‘Me Hearing Me’

What Virtual Choir Teaches about Togetherness
The choir at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Pontiac, Mich., and several teachers and alumni sing on YouTube, April 19, 2020. (CNS)

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.

The pandemic has shown me how much of my life is disembodied.

Choral music is also about bodies interacting. It is listening to a neighbor’s exhalations as closely as you might listen to a lover’s so you know when it’s your turn to inhale. When dissonance resolves, everyone’s shoulders relax at once. In concerts, at the end of a piece, audiences hold a prism of silence. It shatters into applause. I have felt it happen so many times: when I was a child, in gymnasiums on creaking risers; as an older student, on tours and at competitions; as an adult, at Carnegie Hall. Everywhere, the swell of quiet and sudden release feels identical: it is in the toes, the stomachs.

Lisa Bielawa’s composition is a welcome stop gap. Broadcast from Home completes a choir’s function; it combines human voices. I’ve considered sending in a submission: pulling up the notes on my laptop, singing into my iPhone until I like the take, labeling and sending the file, and waiting some days for it to be processed. But I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

The hope is that Broadcast from Home will someday be performed for a live audience, once such performances are safe again. We create music at a distance only with the insistence that someday, we’ll create it “for real,” in person.

●       

Craig Hella Johnson, a conductor and composer who leads a professional ensemble in Austin, is attempting another kind of virtual choir. He’s asking those who have sung his oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard (about the gay college student in Wyoming who, in 1998, was beaten and hung on a fence to die) to record themselves singing parts of its final movement. “All of Us” is triumphal, grand, with Bach-style chorales and musical-theater panache.

Four springs ago, Johnson came to Boston to teach my choir his masterwork, and he coached me on one of its solos. I’ll never forget my session with him, in a nearly empty hall. He played the grand piano; I whispered along nervously. He told me to kneel. The wooden stage pressed my knee caps. He had me close my eyes. I felt the floor and the space, which seemed eager to be filled. It worked. The sound came out. These days, I miss these odd teaching techniques, annoying as I once found them. One vocal teacher put wads of paper towels in my ears so I couldn’t hear my own mistakes; she came up behind me, wrapped her arms around my stomach, and pushed me into squats. Another teacher made me “chew” each word, making exaggerated motions with my lips. She asked me to hold my arms out like a ballerina until they got shaky and sore.

Johnson’s project is different from Bielawa’s in that he isn’t composing new music in response to the pandemic. Rather, this is old music in a new context, reminding us of a time when we could sing together.

I want to remember how that felt, and so I decide to submit a recording. I listen to the tracks, plug in my headphones, get a drink of water, and press play. My voice cracks after weeks of neglect. I hit pause, delete, start again. Pause, delete, start again. It feels odd, that high A, sung in my living room. Even in the echoey bathroom, the still bedroom. When I have my headphones in, I sing out of tune; when I don’t have them in, I cringe at my barren, unsupported sound. It’s not a choir. It’s just me hearing me.

The pandemic has shown me how much of my life is disembodied. Work? I can do that online (though many can’t). Friends, family? I can speak with them online. I write on a screen. I read on a screen. I worship on a screen. It all actually works, more smoothly than I’d have thought. Why will it ever be essential to go out and be together again?

Even a little lag time on Zoom means that beats get missed. Reverb distorts pitch. Separate recordings are embarrassing and awkward, all the exposure, none of the grace. The music gets made not in the moment, but after the fact, by an engineer. It turns out that choral music made from home—or homes—requires a scientific breakthrough we haven’t yet had. It’s one thing I love that I can’t replicate, that I just have to miss. There’s no way to sing together apart. What a grief. And what a reassurance.

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

Also by this author
Misericordia in the Internet Age

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections