by Siegfried Sassoon
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchard and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.
I am no musicologist. I’m not even a very learned musician. I can tell you the difference between a third and a fifth on paper, but I can’t hear the difference in sound immediately. And yet, despite this lack of a sophisticated ear, I’ve sung with choirs for most of my life and it has been one of my chiefest joys. When I sing, when I throw my voice in with all the others to transform black dots on a white page into a stirring harmony, I am more present than at just about any other time. My mind can’t wander off the page because it would ruin everything, so I’m very focused and my cares, be they positive or negative, have no bearing on me in that moment. My concern, rather, shifts in an attempt to understand the world of the piece we inhabit and to place my voice in that world exactly where it needs to be. Sometimes this process can open me up to curious insights. Once in awhile, singing is even revelatory.
Because much of what we sing was written by composers who died long ago, every performance is an exercise in time travel. For the duration of the piece, we bring something back — usually something truly beautiful — from a bygone era. In order to best perform it, however, or to benefit the most from each work’s richness, a hefty amount of understanding is required. Every conductor I’ve ever worked with has been a font of information and anecdotal trivia which they share in order to finesse the shape of our sound (or to simply entertain us). As different as they’ve been in personality, they speak of every composer like an old friend and bring him or her into the room, almost as a consultant. I love this about singing. I love the time travel and the sense that the past didn’t go anywhere because it’s here, right now. And you can hear it. Through us.