Recently I went to Nashville for the US premiere performances of my choral phantasmagoria Codebreaker (I’m trying not to use the word ‘oratorio’ - you should see the looks on peoples faces when you drop that word into ordinary conversation. Phantasmagoria isn’t entirely working though, is it? Needs work...) and it really had a profound impact on not just the way I see Codebreaker, but how I see all of my music, and choirs, and, well, everything really. I’ll try to unpack all of this now, but it’s very difficult to put into words. Or it is at least for me.
So the first thing to say is that Codebreaker tells the story of Alan Turing. Turing, of course, was many things: mathematician, runner, codebreaker, scientist, computer designer/programmer… the list goes on (as Steven Pinker said: “It would be an exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing explained the nature of logical and mathematical reasoning, invented the digital computer, solved the mind-body problem, and saved Western civilization. But it would not be much of an exaggeration”.) And Codebreaker alights on most of these facets of Turing’s life. The piece also dwells on the fact that he was gay at a time in Britain when homosexual activity was illegal, and that when it was discovered in 1952 that he had been having an affair with another man he was subjected to chemical castration by the British government. He committed suicide in 1954.
Which brings me to Nashville. The (frankly brilliant) Codebreaker performances were given by two choirs: Nashville In Harmony and One Voice Charlotte. Both choirs could broadly be described as LGBT choirs, but I don’t think that classification is quite accurate enough. They are simply groups of people where everyone is welcome and no one is judged or made to feel like an outcast. They are both, in microcosm, what the whole world should be like, but isn’t.
I wrote Codebreaker about four years ago, and it seems, in a way that is quite remote from my conception and basic control over the work, to move people very deeply and in different ways. In Nashville, though, it was different.
I’m lucky to have lived in and around one of the most liberal cities, London, for most of my life. And I know that, to a greater or lesser extent, homophobia is a rank societal fungus pretty much everywhere, but in Nashville you could palpably feel a sense of release, a sense of liberation, from the singers both before, during and after the performances. Nashville is a very liberal city and is completely beautiful, but Nashville is not typical of Tennessee.
Now at this point, I just want to say that I absolutely hate cultural generalisations, there are amazing people everywhere and there are complete idiots everywhere (and every shade in between everywhere), but there was certainly a sense that the notion of a 'tolerant society' would not be shared as widely as it absolutely should in Tennessee. A recent Facebook post by Nashville In Harmony puts it into a little context and will, I know, be shocking to most British readers, as it should be: ‘We are sad to report that HB1111/SB1085 has just been signed into law. This law, which could prevent the state from defining same-sex spouses and same-sex parents, puts our LGBT+ families at great risk. We will continue to lift our voices in song, to resist hate directed at our community, and to continue the ongoing fight for equality.’ To find out more about this read here. And, if you want to go further, read this.
So here’s why choirs matter. Choirs are the best of us. I’ve worked with choirs around the world, and you know what? At every concert, at every rehearsal, something completely electric happens. So, the choir members have had a long day at work, or doing whatever they have to do to get by, and they come into the rehearsal hall knackered and stressed, and they chat away and share a joke. Some of the singers sit looking through their music, singing quietly to themselves. Then the music director waves a hand, or claps their hands together. The room falls silent. The music director says a few words of welcome, then something like ‘we’re going to start from letter B.’ The singers turn to the right page. The room falls silent again. Then there is THE MOMENT. THE MOMENT is impossibly thrilling - a silence bursting with potential. The sound of 120 people silently adjusting their focus into precisely the same direction. The sound of 120 people inhaling together before singing as one.
It’s the thought of THE MOMENT that keeps me going on days when I think ‘I’m actually never going to write another note of music again - I’m going to join the circus!’
THE MOMENT is what inspires me. It is the potential of all music summed up in a half-second’s silence. It is the embodiment of togetherness, a togetherness in which every member of the choir is equal and in which each voice can be heard. It is what the world should be, but isn't.
That’s why choirs matter.