tangible music

I really hate it when I love both my current major and my previous one equally. This worries me. It makes me think that I will not want to love my children equally, which is terrible, and it also means I’m constantly rethinking and second-guessing my choices regarding graduate school and future career. But can I help it if literature and music are both awesome, and if the classic and technical conventions for studying literature and music involve the same vocabulary, the same knowledge of historical and artistic periods, and require a similar approach to analysis? It’s so awful to love more than one thing, really. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Pick one thing to love and another thing to be good at, but not two things to love.

I finally feel as if I’m fairly decent at analyzing literature. Like Billy Collins said today, the more poetry you read, the better you understand it (he said this because people always say that poetry is difficult, and so he proposed that it’s difficult because no one reads it). And I’ve definitely noticed that since I’ve started to read more poetry on my own as part of my pleasure reading, I love it more, and I get it more. Plus I write it less, and that’s definitely a good thing, because I’m not supposed to be a poet. Finally, I respect it more. Though I don’t think there was ever a time I didn’t respect it. I just didn’t understand it. Anyway, I am loving all of my literature classes this semester, even if individual class meetings or students will bother me from time to time, and I love how immersed I am in literature study, but then I go to choir or my voice lesson and I remember how amazing it is to study music literature, especially choral literature.

ESPECIALLY awesome is when music is tangible. Every once in awhile, there will be a choir practice when everyone has their shit together, when everyone is paying attention to the conductor and to their music, and when the music just means something to everyone. And you can feel it. You finish singing that piece, whether it’s a run-through or just a first-time sight-read, and when you finish the final note, it’s like you can feel it in the air still. It’s like an invisible, squishy balloon of comfort and goodness. It’s kind of like when you eat something your grandmother cooks, or when you cry and your mom holds you. It’s that kind of comfort.

Or the other time that music is tangible is when you all sing it together, it’s not warm and gooey like a chocolate cake, but you all feel the text and the music in a way that you are literally a part of what is happening, and it’s like your life is taking place through the piece.

Three times has this happened. And in three and a half years of university choirs, I’d say that’s pretty awesome. First was Stroope’s “Omnia Sol (Let Your Heart Be Staid),” which quite literally made some of us cry when we sang through it, nearly perfectly, on our first read. It’s lovely. I would upload the recording of my choir doing it, but WordPress lies when it says you can upload audio files. Here are some other shmoes doing it on youtube. Paying more attention to it than you do when you’re sightreading, I think it’s incredibly schmaltzy, but the fact that I still love it speaks to how the right conditions, like an intuitive, attentive choir and a composer that can write great music to sentimental text, can make anyone love it.

When I really felt that whole, “Wow, I can reach up and grab that final note and never let go” feeling was about a year later, when my much bigger choir did Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.” You can’t sing it without feeling the same desperation as the characters in the opera. Having seen all of the opera it’s from, “Nabucco,” I can safely say it’s the best piece in the whole show. I can also say that, even though my choir was actually terrible at the pronunciation of the Italian, and the recording of our performance kind of embarrasses me, it still felt so good, and it’s only half as amazing to listen to it as it is to sing it. But that half is greater than a lot of other composers’ whole. And there is another way that a good musician can be a good musician: you can make the performers and the audience (musical novices and experts alike) feel, both emotionally and physically, what your piece is saying. You must listen to it. So here’s a random youtube link.

So then we come to this semester, and to my upcoming concert in which we are singing a lot of music for which the context is a total downer–but in the most beautiful way possible. One of those pieces is Dvořák’s “Eia Mater” from “Stabat Mater,” which is a religious setting of a text about Mary at Jesus’ crucifixion. So a) any music that makes me care about a religion that loves Jesus Christ is pretty exceptional, and b) it’s also just really moving when you think about how he wrote it after one of his children died, and then he picked it up again when the rest of his kids died (bee-tee-dubs, that is also the basic reason for another composer’s writing of another piece we are singing in this same concert–hence its being dubbed the downer concert). Every time we’re allowed to sing it all the way through in rehearsal, there is this collective sigh of satisfaction and mutual understanding of beauty at the end of it. I just love it. Here is a youtube video of that one.

One of the things that makes me so torn between the two of these (although there are a ton of things) disciplines is that I don’t really know how to write about musical literature like I do about written literature. And even my skills there are basic. Also, all of the videos I just linked to in no way do justice to hearing music live, and nothing at all compares to performing music in a group. I love it. I can’t understand people who hate playing in their orchestra or singing in their choir. Also, I think I’m going to have to find a way to make choral literature or art songs a minor field in a literature PhD.


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