I sit quietly in an ornately decorated Portland church, hands in my lap, surrounded by the smell of incense, colorful stained glass windows, and the solemn but soaring crystalline melodies of a choir singing Fauré’s Requiem in Latin:
Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam
(Grant them, O Lord, to pass from death to life)
As I sit here in the midst of this history recreated, declaring itself in mourning, I think about the first time this piece was performed. In a church, maybe, composed for the purpose of remembering and honoring the dead. It was a very appropriate choice for Cantores in Ecclesia to perform on Memorial Day. To remind us of the purpose of a day of remembering, honoring those whose spirits are no longer with us. Not only to recognize those who serve our country in battle, but for those who have served our country in other ways. By just being but passing on before their time. This has been a year filled with much sadness and tragedy. It is hard, sometimes, not to become disheartened or discouraged by all that we see and hear on the news. Sandy Hook, Clackamas Town Center, Boston, Oklahoma, women in Cleveland, OH. So much wrong. So much hurt. So much grief. So unfair. It’s been a bit much for this optimist to want to digest.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
(Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.)
When we witness or hear about any form of injustice, we desperately seek consolation and meaning. For me, music has always been my place of respite, which is why I write about it today as I think about Memorial Day. From a very young age, I remember sitting down at the piano keys and constructing beautiful melodies of my own accord. Without much of a formal knowledge of the instrument, I could get lost in the practice of hearing how different notes fit together. It was my escape and my art. Each chord I played spoke its own language and had its own character or emotion. I have sung in choirs since high school and I think the reason why I have stuck with the activity so long is because of its communal nature. It’s a space for me to create music in the presence of many other people. Like a team sport, choirs are opportunities to come together with 5, 20, 60, 89 other people, for us to hear a note in the air, open our mouths, and create a miracle together- a shimmering chord out of nothing.
Art is always the process of creating beauty out of nothing. A painter envisions his picture as he paints it. A virtuoso violinist recreates Mozart’s genius. A sculptor takes clay or metal or wood and forms a likeness of someone’s face from memory. Something out of nothing. But music is the next step further. It’s the creation of something intangible, something so fragile and new and raw and teetering on the edge of shattering into a million pieces. It’s the creation of something so staggeringly and utterly beautiful that I can never fully put into words. Though one can look at music scientifically- a bow vibrating a string, air forced across a vibrating reed, vocal chords coming together- the sounds that are created don’t seem to entirely come from us as human bodies. Whatever genre, music has always hit my soul in that space of such utterly pure humanness, a space that words cannot describe. I may go so far as to say that this utterly pure human place is, in fact, our divine. And as humans, we can touch this space of creation together.
Bobby McFerrin was interviewed last fall on my favorite radio show “On Being.” In his interview, entitled “Catching Song,” he talks about music as the spirit of humanity and that it may be our very essence. McFerrin questions whether musical expression came before language. “Is music older than words?” he asks. Thinking back to the evolution of humans, I would say yes! I’m sure, at one point, vocal expression through sound and rhythm was the way that humans communicated. And in a sense, I’m not so sure this has changed a whole lot today. Music is still a way for us to connect, to communicate, to bond with our fellow homo sapiens. And maybe, that fact is because it comes from the most essential part of ourselves. McFerrin also talks about how music can connect us to strangers. He speaks of his concerts, where he performs in front of 3,000 people at a time. He invites them to sing along with him, to create music with thousands of people they don’t know. “It’s all about getting them to remember who they are and what they can do,” he says. Beautiful. Krista Tippet, On Being’s host replies, “It’s rare, but it’s also completely essential- this singing together.”
Is this what is lost in our society? Do we not sing enough? Is there a dearth in our world of true, elemental connection through art? It may be a jump, but is this why we see so much violence in our world- because people don’t have enough opportunity to connect and create with each other? In today’s age of digital connection and personal disconnect, it seems hard to find these places where we can be with other humans in a truly real way. Like at Bobby McFerrin’s concerts, creating music with others, even if they are strangers. In fact, creating art with strangers is sometimes more powerful, as we can realize each other’s unique genius without any preconceived notion of that person.
Back in December, in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Clackamas Town Center shootings, I sang a Christmas concert with my choir. We had planned the concert months in advance, of course, not anticipating the events to come. I remember presenting the concert with a heavy heart. I remember standing on the altar of the church facing a room filled with people I didn’t know. I remember sanding next to dozens of other people that I did know and singing with them. I remember creating a tapestry of beautiful sound together and I remember it floating through the room, chords suspended in the air for our audience to reach out and savor.
And I remember our director delivering his opening remarks to the audience. He was somber, he was grave, he was indignant and in disbelief, as many of us were as well. But I remember the power of his words and how he spoke about our responsibility as musicians and music appreciators in the wake of tragedy. To close, he quoted Leonard Bernstein, the great 20th century American composer. “This will be our reply to violence,” he said. “To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” And we did. We sang fiercely. We sang beautifully. We cried and we choked our way through some songs. But we came out of that concert transformed. More hopeful, maybe. And I think the audience felt the same way- we were all in it together, all 400 of us in that room. So I return to Fauré and his Requiem. A text and a piece of great beauty and sadness. It speaks to the violence and death that has accompanied humanity throughout our journey for thousands of years. I’m not so much of an optimist that I will say violence will be eliminated from our world any time soon, but I am one to think it is possible. And part of this, I think, is being dedicated to seeking out beauty. Creating beauty together and recognizing it as much as we can. Finding places where we can come together to hear and experience music or art, our common human language. These places abound, whether they be hearing the whistle of the wind through the trees or the trill of birdsong at dawn. We just need to find them.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat aeternam habeas requiem.
May the chorus of angels receive thee into the eternal rest.