“What’s so good about choral music?” my father asked me in one of our random philosophical conversations over Skype. “It’s so… fluffy. Everybody is forced to sound the same. It’s not as powerful as the great masterpieces of orchestral music.”
Thanks Daddy, I get it. You were a bassoon player and Mama is a pianist. I know you question how and why I turned out to be a chorister.
But why indeed. I’d never thought about it because I never questioned my fascination with choral music. It all started with Enya… Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in all seriousness. Her music made me highly attuned to what my father termed, “fluffy” music. And after clicking through many Youtube recommendations, I was led to Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. Now, I am not synesthetic, but I saw the colors the moment I clicked the “play” button. That’s why I consulted the all-knowing Google for “best choir college in the world.” Unfortunately, my elementary to high school musical experiences did not involve many hard-core choral pieces (although we did awesome things with the repertoire we sang!). I knew that in the next step in life, I wanted to be a part of choral music that would envelope me in those sounds I yearned for.
Thus, this Japanese girl who had never set foot on U.S. soil plopped into Westminster Choir College in 2010. There, she learned that the world of choral music was so much more than she ever imagined. Naturally, even though bogged down with everything that gave Westminster its rightful nickname of “Stressminster,” she was happy. She was just deep-down-to-the-bottom-of-her-heart happy.
Why? There are two reasons; the first has to do with the wonders of the human voice. The voice and the body are the most personal and intimate instruments that one can use to express music. The larynx is the size of a walnut, and yet it has the power to allow the singer to be heard over an entire orchestra. Through the use of text and tone, music can be communicated in such a way that no other instrument can replicate. And let’s be real; all the instruments imitate the human voice using its own unique timbres. Ever heard Miles Davis play? He’s practically singing, only with his trumpet and not his larynx. When I sing with my voice, I feel like I am music with my whole being.
Secondly, there’s something so “right” about singing with other people. I know this is pretty high-level cheesy stuff, but you feel connected to one another as strongly as if you were holding hands. Where and when else in your life will you join voices to express anger, sorrow, or joy? I feel like especially now where we feel deceptively connected through social media, we need opportunities to actually be together. This does NOT mean smothering individuality of voices for “blend.” It means seeking unity within the multitude of unique voices.
I was blessed to be chosen to sing “Der Knabe” in the Westminster Symphonic Choir’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The best part of my solo? Well, it actually wasn’t the part where I sang it. It was sitting down on the soloist’s chair in front of the choir and hearing them sing the bejesus out of “Thanks be to God.” It was being surrounded by the glorious sounds of my classmates’ voices.
Why then should composers continue to write choral music? I hope it is never only for the commissions. I hope that, like Beethoven for his Ninth Symphony, many more composers after our time believe that there is something only a chorus can express in music that neither solo voice nor orchestra can. And I guess that’s humanity.