The Choir

The composer came to work with the choir before the concert, just for a few days. It wasn’t common: first of all most composers are dead. Then, how likely a living one (being alive and performed isn’t common either) would be in town and show up? Not very. Of course there are helpful circumstances, such as being in a very large town, or preparing a truly glamorous concert. Or, the choir director being one of the composer’s best friends. All that said, the visit still was exceptional – a miraculous blessing.

The composer didn’t resemble his picture, which I had previously seen on magazines and in theater halls. It is normal: pictures of stars aren’t faithful. They project an ideal people can buy… thinking they will own it somehow. You don’t want to buy things ordinary, things that could grow in your back yard. You don’t want to buy a bunch of wild flowers: you can gather them from the roadside. You only want to buy orchids or roses with a very long stem. The composer’s pictures sure looked like exotic flowers: head bent in a philosophical pose, gaze deep and penetrating, square jaw, regular features, beard and mane harmoniously combed, giving him the allure of a Greek statue. Since his face occupied in general the entire frame, you were made to believe he was large and tall.

On the contrary, he was very small. Old, wrinkled, and shriveled. In person, his features were less fit: definitely asymmetrical and casually bunched up, like for most of us. Meaning that when he was introduced, when the entire room turned the way our director’s excited gaze pointed at, everyone looked past him. Everyone stared aimlessly in the air, or expectantly at the door. While he was there, already, casually perched on a stool. Then he sat at the piano. We started working without further ado.

In the first couple of minutes he confirmed what I thought of great artists. They are a strange combination. Unassuming, quite humble, and relentlessly ferocious. He knew how the pieces ideally should sound and he wouldn’t settle for less. With the quietest and most submissive attitude, but with unbound courage and absolute obstinacy, he led our crowd where he wanted. Meaning to the summit, no matter how high it was and how inappropriate our gears.

He was admirable. As a man, he possessed all the depth expressed in his art, as it was evident in the way he interacted with us: such lucidity, matched by compassionate understanding. He owned the sadness and wounds, as well as the resilience we could hear in his music, or he wouldn’t be able to act – well… so humanly. Such isn’t always the case.

He coached us until the last minute, clearly unhappy, but expressing indeed satisfaction. First, voicing his gratitude and content, then – when everyone relaxed – asking for a small improvement, as a plus we could certainly tackle, now, seen our overall state of preparedness.

Then he hammered that detail, that demand, as deep as you could imagine – or rather you couldn’t. No, you wouldn’t believe the nuance he wanted could be wedged so far, could change the whole texture, implying subtler adjustments, giving the interpretation another tight turn, making it yet more accurate, more significant. Clearly, the process was potentially endless. But we reached the finish line: the audience sat on red velvet, the curtain pulled open.

Now we were left to the choir director, who wouldn’t lead the entire concert (conducted by a visiting foreign star) but the composer’s work, only. A most intimate piece, a delicate China he only could handle. He did it masterfully and the choir sang well.

Very well. At a particular moment, during a suite called “Nocturnes” (a traditional term, as you know), silence was thick in the house. Not an absence of noise but a suspension of breathing. Not quietness but a void, a suction, leaving the entire room to the music. Then, the applause was directly proportional: a rush forward of what was pulled backward. A waterfall, a cascade.

Well deserved.

Why was the Nocturnes’ execution so strong? We were singing about maximum matters. Life and death, the after life, the departed, the meaning of all… Or the search for a meaning, that of course no one found yet, but it preoccupies everyone. Normally, singers don’t give a thought to what they sing, especially when pitches and rhythm are complex. But they sing the words anyway and the words get hold of them, catching them unaware. It is worse. We become the words’ prey. They infect us without us knowing. Then we are happy for days, or extremely sad, unaware of the reasons.

We were holding a score of great beauty and significance. Both lyrics and music were shining crystals, precious polished stones. Something no one, truly, could claim for him or herself: it would have been unbearable. Words, notes, chords – and their interlacing – were a jeweled crown, an urn containing heroes’ ashes, a Sacred Grail… We should hold it up high, like a flag. But it wasn’t simple.

We were given a story to tell – of uppermost value, crucial to our tribe’s survival. Now, we could embody it, sipping it in our flesh and blood: if we did, everyone in the room would feel it right in their flesh. Everyone would gather the message, understand, and be safe. Or we could miss it.

The director took care of the task, as always. He unblinkingly embodied it, taking responsibility without a drop of reserve. That’s why leaders are such: that’s what they can do. He hung in there, reiterating his pledge second by second. If we could simply copy him – if we tried to be him – the magic would happen. The whole challenge consisted in breathing with him, inhaling, exhaling. Then, we’d see what he saw and feel what he felt: it came with breathing. He did not demonstrate: he knew it wouldn’t work. He stepped in, clothes and all: so thick and so true, he won all of our attention. We were splashed by the full gamut of his emotions and thoughts. We reflected it like mirrors… it bounced back through the hall, like a wave.

As I said, the subject matter was scary. Terrifying, in fact. The songs talked about giving up life when we are ready to trespass, while those we still love remain. It expressed the necessity of conscious letting go, its inevitability, and monstrous melancholy. I don’t know what composer and director knew about it: but each singer knew something, for sure. We learn loss since the beginning of our passage on earth: sometimes briskly, more often in small age appropriate doses. But those little increments, like seeds, hold the map of the full experience. Everybody in the public is equally aware. It’s in general a secret knowledge. We avoid chat and small talk about it. It doesn’t boost our mood and it’s bad for social relationships.

Thus, in the concert hall, the thing was shared ‘secretly’. In code, but with bare emotion. Was it why the moment became unforgettable? I don’t know. I’m not sure what happened, exactly, why the audience was evidently lifted from their chairs during a split second or two. I can tell every singer was giving the maximum, and so did the orchestra. The director, his stick oscillating like the hand of a cosmic pendulum, didn’t keep an iota of energy for himself.

Clearly, his rapture was highly contagious. Did he know? He just hoped.
Why did we do this? What compelled us? Was it money? For most, money wasn’t even involved. Choristers are rarely paid. If yes, peanuts will do. Was it glory? Who remembers the name of a chorister? Who even reads it? Come on. Why did we consent to give such attention, fatigue, effort? I don’t know.

I just noticed, when the director stood still, after the last note of the piece disappeared, the entire world stood still. It is rare, it is precious. There is such bliss in that instant. Maybe, we unconsciously aimed for such ineffable pleasure, which – believe me – you don’t get in many other ways. Less than you think. Maybe, no other way.

There is some of Jesus’ “Father, all is accomplished”, in such moment. And in fact the leader, his back to the audience, only visible to the singers in his lonely, excruciating parabola, conveys something of a Christ figure. Singled out, taking all on his shoulders. Saying: I’ll go first, follow me if you love me. Teaching us how to surrender.


Wasn’t it what the lyrics talked about? Did we literally apply the lesson? Is there more than one lesson to learn? I don’t think so.

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Icarus Down, Intrinsick, Alebrijes and Entropy, among other journals and anthologies.