This week I’m taking a couple days off to rehearse with a choir for a concert this coming weekend.
The last weekend of February, about a thousand Rochester singers performed in different venues over twenty-four hours. On Saturday afternoon, gospel choirs rocked the Monroe County Public Safety Building with high-decibel joy in a concert sponsored by the city. A few hours later and a few blocks away, the Eastman Chorale performed Dominick Argento’s tender love letter to Walden Pond, a song cycle based on text by Henry David Thoreau and scored for chorus, three cellos, and harp. The next day, eighteen local choirs offered a prism-style concert to a standing-room only crowd in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Audience members heard a wide variety of works: Russian liturgical music, barbershop, 21st century, Broadway, African chant, you name it. Singers were in and out of tune, sometimes stark and more often sentimental. I was happy to be there, but really, it was too much. I was drowning in a sea of notes.
I’ve been thinking about that weekend and what I remember most of the blur of voices and faces and it’s this-- the voice of a man coming out of a snow squall in a parking lot. He was singing “Winter Wonderland” full-throated, a la Frank Sinatra, carrying a child through a late winter storm.
You know what music is like when you don’t expect it? Once I was standing in the nave of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, holding my tape machine and waiting for an interview, when Elgar’s “Nimrod” sailed out of the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ (the largest instrument in the city), rushed over the pavers and curled my toes. The organist was only practicing. I was an accidental tourist. It was an absolute coupe de foudre.
A few weeks ago, on my way to a meeting at the Eastman School, a wave of sound pulled me backstage. The RPO was rehearsing Debussy’s torrential La Mer. I sat down, bewitched, like I’d never heard it before.
The question is, how does one create circumstances in which music is able to penetrate the deepest level of our subconscious? How can we set ourselves up for personal enchantment? Composer Aaron Copland is full of advice; he suggests directing ourselves “toward an emotionally purposeful end” to encourage the marriage of mind and heart he believes is uniquely possible with music. What's your experience?
William James would tell you to keep your distance. In "Principles of Psychology" he warns against excessive indulgence. “Never suffer one ’s self to have an emotion at a concert without expressing it in some active way, such as giving up your seat in the subway.” Perhaps he’s kidding.
My idea is this: listening to music is like star-gazing. The light shines brightest when you avert your eyes. Then it might surprise you.