I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I read a great article in AARP’s Entertainment section: “The Miraculous Virtual Choir of the Pandemic.”
The article, by music critic Edna Gunderson, reports on how choirs have been shut down all over the world because group singing is a spreader event for COVID-19.
“Nothing about choirs is harmonious with COVID-19,…choirs have been silenced.”Edna Gunderson, AARP 10/28/2020
If you had read this line in 2019, you might have guessed it was a line from a dystopian novel, a fictional piece written by a sick-minded writer trying to spook her readers by creating an unimaginably sad world where there is no singing.
But no. It’s a journalist’s lead about how choirs in 2020 have gone virtual.
The Demise of Choirs
We’ve read the news stories, starting in March when the church choir in Washington State became an early spreader event.
“On March 17, 2020, a member of a Skagit County, Washington, choir informed Skagit County Public Health (SCPH) that several members of the 122-member choir had become ill... SCPH obtained the choir’s member list and began an investigation on March 18. Among 61 persons who attended a March 10 choir practice at which one person was known to be symptomatic, 53 cases were identified.....The 2.5-hour singing practice provided several opportunities for droplet and fomite transmission, including members sitting close to one another, sharing snacks, and stacking chairs at the end of the practice. The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to the transmission through the emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization “ --Excerpts from CDC Report
With this news, choirs across the globe shut down. Church choirs, civic choirs, choirs of school children, and professional choirs–silenced.
Eric Whitacre: Arranger of Virtual Choirs
Eric Whitacre is known for composing stunningly beautiful choir pieces and for producing virtual performances.
Whitacre is also known for taking thousands of video recordings of individual singers and piecing them together into virtual choir arrangements.
“After unlocking the technical challenges to constructing virtual choirs in 2009, Whitacre began experimenting and producing giant cyberspace sing-alongs, building a reputation as a pioneer in the field. His first, 2010’s “Virtual Choir 1: Lux Aurumque,” included 185 singers from 12 countries.”Edna Gunderson, AARP
In 2018 Whitacre collaborated with NASA to produce Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe, performed by 8000 singers from 120 countries. (The link will take you to a 30-minute YouTube video. It begins in silence, followed by several minutes of orchestra-only music. The voices don’t come in until 19:03.)
His latest virtual piece was developed during the pandemic, at a time when singers around the world were secluded in their homes, unsinging and longing to make music again:
“I thought that the NASA collaboration would be the last one,” he says. “But when the pandemic hit, I said if there was ever a time for a virtual choir, it’s now. People were going out of their way not to be near anyone. And choirs were branded as super-spreaders. This art form is so delicate and gentle, and suddenly we’re a threat. I thought, It’s important for people to keep a sense of togetherness and compassion and to be delicate with each other as we go through this.”Eric Whitacre, as quoted by Gunderson in AARP
The pandemic piece is called “Sing Gently” and is performed by a whopping 17,500 singers. In the 10 ½- minute YouTube video, the song lasts 3 ½ minutes, the rest is credits. He used all the submissions he received–it’s a remarkable technical feat and a tremendous contribution to the community of world singers.
When I think of the choirs being silenced during the pandemic, my mind goes to dark literary places.
The very notion smacks of something Shirley Jackson or George Orwell would invent. Not just a spooky tale, but one that is an unusually cruel mirror of the flaws in the spiritual, moral, and social aspects of being human.
Has there ever been a time in history when the choirs have been silenced? Wars? Plagues?
Old Lady in the Front Row
I am not a singer; I am a fan of choirs.
I am the lady who arrives early to performances, finding the perfect seat where I can abandon myself completely to the glory of sound.
I am the lady who makes plans with friends to go to church performances and school concerts.
I am the lady with a handful of tissues because when the music runs through me, I cry. The tears flow, pumped by the beating of my heart that wants to join the movement of air and sound. I am reduced to a primordial, universal state, a floating blob suspended in the atmosphere, and at the complete mercy of the music.
I am the lady who catches herself staring at a single singer, or the conductor, enchanted by the movement of the faces and bodies that can create and transmit such a power from nothing at all.
I’m not this way with orchestras, or ballet, or even opera. It’s a chorus that taps something eternal in me.
I have a special regard and fondness for choir directors. Part of the listening experience in live events is watching the conductor move her arms and body and face, evoking and nudging and mastering the wall of sound.
Conductors know the power generated by live breath. Like a magician, they can work with the movement of air and draw it out from a person and into the world. Conductors can create tones and volumes and words that pierce the tightest vaults of human resistance to the supernatural, the heavenly.
It must be frustrating–perhaps devastating–to be a choir director in the time of COVID.
My son is a singer.
I’m that ridiculous mother who can’t stop smiling when her son is part of a performance.
It’s all I can do not to elbow my row mates and point, “There’s my son—the handsome one!”
I am certain that I can hear his voice above all others, even when there are a hundred other singers on stage. Just as I could recognize his cry in a crowded nursery.
I stare and stare at him, loving him with all my heart, loving the glory of music and my love for my son.
My son joined a chamber choir in London earlier this Fall. But the pandemic took a turn for the worse, and all choirs are outlawed as the city locks down.
I had visions of him caroling like a Dickensian madrigal around the ancient streets of London.
When they were still rehearsing, I asked my son what they were singing. He said they were rehearsing for a remembrance event, so they were singing “sad dead music.”
I do like a good requiem, but sad dead music is just too much when things are sad and people are dying.
Stupid COVID–you make everything so hard.
Early in the pandemic, I read a Twitter thread by Krista Vernoff. She decided to use this time in isolation to take singing lessons again.
“I took a lot of lessons in high school and college and I was a singing waitress for a while and did some semi professional musical theater in Portland, Oregon. So there’s an argument that I did not need a singing lesson and that is the argument I’ve gone with for the last couple of decades. But now there’s a pandemic and I often find myself wavering between intense anxiety and depression and despair. When I get too anxious, I can’t write well or parent well so I am actively looking for things that help to counter the brain chemicals that cause me pain. There’s a lot of neuroscience around singing releasing helpful brain chemicals. So I took a singing lesson.”
Singing made her cry.
There’s something in the physics of sound, the way the molecules of air hit our ears and tickle our brain cells, releasing emotions and tears like a caged bird set free. It must be doubly so for those who make the music, not just hear it.
I Am In Need Of Music
Elizabeth Bishop was a 20th-century poet. She wrote the poem, “I Am In Need of Music.”
This poem is meant to be read in times like these.
Below is the complete text of the poem from Allpoetry.com. Here is a link to a recording of the same poem set to choral music by David Brunner, as sung by the 2009 Texas Music Educators Association All-State Mixed Choir.
I AM IN NEED OF MUSIC I am in need of music that would flow Over my fretful, feeling fingertips, Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips, With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow. Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low, Of some song sung to rest the tired dead, A song to fall like water on my head, And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow! There is a magic made by melody: A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep To the subaqueous stillness of the sea, And floats forever in a moon-green pool, Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep. ---Elizabeth Bishop