Manhattan composer Lisa Bielawa is crowdsourcing choral music. First, she collects testimonies in response to a series of prompts. What do you not know yet? What do you hope? When you wake up, what do you first remember? The submissions describe grocery stores without lentils or tuna, and closets in need of cleaning. One writer observes a bee drinking water. Many who submit are musicians, watching opera online and practicing the piano, longing for string quartets and symphony halls. Some, running fevers, believe they have the virus. Many grasp at metaphor: days moving like chess pieces, the dying finishing their races.
Bielawa takes lines from these testimonies and sets them to music; she writes out notation for soprano/alto and tenor/bass parts, then posts them online with practice audio files. Volunteers submit recordings of themselves singing the fresh compositions, which are edited and spliced into pieces of music, then released in “chapters” each Thursday: “The Other You Still Exists”; “Tiny, Powerful”; “The New Abnormal”; “I Miss All That,” “Are We What Happens?” The whole project is called Broadcast from Home.
Experimental projects are Bielawa’s speciality. A few years ago I sang her composition “Walks of Life,” during which some singers stroll through the audience. Bielawa composes works to be sung at air-force bases and voter-registration sites; she makes music from snippets of conversation, and writes “choose your own adventure” pieces. She’s at work on a serial opera.
Broadcast from Home includes instruments (a horn, a violin, some winds). It allows for unisons, as individually recorded tracks sync before peeling apart. Particular voices surface: a tenor here, a soprano there. Appropriately creepy, often atonal, the pieces are highly constructed; you can almost see the seams in the music. When they resolve into harmonies, there’s a reason in the words: “tiny, powerful, and often final exquisite experiences of love,” sings the separated group, relaying a testimony about forbidden acts of care: “giving a ride, bringing a book, cooking a meal, lifting a spoon, fixing a pillow.” Other pieces are dissonant, incorporating Sprechgesang, water sounds, whip cracking, honking cars: “I want to sit across from you, behind you, in front of you…. I’m annoyed that all the rich people have left NYC…. Careless people in their twenties and thirties aren’t wearing masks…. Why are people hoarding and wasting? … We’re all strangers in a strange land.” It’s cacophony created in individual rooms, singers wearing headphones in silence tapping buttons: artificial chaos made from siloed noise. In “I Miss All That,” voices slip down descending scales. A woman from Kenya misses haggling over prices at the market; a woman in Colorado misses strangers’ eyes. Someone misses the library. Someone misses “singing with my friends.”
This is the first spring in sixteen years I haven’t been going to choir rehearsals. Choir practice was suspended, along with most other things, in March. Our concert would have been in early May. Choruses are dangerous: singers, many of them elderly, stand close to one another, expelling air and spit along with sound.
I’m not yet sure how much my life will change without choir: without the paper cuts and warmups, the imagistic instructions from conductors (bite the apple, smell the rose, blow the birthday candle), the nonsense vowels (for learning) followed by foreign words (German, Italian, French) twisting in my mouth. The pauses, the frustrations. A dynamic raised and lowered. A tempo sped and slowed. That radical yet practical ethics of ensemble. The chorus says to the individual, you are not important. Blend, modify your vowel, sing a little softer, tune. At the same time, you matter. You must know your part, you must place the “t” correctly, you must practice, and listen.
Choral music is of course about acoustics. Singers can’t tune unless they can hear each other, and voices through a speaker don’t sound the way they do in a hall’s upper reaches. Overtones only occur in place, when vowels and pitches perfectly align. Can you hear them? conductors always ask, and singers always insist they can.