Thoreau was heroically responsible in defending John Brown or in assisting fleeing slaves or in writing an obituary for an otherwise forgotten townswoman; and that he also longed for and discovered an invaluable world beyond such duty, where he could be alone, or be putting his arm around the shoulder of a  Canadian wood-chopper while reciting or singing lines from Homer — and finding immanent-transcendence there in a choir of three.

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.”

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